Auditors: Maintaining Competence and Improving Performance

Please note that the scope of this article is internal (first party) auditors. The assumption is made that (as in many companies) internal auditors are a volunteer force of employees that hold down “real” jobs within the company (assembler, lead, service manager, etc.).  If the situation is different in your organization, some of these suggestions will require modification.

The purpose of auditing is to seek opportunities for improvement in quality management system processes. These improvements, in turn, bring the organization closer to its goals. This is a critical activity and you want to make sure the auditors are effective. In addition to familiarizing yourself with the new ANSI/ISO/ASQ QE 19011S-2004, a supplemental guideline for auditing that addresses internal audits, consider the following ideas:

1. Hold pizza training.  It is very difficult to provide internal audit training, typically 16 to 24 hours, to a group of employees. Ongoing, recurrent training for internal auditors is practically non-existent in many organizations. One way to “make time” for continual training:  Ask internal auditors to surrender their lunch period (30 minutes) in exchange for free lunch. Adults learn best in abbreviated periods and having only a 30 minute window forces succinct topics.  Examples include:

  • Active listening
  • Review of “quality management system”
  • Time management / Organization
  • Using a digital camera (a picture is worth 1000 words and can easily be “pasted” into an audit report)
  • Seven basic quality tools (cause and effect diagram, checksheet, etc.)
  • Interviewing
  • Writing non-conformity statements

2. Borrow and loan auditors.  Internal auditors are, by design, independent of the activity being audited. This is sometimes impossible, especially in a small company where each employee has wide-ranging responsibilities without firm boundaries. The ISO requirement for internal auditors does not say these individuals must be employees of the organization.

You can find another small company that is certified, or seeking certification, and trade internal auditors with them. Contact your local ASQ section to see if they have anyone qualified and interested. See the RABQSA web site and find provisional auditors, or auditors working toward their lead auditor certificate, who need to perform a given number of audits before upgrading. Outsiders’ viewpoints can prove invaluable, but they are best when combined with insiders’ perspectives.

WARNING:  Be sure your internal auditing procedure does not preclude the use of “outsiders” as internal auditors!

3. Answer the question: “How many auditors do we need?” with a RATE. Traditional wisdom dictates that approximately 10% of the workforce should be trained as internal auditors. No matter how many auditors you have, the dropout rate for internal auditing is high if it is a volunteer position. Plan to train some new auditors each year [or each quarter or each month …].

4. Evaluate internal auditing. Auditor competence is demonstrated by personal attributes, the ability to apply knowledge and skills, experience, continued development, and assessment. The assessment of auditors may include reviewing records, gathering feedback or observing audits.  In ISO 19011, there is an entire section on the competence and evaluation of auditors.

So, if you are managing an internal audit program, you want to (a) evaluate your auditors and (b) encourage continued volunteerism. This can be a sticky situation. Most volunteers work for internal rewards and if you provide constructive criticism, it may be interpreted as ungrateful nagging. The audit program manager can address opportunities for improvement in a couple of ways. First, partner auditors with opposite skill sets. I once had an internal auditor who could find any non-conformity; we referred to him as the “hound dog” of auditors. Put him anywhere near a finding, and he would sniff it out. However, his average written sentence was a page long. He was teamed with a succinct, clear writer and the two made an exceptional team.

Second, in evaluating internal auditors, choose one opportunity for improvement for the auditor to focus on. Provide targeted activities for the improvement and seek feedback from the auditor on his viewpoint of the internal audit process. Ask what could be done to improve scheduling, team assignments, audit scope definition, training, continued development, etc. Find out whyyour auditors volunteer to audit. If you do not understand their motivation, you cannot possible engineer a system that feeds it.

5. Communicate corrective actions. Communication is a foundational prerequisite for any process, program, or system, so it shouldn’t be a big surprise that it shows up on this list. But, I only want to address the communication of corrective actions. Toward the top on the list of reasons that auditors burn out is they do not always see the results from their findings. In some audit programs, the assignee performs and records corrective action and then submits it to the audit program manager (not the auditor who initiated the cycle) who performs a “follow-up” to make sure that corrective action was effectively implemented.  See Figure 1, Communications Non-Loop.



Figure 1. Communications Non-Loop.  The message (audit report and non-conformities) is transmitted from the sender (auditor) to the receiver (assignee), and the receiver transmits feedback to the audit program manager, not the auditor.

In an effective communication loop, the auditor would transmit a message to the assignee who would then provide feedback to the auditor, thus ensuring the message was properly received and acted upon. This also provides closure to the auditor and a feeling of accomplishment that the organization is that much better off.

Moving that concept a step forward… how about all of the internal auditors being kept up to date on the status of all corrective actions? Or, better yet, how about ensuring that “communication takes place regarding the effectiveness of the quality management system”, (ISO 9001, ¶ 5.5.3)?


Good auditing requires competent auditors. Competency requires continued training or external resources.  Use both to provide the best level of auditing within your organization.

Note: This article was written by Kristin L. Case, P.E.

Kristin has managed various quality management systems for ten years and teaches ISO 9001 courses at Tulsa TechnologyCenter

. She is a lead and aerospace auditor, registered with RABQSA. She is on the Board of Directors of ASQ and holds the CQE, CQA, CQManager, and Six Sigma Black Belt certifications. She holds degrees in industrial engineering, mathematics, and an MBA in finance.

In future newsletters, look for her ideas on 1) Responsibility and authority assignments, 2) Scheduling improvements, and 3) Simplification of the program.