You’re a small business working your socks off to achieve ISO certification. And there’s just one thing now standing between you and it: an external audit. Yikes. The word ‘audit’ strikes fear into the souls of even the most hardened business people. But does it have to be that way? We think not. So, in the words of the late, great Douglas Adams: DON’T PANIC.
Anyone who’s ever done something scary will agree that your best defence against nerves is preparation. We prepare for interviews, presentations, marathons, even childbirth – why wouldn’t we prepare for an audit? So, get ready. Make sure that your quality management systems are real – that they are a living, breathing, part of your business every day – from your procedures, to your intranet, to your staff induction process. Engage your staff (if you have any) over tea and Hobnobs and ensure they understand that sticking to these processes rigorously will make life a LOT easier in the long run.
Don’t wait for an external auditor to gleefully reveal what’s going wrong with your systems. Create a schedule for internal audits and review – and stick to it. It’s easier to make rookie mistakes and address them in the company of trusted colleagues, than under the watchful eye of a stranger. Taking internal audits seriously not only identifies problems, but gives your people practice in answering tough or unexpected questions. Think of internal audits as dress rehearsals, without the footlights.
Don’t tackle an external audit alone. Way, way before D-day, get together the people responsible for the standard you’re going to be audited on. Ensure that they bring together all the relevant documentation in a logical order, so it’s on hand for the auditor, and so that any one of you can put a hand on it in a hurry. Go through it all as a team. Is it all there? Share information, ask questions, have coffee breaks together. Listen out for any concerns voiced in candid moments, and help sort these before audit week. Crucially – make sure that the audit date doesn’t clash with any of your key people’s annual leave or training away-days. Keep these guys close.
Because of their investigative nature, audits can be either swift, or painfully prolonged affairs. To help you keep calm in the event that things run over, clear your own diary as much as possible in advance for the week in which an audit takes place. And don’t book a table for two, for 7pm, on audit night. That may not go well.
Sounds a bit flower-power, we know, but re-thinking the audit can ease nerves. The auditor is not actually the enemy – they are just some poor blighter doing a tough job that helps businesses see where they might be going a bit wrong. When an auditor raises an issue, it’s not a personal attack. On the contrary: they are actually helping you – the customer in this exchange – to spot something you hadn’t before. You are collaborators on your business journey to continuous improvement, and to the certification that you so dearly need and want.
It’s an old adage, but a true one – a tidy desk is a tidy mind. And a tidy office speaks volumes to an external auditor. Give your own workspace a spring clean, and encourage colleagues to do the same. This simple exercise invariably turns up paperwork and tasks that haven’t yet been signed off, as well as allowing you to discard the debris of things that are done and dusted. It’s a powerful tool for clearing your head. Clear your desk and you’re ready for anything.
This is a tactic used by all astronauts in training – and their partners. By exploring the very worst that can happen, talking it right through to the end point, and staring those consequences in the face, the fear (eventually) goes. Now, an audit is not going to leave you tumbling alone around some distant planet with a rapidly depleting oxygen supply. The worst that can happen to you and your business is that you won’t be granted the certification you’re after – just yet. You’ll receive an audit report, and time to make corrective actions. And then you go again. Annoying, yes. Life-threatening, no.
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