We broadly classify audits as either internal or external – they both have their own specific objectives and methods. This article takes a closer look at ‘external audits’. What is an external audit? What’s its purpose? And how do you properly prepare your organization for an audit – a potentially nerve-wracking moment?
What is an external audit?
Perhaps you’re looking to get ISO or NEN certified, or to retain this certification? If so, then an external audit is pretty much guaranteed. External audits are conducted by impartial, independent auditors from outside your organization – often from the certification authorities themselves. Sometimes, they even drop by unannounced. Surprise!
External auditors give advice, but also determine whether your organization complies with or adheres to certain requirements and standards. These might include legal, regulatory, environmental, or health & safety-related requirements and sector-related standards, for example NEN or ISO.
It’s common to conduct external audits periodically, often annually, and to address a far narrower area of focus than an internal audit, for example a single standard or certification.
But what’s the purpose of an external audit?
External audits focus primarily on compliance and serve as a quality management tool for objectively measuring whether an organization meets statutory or sector-related standards, requirements, and conditions.
If the answer’s yes, then the auditor will issue a certificate that your company can use to demonstrate compliance and to show your business partners you’re a reputable and reliable party.
What does an external audit involve?
There are many ways to conduct an external audit. Methods depend on the purpose and the standard or certification in question. Nonetheless, most external audits comprise several common elements – prepare, plan, perform, publish, pursue.
External audits start with a preliminary investigation. This involves studying the relevant documentation. For example, are all the mandatory documents in order and readily available?
After preparation comes planning. This involves structuring the day’s audit activities. Which units, departments, and/or quality systems will the auditor inspect and when? Another important consideration involves examining the results of your previous audits.
Once you’ve finished planning, it’s time to perform the audit. External audits generally address certification, which entails investigating whether your organization meets specific standards or requirements.
Auditors look for evidence and gather information from a range of sources, for example documentation, registration forms, personal observations, and employee interviews.
Once they’ve compiled a dossier, they start their inspection, assessment, and evaluation. Does the information tally with what employees are telling them? Is your company doing what it says it’s doing?
Once auditors have completed their audit, they publish all the information and their findings in a report. This report details the issues discussed and focuses on important areas for attention or improvement.
They then discuss the report’s conclusions with the key managers within your organization. If everything’s in order, they’ll issue your organization with its certification.
The final phase involves pursuing the measures recommended by the auditors. Have you implemented them, and are they having the desired effects?
You can do this in writing or as part of a repeat audit. Which of these options is better often depends on the shortfalls identified and the measures required to correct them.
How to properly prepare yourself for an external audit
External audits can often be quite nerve-wracking. After all, your organization is being assessed and evaluated by an outside party. Solid preparation is vital if you want to pass an audit with a minimum of stress. Follow the tips below to pass your next external audit with flying colors.
1. Be honest
Honesty is always the best policy, especially in the event of an external audit. Take an open stance and don’t try to hide anything from your auditor. Not only is dishonesty not done, but it’s also a missed opportunity for improvement.
2. Ask questions
Don’t hesitate to ask your auditor questions. You won’t always have an answer readily available to every question your auditor asks you. If you adopt a passive stance, you’ll once again miss opportunities for improvement.
By actively probing auditors, you’ll often uncover a wealth of information during your audits. You’ll never learn anything new if you don’t ask.
By being inquisitive, you also challenge your auditor and this often leads to fruitful exchange of information and knowledge sharing.
3. Involve relevant employees
Trust in and rely on input from the employees who are directly involved in the process being audited. After all, they’re the ones in the driving seat and know better than anyone else how things work in practice. What’s more, doing so reduces the likelihood that you’ll give the wrong answers or create any misunderstandings.
Prepare yourself well for the audit with the employees involved. How should you do this? Plan a meeting with these employees before the audit to discuss purpose, structure, and expectations.
5. Understand what’s being audited
External audits generally focus on a specific standard, especially when the audit deals with certification. By studying the requirements for a given certification, you’ll understand your auditor’s expectations and be better able to anticipate his or her questions.
6. Have the right information readily available
Work out what information you’ll need for the audit and make sure that you have it all readily available – at your fingertips!
A great way to do this is to use AG5’s skills management software. Our tool arms you with all the information you’ll ever need about your employees’ skills, competences, and certification. Available anytime, anyplace, anywhere. What’s more, using AG5, even unannounced audits will be a breeze!
7. Keep it short and simple
Keep answers to your auditor’s questions short and simple. Long-winded and convoluted stories detract from the issue at hand and are likely to prompt even more questions.
There’s no escaping external audits if certification and compliance form part of your organization’s operations. With the right preparation and mindset, however, you’ll never have to stress about an external audit ever again. Take advantage of our tips to pass your next audit with flying colors.
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