Top 10 considerations for virtual QMS audit success

Manufacturing can’t wait; consider these 10 recommendations for a successful virtual quality management system audit

By Alisa Coffey and Rich Mintz September 11, 2020

In a time of pandemic, a primary concern for manufacturing is summarized in a single word: resiliency. How resilient are your processes, employees and even customers? Much of life has come to a halt in ways we’d never foreseen. Yet even in unprecedented times, manufacturing must go on without compromising standards or safety.

In a time when many have switched to remote working and all of us hopefully practice social distancing, the COVID-19 pandemic challenges workforces. It seems improbable during this time that manufacturing companies could obtain certification for their quality management systems in what would traditionally be done in an onsite certification process. However, a manufacturing business must stay committed to the quality and safety of its products and prove itself resilient amidst market and economic challenges.

For Abaco Systems Inc., whose surveillance audit was scheduled at the height of COVID-19 concerns, transitioning to a virtual audit to remain up to date on its AS9100 certification was of the utmost importance. AS9100 is an extension of ISO9001 certification with additional requirements for quality management systems for the aviation, space and defense industries. Abaco worked with TÜV SÜD Americas, its certifying agency, to accomplish the necessary changes in the auditing process. These changes included starting each day with a virtual kickoff, then a series of breakouts with an Abaco leader managing a virtual meeting with the auditor and concluding with a virtual closing meeting. After adapting to meet the changes required by COVID-19, Abaco continued its strong tradition of receiving full recognition to operate as an AS9100 certified company (see Figure 1).

In retrospect, here are 10 things to consider so that your organization can excel in a virtual audit.

1. Discuss audit options

Different kinds of audits have varied purposes: initial certifications, surveillance audits and recertifications. Depending on audit type and certifying agency, it may or may not be an ideal solution for your company based on timing, circumstances and your auditing team’s capabilities. In the instance of a surveillance audit, a preexisting relationship with your certifying body (established in an initial certification) will help the auditor prepare questions. A surveillance audit would prove to be more appropriate for a virtual auditing process than an initial certification or recertification. If a certifying authority is comfortable with a virtual audit, determine if it’s allowable in your organization’s circumstances (see Figure 2).

2. Plan the audit

Adopting a clear agenda with internal and external teams will help set expectations, scope, process, technology needs and other parameters. This will prove vital in staying organized, making sure all necessary parties are included in each discussion and establishing a well-paced plan for completing the auditing process. In all our planning, we forgot to put a lunch break on the schedule — a hangry quality team is an error-prone team. So, where traditionally we would have arranged for lunch and lack thereof produced a cost savings in the auditing process, we still should have planned a break for everyone involved to refuel before continuing with the remainder of the day’s audit schedule.

3. Be tech savvy

Tech prowess is king — tech troubles or failure may come across as unpreparedness if the team is not ready to use the technology in place for the audit. Strong telecommunication skills as an organization are necessary for a seamless process. Abaco routinely uses telecommunication software (Skype, GoToMeeting and other platforms), but if an organization is weak in teleworking, it may prove ineffective — or worse.

It is important to consider whether employees are comfortable with digital tools. Preparing a virtual conference center is an absolute necessity as you work to make sure everyone is on the same page and prepared for the day ahead. Additionally, it is just as important to be certain that all the correct participants are included for each meeting. Leaving someone out like a vital employee, or even forgetting to include the auditor on the meeting invitation, would prove to be time consuming and potentially frustrating for all involved.

4. Be in tune

Your plant has a rhythm with set schedules, shifts, batches and the like. In a face-to-face audit, the auditors can watch employees or come back later if it is not an ideal time. With a virtual audit, the agenda may be far more rigid and “coming back later” won’t work.

5. Be visual

To bring live visuals into the audit, Abaco had the ability to submit pictures to show compliance in response to questions asked by auditors. The same would be possible with video footage. Advance work and planning to use prepared charts, pictures, videos and other visual aids that have already been prepared is ideal for a virtual audit but may require some leg work on the front-end during preparation (see Figure 3).

6. Be secure

In a face-to-face audit, the auditors can observe and make notes, but proprietary information is not recorded or preserved in an electronic format. Many companies have rules against taking photos or videos on the plant floor, but these rules become a challenge or obstacle to overcome in the face of a virtual audit. It’s imperative to obtain the necessary permissions in advance of the audit by explaining the necessity, how and where they will be shared or stored, who will have access and for how long. An existing nondisclosure agreement may or may not cover this situation between the organization and the certifying body.

7. Be safe

Manufacturing safety is achieved through rigorous processes and continual situational awareness. It is important to note that fragile environments can be better served by a virtual audit because they cause fewer interruptions on the warehouse floor. However, when an auditor is videoconferencing into a plant, routines may be off and there can be a loss of situational awareness that would otherwise remain intact. Each person involved must take precautions to pay attention and stay on task so that safety is maintained throughout the audit (see Figure 4). Just because it is not completed in a traditional format does not mean that the diligence and intensity of the audit goes out the window.

8. Be thorough

A virtual audit needs increased planning in advance, and part of that planning occurs through having a clear path for information retrieval. When an auditor is waiting across the table, it can be intimidating, but we found the process to be less stressful when those being interviewed have files clearly organized in such a manner that data is easily accessible when questions are asked. The overall nature of a virtual audit has a stronger focus on the written process and depends more heavily on having well-documented records for evidence. Thorough prep and planning were essential to success in a virtual audit setting.

9. Be ready

Perhaps there is a misconception that a virtual audit is an easier option, but if anything, the exact opposite is true. A virtual audit requires far more extensive planning and preparation for both the organization and the certifying agency. The auditor will be equipped with questions for those they will interview, and are armed with prior knowledge of your organization’s processes, strengths and weaknesses. They will know when to ask questions and press further with inquiries to be sure that the processes in place are effective in maintaining standards that meet the requirements for certification. Despite a variance in format, the process is equally, if not more, rigorous.

10. Be yourself

As with any audit, your quality team and the certifying agency’s auditing team have the same goal in mind: proof that your quality management system is a living, breathing and working system. This provides the opportunity to show evidence of continuous improvement on action items with tangible results. This is accomplished through clear communication, extensive planning and an excellent relationship between the organization and the certifying agency.

Talk with your auditors and discuss ideas. If something isn’t possible or breaches safety or security, suggest a new way of looking at it. Abaco has a longstanding relationship with TÜV SÜD, so we were able to discuss things openly. However, if your auditor doesn’t know your organization quite as well, then communication will be key throughout the entire process.

Final thoughts

Abaco worked extensively with TÜV SÜD to adapt to a changing environment while taking pride in its accomplishments, specifically in the strength and innovation of the team. Mark Alpert, vice president of business assurance at TÜV SÜD Americas, said, “We are proud to recognize Abaco’s AS9100 Certification. This achievement demonstrates Abaco’s unwavering commitment to its employees, customers and quality. TÜV SÜD America shares these values and moved quickly to ensure its audit services could be delivered remotely in a way that put the safety of both organizations first, while not sacrificing quality or service.”

Abaco’s desire to achieve this certification begins and ends with its customers. As president and CEO, Rich Sorelle, said, “At Abaco Systems Inc., we are passionate about providing the best in class quality products and services to our customers. Quality means listening to our customers, understanding their definition of quality and delighting them through outstanding products, performance and support.” That passion and the success of our customers drives us to keep innovating, keep delivering and keep delighting — pandemic or not.

Author Bio: Alisa Coffey is the head of marketing at Abaco Systems Inc. in Huntsville, Ala.; Rich Mintz is a product marketing manager at Abaco Systems Inc.