• Will Huggett

Is Your Auditing Style Protocol, Process or Aspect Based?

Every auditor has their own particular style of auditing, perhaps learned and adapted from a mentor or influenced by the predominant management system type or industry they conduct audits within. The intention here is to discuss three of the most common management system auditing styles and to present some additional considerations for when you are planning your next management system audit.

What is meant by clause, process or aspect-based auditing?

A clause-based audit style is where the audit team systematically works through the clauses of a standard and samples relevant areas, departments or functions within the organization to gather enough evidence so they can hopefully show conformity to a set of requirements. In the ISO world, this approach was fairly common in the early years of management systems auditing and often partly why companies developed their management systems manuals to follow the same format as the standard, it made for easier audits. While management system auditing techniques have evolved from this style, it’s still common to see this approach in other types of audits, like compliance audits that use audit protocols made up of a list of applicable regulatory requirements being tested by the audit team.

This approach generally ensures a more complete audit, giving the lead auditor greater comfort that all selected clauses from the standard have been covered and the audit notes and evidence gathered align to support that. On the downside, this style of auditing can detract from an auditor’s ability to identify potential audit trails that cover a number of clauses over a number of functions of the organization. It’s essentially looking at the management system as a sum of its parts, rather than the whole. Logistically, this approach can be quite inconvenient for the auditee. Since audit protocols are rarely developed based on the process flow or the division of responsibilities within an organization, the audit team may need to revisit the same personnel or departments several times throughout the audit. If you’re auditing a simple warehouse then this might not be much of a concern, but can definitely consume valuable audit time when having to travel across a large pulp mill or mine site, especially where special access is required.

A process-based audit style begins with understanding the process flow of the organization being audited, including its key functions, departmental structure, interdependencies and physical layout. The standard or requirements against which the organization is being audited are then considered and relevant clauses are applied to each process of the organization. Here is an example of an audit plan based on a process-based approach.

Audit plans based on this approach are more sensitive to client logistical and planning concerns, including scheduling of department leads and top management personnel. Importantly, for the audit team, it allows for more natural dialogue and audit trail development and progression as multiple clauses can be covered during the same conversation and within the same department of the organization. The challenge with this style of auditing is that it requires additional knowledge of the client organization and greater familiarity with the audit protocol. Newer auditors on the audit team should be assigned to less complex processes.

An aspect-based audit style begins with an understanding of the aspects identified and managed by the management system as identified by the organization. While perhaps more common to Environmental Management Systems, where aspects might include, for example air emissions or resource consumption, this approach can also be used with other types of management systems. Within Health and Safety auditing, auditors may choose to structure their auditing approach around hazards (pinch points, noise, vibration, etc.), prioritizing from most to least significant, and then focussing on the processes in the organization where those hazards are most prevalent or problematic. In greenhouse gas verification, verifiers tend to use aspect-based auditing more often, for example, one verifier on the team may be tasked with reviewing emissions from onsite transportation, while another focuses on natural gas combustion sources; both of which may occur across multiple processes in the organization.

A Note About Risk-Based Auditing

Rather than a particular style of auditing, risk-based auditing is more akin to a technique of sampling when preparing the audit plan. All three auditing styles discussed above can (and should) include a risk-based sampling process. In a process-based audit, the lead auditor my choose to focus on processes within the organization that have a greater impact on the overall success of the management system. In an aspect-based audit, the lead auditor may choose to allocate more time to auditing functions of the organization that involve only the most significant aspects identified by the organization. More on audit sampling techniques to come in a later post.

A Note About Checklist Auditing

Clause-based auditing is often misassociated with checklist auditing. An auditor can quite easily develop a checklist for conducting a process-based audit, as is also true for an aspect-based audit. The use of checklists speaks more to the lead auditor’s desire to achieve a certain level of completeness for the audit. For new auditors or for multi-site audits that use a combination of audit teams, checklists (or more accurately, audit protocols) can be of great value. For seasoned auditors working in a familiar industry they can sometimes feel cumbersome and restrict natural conservation and audit trail progression.

As auditors, we tend to favor the style we’re most familiar with or were likely first introduced to. As we become more experienced and exposed to other styles we are presented with opportunities to become more dynamic in our auditing style; style shifting as needed to deliver exceptional value to our organization and clients. All three of these styles have their time and place, along with a variety of nuances and hybrids. It is up to the skilled audit team leader to determine when a particular style is required or appropriate based on the objective and scope of the audit, and structure and experience of the audit team.

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Newhelm works with companies to provide Internal and supply chain assurance solutions for management systems, including ISO Standards, GRI & e-Waste.