Looking at Culture Through Internal Audits

A food manufacturing plant leadership team had the weekly management team meeting on a Monday morning. Each function provided an update on their KPIs as well as issues/achievements from last week. The company was acquired recently by another, and there was some pressure on the leadership team members to complete the integration through the list of objectives they prepared and based on the expectations coming from the stakeholders.

The quality manager summarized the internal audit results, which were completed recently. After her presentation, the plant director sat uncomfortably in his chair while clearing his throat. Observing the numbers, it was difficult for him to hide his disappointment.

– A massive number of findings in internal audits?

The quality manager was relatively new in her role. She replied with confidence:

– Yes, indeed. Let me explain to you what is behind those numbers.

She returned to the first slide, where a high-level analysis was provided for all the findings.

– First, only some of the findings point out a nonconforming situation. Half of them are opportunities for improvement or do not expose important risks. These are great tools to take the system to the next level.

She moved her cursor to a number marked with an icon representing people.

– Second of all, some of the nonconformances are easy to fix. No financial investment is required. But here is the watch out. They are easy to fix on paper but not necessarily easy to maintain. Addressing those issues will help the employees to demonstrate the right behavior. We need to keep up the momentum with more frequent monitoring.

The quality manager looked into the eyes of the management team one by one and finally locked her eyes with the factory director.

– And here, I need support from all the leadership team members.

Then she moved her cursor to another number on the same slide.

– And finally, a short list of findings will require investment to fix. I will start working with my team and request support from my peers to prioritize those. This will help us define the associated risks together with the mitigating actions until we fix them forever. The output will be instrumental in our decision-making process for the investment needs.

This is a fictitious story, but it could very well be true.

Internal audits are defined as the systematic and independent evaluation of an organization’s processes, systems, and controls in a broader sense. It is one of the most critical driving engines for any management system, including quality and food safety. They provide independent and objective assessments of an organization’s operations, enabling management to make informed decisions, mitigate risks, and enhance overall performance.

Any source of information will provide you with the definition as mentioned above or something similar (I was inspired by ChatGPT, which is my current favorite). Nobody will disagree about how vital internal audits are or why they are important. I don’t see any value in repeating what you already know. Instead, I’d like to discuss the practice and ask: Are operations geared to maximizing internal audits?

A few impediments to running an effective and efficient internal audit program exist.

  1. The organizations are not always supporting a culture of learning from failures:

All certification schemes are asking for internal audits to be completed with a frequency appropriate to the risks associated with the nature of operations. In many organizations, internal audits are done as part of a routine to comply with the requirements coming from the schemes.

Internal audits are frequently viewed as a source of torture, from planning to execution and reporting. Internal auditors are unhappy spending their precious time preparing and completing internal audits. Auditees are not eager to spend their precious time being questioned by their peers. The heads of operations are upset to see the internal audit programs generating findings as they believe this is an open declaration of failure. Therefore, the internal audit reports are written to demonstrate compliance rather than indicating areas for improvement.

Internal audits are a powerful tool when completed with the mindset of continuous improvement. Auditors should take it seriously; auditees should view it as an opportunity to improve, and the management should consider it a valuable source of information for understanding risks, their impact on their business, and mitigating measures. Internal audits are more about “what else you can achieve“ than “what you already did. ” Organizations must invest in the right culture to learn from experience – be that good or not.

  1. Organizations do believe that internal audit is a task for the QFS team.

In many organizations, the ownership of internal audits is still with the QFS team. This is understandable when the system is new. In such organizations, QFS team members are better positioned to recognize risks and their impact on business. As a result, they will be asking the right questions and guiding the entire team toward the continuous improvement journey.

Organizations should let the QFS team train their workforce through the internal audits while transitioning into an organization where individuals working for other departments (such as production, maintenance, logistics, and engineering) grow their team members into potential future auditors.

When the right culture is not encouraged, this responsibility stays with the QFS team, which in the long run, creates fatigue and turns the internal auditing into a somewhat routine and non-value-added task.

  1. Organizations do not position internal audits as a tool to improve their human resources capabilities.

Internal audits require a good level of judgment and business acumen. Internal auditors are to understand the risks associated with the processes they audit and connect the dots and make a clear link to the business strategies. This will require operations and individuals to invest in human capabilities. This does not mean providing training through expensive courses. Allocating the correct number of resources and time for internal audits will offer the operations and individuals many opportunities to improve capabilities.

Internal audits, when done effectively, will stretch the auditees and open their mind to other possibilities while helping at the same time the auditors learn from the experience and understand individual improvement areas. The future is asking for more flexible and agile individuals. Internal audits provide a playground to demonstrate those skills in real life and a safe environment. Isn’t it unfortunate that this opportunity is so frequently overlooked?

Unsurprisingly, all the obstacles stated point to a failure in culture. Therefore, when auditing internal audit programs, it is essential to know that the assessment will provide not only an understanding of the health of the management system but also several important suggestions about the organization’s culture. The internal audit program is your mirror on the wall. Wasn’t it said that auditing culture is difficult? Why not begin with auditing the internal audit program?

There was a big silence in the room after the quality manager’s speech. She quietly observed the team members looking at each other. It was the plant manager who broke the silence.

– You know, soon, we are having an audit from the Corporate Audit Team. What would they say seeing this number of findings?

– They will congratulate us as our internal audit program is working well, replied the quality manager.

What do you think is the outcome of the audit that was performed at this site? They would have had a good result if they were to address the issues adequately and encourage the right culture.

By Tülay Kahraman
June 12, 2023

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