WoA Interview with Serdar Sarac

This article is based on an interview performed with Serdar Saraç, an experienced IATF 16949 auditor, which took place on the 3rd of February 2022.

WoA: Serdar, a very warm welcome from the team. At World of Auditing, one of the primary objectives we identified is to have the voices of auditors heard, auditors performing in different industries with different levels of expertise.

Thanks for reaching out to us with a short but compelling note you’ve posted to respond to one of our LinkedIn messages. Indeed, this is how we connected in the first place—much appreciated.

Would you please let us know you better?

Serdar: My name is Serdar Saraç. I was born in 1968. I am an electrical engineer. I graduated from Istanbul Technical University Electrical and Electronics Engineering. I started working in Automotive Industry in 1996. I worked as the quality manager for three years. After three years, I decided that auditing was more attractive to me. And I went on the path of becoming an auditor in 1999, following the first training and the exam I received in the US. The QS 9000 system back in those years was specific to the automotive supply industries; I got the auditor accreditation. That standard has been transformed into IATF 16949 during the years. I first started with a renowned certification body, then became almost a full-time freelance auditor performing third-party audits in different parts of the world for the last 22 years.

WoA: So, you have been actively auditing for the last 22 years.

Serdar: Yeah, it is true.

WoA: That’s amazing. Have you not considered giving a break or thought this is exhausting?

Serdar: Let me tell you a story. I started working in my final year of engineering. We met a Contractor in 1990. He was doing business in Istanbul. During an informal conversation as part of the dinner, I remember him telling me he was sick and tired of traveling. When he said that airports, hotels, and everything around it made him exhausted, I said to myself what a stupid man, of course, with the excitement of youth. I mean, you’re going to 5-star hotels, visiting new locations.

Yes, indeed, it is tiring. Frankly speaking, I’m not bored. Yes, you get tired from time to time, but I always do it with pleasure. Physical fatigue is not so important. So, I could continue to do this for the last 22 years.

WoA: That’s great. Which countries did you have a chance to visit as part of the job?

Serdar: It is not possible to list all of them, but I have been to almost all countries where the automotive sector and suppliers are active. So those in the United States, Mexico, Argentina, Brazil, I’ve been to pretty much everywhere in Europe. Morocco, Egypt. Then went to Iran. I have been to India. I’ve been to Russia. So, I had a chance to travel a lot.

WoA: Amazing. Too many countries, very different cultures. Have you experienced any difficulties initially because of the differences in cultures?

Serdar: Honestly, I’ve never had a hard time. I mean, I found pretty good reflections everywhere I went. I always try to collect as much information as possible as soon as I get notified about my next audit. Let me tell you a story on one of the best learning experiences in terms of cultural differences. During one of the audits, all the participants with their notebooks in their hands closed their eyes as if they had fallen asleep when I started to talk during the opening meeting. I was shocked at first. Then one of them explained. They were closing their eyes to concentrate on what I was telling as a non-native speaker to a non-native population. I then realized that they were not sleeping as they opened their eyes and took notes after they understood what I was talking about.

So, every culture has some peculiarities of its own. If, the intentions are good, you always find common ground to communicate.

WoA: Very accurate. What do you think is the most challenging part of auditing, and what is the most enjoyable part?

Serdar: The most challenging part of auditing is that it is perceived as a commercial activity at the end of the day. Customers pay for the audit and sometimes do not want to hear the bad news. Indeed, they get a value out of each audit, not necessarily the certification at the end. There are too many parties involved, accreditation body, certification body, the company being audited, and sometimes the company to which the audited company supplying goods. The auditor is in the middle and should manage all expectations, which is not always easy. My gauge for a successful audit is whether I can sleep well at night.

The most enjoyable part is traveling and being exposed to different cultures. You know, people keep asking me, isn’t it too much? I liked it, that was the part that I liked the most. Meeting new people, seeing new technologies, being in new factories. Sometimes challenging too. I mean, it happened to me quite often that you wake up in the morning and you try to remember where you are.

WoA: It is incredible what you share with us after 22 years of continuous auditing; genuinely impressive. Was it problematic from the point of your family?

Serdar: I think men are in a better situation than women – particularly when you have small children, but this is changing too – which is excellent. Travelling can sometimes be challenging, and you need good support at home.

WoA: How many weeks in a year are you auditing?

Serdar: Theoretically, we consider a year as 225 working days, and I closed 2021 with 86 % percent occupancy. Yes, I mean, the number of auditors qualified for IATF 16949 certification is quite limited in the world. With its suppliers, including the manufacturers of small parts and IT systems, the automotive industry is pretty massive, around 80.000. The number of auditors accredited to audit those is approximately 3.000, so quite a few. If you calculate an average of 5 man-days of audit per year, you end up with 400.000 man-days in total for 80.000 factories. If you divide this by 3.000 auditors, on average, each auditor will have 133 days of auditing. Therefore, there is a clear need for more auditors here.

WoA: Very interesting; what you describe could be a great job opportunity for those who would like to become auditors for IATF 16949.

Serdar: Absolutely. I say it to everyone interested in auditing that can qualify for IATF 16949. The demand is high, and the supply is low. So, for example, being an auditor for a standard or scheme where the number of auditors is high would not necessarily be considered a wise option. Specializing in areas where the number of auditors is limited, such as aerospace, railways, and automotive will help them get the rewards.

WoA: What is the main reason for this limited number of auditors, in your opinion? Is there no interest, or is this a long and challenging process that people fail to achieve the result?

Serdar: Selection Criteria for being an Auditor IATF 16949, if I remember correctly, require six years of automotive experience in the last ten years, at least one year of which will be in quality. After that, there is something called sponsorship, someone has to sponsor you, and you have to go through some training under this sponsorship. Therefore, the number of applicants is filtered from the beginning, and after that, not everyone would like to take it because you work very hard and travel very heavily.

WoA: You bring a lot of experience and knowledge which will be very helpful for young generations. Would you consider sharing these with young generations?

Serdar: I would like to. Indeed, I try to do it, mainly when they come to me with an ambition to be an auditor. I share everything I know and provide some tips. I believe you would love this profession, particularly if you have an appetite for learning new things. You are constantly learning new things; you continually see new systems. You see new applications all the time. However, the point that I made before must be remembered. Be an excellent auditor where needed. We all work, we enjoy working, but we work for a reward. We are working to create value. After all, I suggest they put their effort into the highest value possible in the market. Then they will be able to enjoy the job more.

WoA: Different schemes or standards ask for a different set of technical skills and expertise. As you explained, it is six years of experience for IATF 16949. What do you think about the interpersonal skills that an auditor should have? Are they the same across industries? And what are those?

Serdar: This is a complicated and critical question. You can be a super expert, very knowledgeable, very experienced. But you can still be perceived as a “not good auditor. “So, the critical question is who will decide the auditor’s qualification. What are those qualities? And how are you evaluating this with a high level of objectivity? For example, you can go to a place and do a one hundred percent accurate inspection. You can identify quite a few deficiencies or improvement opportunities for the company and report them clearly with justified reasons. This can still make you a very bad auditor in the eyes of the company. Now comes the commercial dimension of the business. Therefore, besides all the other interpersonal skills like communication and leadership, a good auditor should demonstrate a very high level of conflict management and empathy. So, defining the criteria for a good auditor is critical. But who will evaluate it after that? There are witness audits; for example, the accreditation body inspects the auditors at specific frequencies per year. They also come and assess your audit process. Beyond all these criteria, processes, inspections, witnesses, goodwill is essential. If the company believes in our good intentions, they would be more open to seeing the value you bring. We do not audit people. We are assessing management systems.

Therefore, we try to make it very clear from the beginning that audit is not there to penalize people; it is there to find the weaknesses of systems, which will be used as improvement opportunities. I must say it is also vital to make a risk-based or value-based audit. I see sometimes auditors are spending hours on minor points. They should spend their energies focusing on the main risks and opportunities.

WoA: Great remarks. Would you please tell us how you describe a good audit?

Serdar: The audit consists of 3 stages. Preparation and planning, execution of audit, and post-audit. Planning is critical. Auditing should not be perceived as an activity that consists of one single part, which is the execution of audits. Auditors should have enough time between audits to prepare and share the findings after the audit.

If you are well prepared for the audit, what do we mean by that? So, if you know the process, if you are aware of the questions, you will ask, and if you understand the needs and expectations, you can choose the right points you will focus on during the audit. And, if you can focus on the correct issues, then you correctly identify the improvement areas in the system. Next is to provide the audit report as objective evidence and a working document to put actions in place. So, the critical point is to remember these three main steps of an audit together with their objectives. Then the result is what we call “a good audit.”

WoA: The pre-audit preparation probably got better with Covid. What exactly happened after Covid?

Serdar: Covid started in 2019. I was very heavily auditing that time. I spent most of my time abroad. I finally did the audit in March 2019, and when I was leaving, countries started to close their borders. We waited for Covid to end, which did not happen. Then something called remote audit started. You are in front of your computer; you will communicate with the person via Zoom or teams. At first, I didn’t buy the idea very much. After completing 40 remote audits now, I think that remote audits are much more effective, much more efficient, and much easier than a regular conventional audit.

WoA: Why do you think so?

Serdar: We could have done this by sitting on both sides of the table and drinking tea and coffee, so we realized it is possible to do so now through a screen. You are telling me what you want to tell me. I collect all the information I want to get from you. This resulted in decreased expenses because why I was traveling, or I was going to the factory, and I was staying at a reasonably valued hotel. Now I have two screens on my desk. When the audited party wants to show me a document, they put it there. I can read as if I am there. We need to admit that the development in technology has made communication much more effortless. I mean, after 40 audits I made remotely, I say there is a world out there now.

WoA: Travelling time is not wasted either, isn’t it?

Serdar: Exactly. If you look at it from the audited companies’ point of view, the certification body was billing thousands of dollars for a standard
whose purpose was to reduce costs and reduce waste. Organizations are now free of travel costs. As for the audit content, I see that it is highly satisfactory. You become more flexible with remote audits. I always had a dream; I am now in the Bafra, a district of Samsun. We have a small farm here; I have lived here for two years. We also have a house in Kadıköy, İstanbul. My wife is there, and I commute from here now and then. I can perfectly work from here, earn my salary and getting rid of the traffic in Istanbul is the bonus.

WoA: Brilliant. How do you manage the shopfloor assessment as part of a remote audit?

Serdar: Shopfloor assessment is, of course, a critical element. There are documents called control plans. We ask for these in the preparation phase and go through those to understand the processes, key points, and controls. Then we visit the production area virtually through remote technologies like cameras.

WoA: What kind of controls do you perform for technologies you use?

Serdar: There are remote audit rules. You have to do a technology test before the remote audit decision is approved. So far, the vast majority have gone through Microsoft Teams. We also use Zoom in some instances. And we always have to test those as part of preparation.

WoA: Would it be possible for you to question the operators with this method, or is the audit performed only with key people?

Serdar: No, we have to communicate with at least ten percent of the number of employees in the field. There is such a rule. Of course, there
are a couple of generic areas of concern, such as: Are they aware of the work they are doing? What kind of errors can occur? We need to keep in mind the language barriers with the shopfloor employees. Managers generally speak a good level of English. There is another rule to ease the process of communication. If you do not speak in your mother tongue in audits, 20 percent is added to the audit time.

WoA: Has your reporting changed after Covid?

Serdar: Reporting had changed indeed before Covid. We have an accreditation institution called IATF. International Automotive Task Force. All certification bodies are accredited by them. Until the beginning of 2021, each certification body determined the formats defined within the framework of specific rules. So, everyone was working with their own templates. As of January 2021, a Common Audit Reporting Application system was introduced. IATF has prepared this, and now all certification bodies are using the same online template. Everyone is entering the same data, which I think is excellent. It also makes our job easier makes tracking easy. Again, the audited party uses the same CAPA to manage nonconformities and reporting.

WoA: Do you also coach new auditors?

Serdar: Certification bodies have their internal qualification process within the accreditation rules. In other words, when a new auditor starts working for a certification body, he/she must be qualified at certain stages. One of these stages is witness audits. That is to assign an experienced team as witness auditors. These witness auditors are selected from full-time employees of certification bodies. In other words, freelance auditors cannot witness audits.

WoA: So, a freelance auditor with the experience you have can not coach an auditor, although you work exclusively for the same Certification body almost full-time.

Serdar: I worked in the Istanbul office from 1999 to 2004; I was coaching auditors back then. After working as a freelance auditor, I could not act as a coach.

WoA: What do you think about the future of audits post-Covid?

Serdar: I honestly think that there will be nothing like going back. I think we will be working more on increasing the efficiency and effectiveness of remote audit technologies because it accommodates the effective use of resources. But I think the most important thing in the future of auditing is that certification bodies need to increase the added value created. In other words, auditing should not be perceived as a tool to get a certification printed on A4; if it is perceived as such, this job will not have a bright future. When I started 22 years ago, it was the same issue. I don’t think it would continue for another 22 more years the same way.

WoA: What do you think the certification or accreditation bodies should do differently?

Serdar: Let me give you an example from the business world. In any business, price equals cost plus profit. Now we live in a world where you cannot set the price as you wish. There is a market price that you need to follow. To keep the profit at the required level, you need to focus on your costs. In my opinion, auditing will bring the maximum value if it helps the companies reduce costs. How does an audit demonstrates that capability? Indeed, as part of the assessment, you are helping the companies reduce losses due to poor quality by pointing out the system’s weaknesses. Now, I sometimes chat with business owners. They claim that they put so much effort and money into quality. I believe quality does not increase costs; on the contrary, quality would reduce costs. It is the poor quality that increases the cost. So, audits should be perceived as an aid to companies identifying the points that create unnecessary costs. This would be the added value indeed.

WoA: Brilliant. Let us ask you another question about the audit process, which is critical. How do you ensure that the auditors you work together are calibrated?

Serdar: In our system, every auditor has a qualification number, and we need to work on a program called CPD (Continuing Professional Development). You need to take structured training that requires you to improve yourself, defined with a specific number of hours. We have to complete at least 20 hours of structured training every year. It has classification. Apart from that, there is a calibration process in certification bodies. Certification Body needs to bring their auditors together at regular intervals and train them on the mistakes made in interpretations, findings, and ratings. I find this very instrumental. When auditors from different countries talk about the same subject, various things can emerge. It is these discussions that bring value beyond everything else.

WoA: Would you consider retaking a role in manufacturing?

Serdar: I don’t think so. I believe auditing is an excellent fit for me. Life is very dynamic on the auditing side. Never dull. You go to different countries; you visit other companies. There are various people; there are different subjects any time you audit a new company. You do not have to keep anything with you other than the learning when you complete your audit. Then you concentrate on your next audit. I find this quite nourishing. And you can do it from anywhere you locate. This gives me a lot of flexibility and the feel of freedom.

WoA: You mentioned that you provide training for some special projects. What type of training are these?

Serdar: Technical training courses. We have a standard called IATF 16949. Internal auditors have to undergo specific training, and those eligible to give this training need to have particular qualifications. There are also some statistical tools in automotive such as statistical process control, error types and effects analysis, measurement systems research. I also provide training on those.

WoA: Lovely. If you compare training and auditing, what can you say?

Serdar: Training is more challenging as it requires special preparation but is also valuable. I don’t like to give training with things written on PowerPoint slides, though, to me, the workshops and the discussions through those are much more critical. I know how to do risk analysis, you know process steps, let’s figure out something together.

WoA: Perfect. Serdar, thank you very much. This was a very inspiring session. We would love to continue to talk on some other matters in the future.

Serdar: Thank you. It was a pleasure for me.

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