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Does It Work Online? Observations from a Standards Certification Audit in the Virtual Environment

October 29, 2020

If you think back to the beginning of this year, almost nothing is the same as it used to be. There are countless examples in manufacturing and industry alone. One we recently experienced is a facility audit.

Initial certification and recertification audits are generally conducted by an independent auditor who visits the facility to review documentation, observe production, and interview employees; however, in-person visits have been sharply curtailed during the current COVID-19 pandemic. Thanks to technology, manufacturers and auditors have been able to continue the audit process. We’ll also share our insights from a recent virtual audit at our Texas facility.

About auditing

According to the American Society for Quality, standards are written documents that describe requirements, specs, guidelines, characteristics that help ensure materials, products, processes, and services are fit for their purpose. Organizations like the International Automotive Task Force (IATF) and International Standards Organization (ISO) work with manufacturing and technology experts to develop and write them. Standards are revised and updated every few years to reflect innovations in technology and operations.

While adopting standards is voluntary, most manufacturers do it to show that products and operations are of a consistent quality. In addition, customers may require their suppliers to be certified to certain standards.

In precision stamping, especially for automotive suppliers and OEMs, typical standards include:

  • IATF 16949:2016, which addresses quality management systems and additional automotive customer-specific requirements.
  • ISO 14001:2015, which pertains to environmental management systems and environmental aspects of leadership, planning, operational efficiencies, wastes, legal environmental obligations, supply chain, and more.
  • ISO 9001:2015, which identifies principles of quality management systems, including leadership, engagement of people, process approach, improvement, evidence-based decision making, etc.

Keeping accurate and up-to-date documentation is usually a collaborative responsibility that affects several departments and employees. As this article in The Fabricator explains, documentation for certification is “a means of communicating to virtually the entire organization (as appropriate) what the documentation is and what it requires. It also requires a means of maintaining the documentation and putting it under formal revision control. For example, people must not only document a process change but also analyze how the change affects other key processes.”

Changes in the virtual environment

The COVID-19 pandemic restricts auditors’ access to facilities and documentation for observation. While this is  important for the health and safety of everyone involved, some accommodations are required. For example:

  • interviews, walkthroughs, etc. take more advanced planning
  • documentation is shared virtually instead of being reviewed on-site
  • technology is critical
    • participants must be familiar with specific tools for video conferencing, screen sharing, remote computer access, digital photos, etc.
    • all parties need reliable internet access and the ability to troubleshoot and solve connectivity issues quickly
  • less budget is required for auditor travel, lodging, and meals (usually the manufacturer’s responsibility)

In addition to these changes, the online environment may foster a more efficient, get-down-to-business mindset that keeps everyone on-task and working quickly.

Our take on virtual auditing

At CEP Technologies we recently had an IATF 16949:2016  audit at one of our facilities.  It was very efficient and an overall positive process – here are some of our key takeaways:

Virtual doesn’t eliminate the need for real-time interaction between the auditor and the auditee.  Conversation of some kind is always necessary to explain and clarify the more complicated systems at work.

It was much more records and data-based. This can either hurt or help you depending on your company’s strengths, and it could result in a less complete picture of the company as a whole. It’s one thing to see it all on paper or in a spreadsheet and another to see the process and speak to the employees.

Virtual makes it easier to stay focused on the key elements of the audit. All parties worked together well but there was less extraneous conversation or becoming sidetracked, which can happen during an in-person tour of the facility or in interviews.   

It was much less of a disruption to our normal operations. With an on-site audit, the person selected as the point-of-contact devotes all of their time to the audit for those one to three days. There’s very little extra time to deal with work-related tasks. During a virtual audit, there was more time available to have a normal workday while still providing support for the auditor. Technicians and operators had fewer interruptions too.

There may be even more opportunities to save time. We were asked to send data to the auditor to review, and then we reviewed the data again as a group. It might save time if instead the auditor reviewed data independently, asking follow-up questions as needed. In this way interactive portions could be more closely focused, which adds up to less burden for both parties and a smoother process.

Some things seemed to be missing from the audit, but they could be incorporated in the future. One of the biggest changes we noticed was a bigger focus on data and metrics than on personal interviews of employees. In an audit situation you do need eyes on the process, but they can be virtual eyes. And there are ways for the auditor to talk with operators and technicians on the production floor too. When the auditor deals solely with one point-of-contact the process is very efficient, but it might not be fully representative. Some suggestions include:

  • walking around the plant with Zoom or another videoconference app running on a smartphone
  • setting up an “interview station” where operators and technicians could sit down at a computer and video conference with the auditor to answer their questions
  • sending the auditor digital photos of the facility covering the key areas of the press room, tool room, shipping, and loading docks
  • sharing hard copies of records in real time with a careful camera and lighting setup instead of scanning

Overall, the audit was thorough but with minimal interaction.  Our remote audit was very hands-off with all of the data for the audit provided in a few mass emails. The auditor only had a few follow up questions to clarify some of our processes. It felt like the audit went on in the background with little interaction from us.

While everyone in manufacturing is anxious for things to get back to normal (or at least settle on a new normal), we’re pleased that virtual audits are possible with existing technology. Want to learn more about our capabilities and certifications? Please contact us!

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