3 min

Controlling quality: What auditing involves, and where it’s going

An independent quality audit can have a huge impact on a business; it can mean the difference between success and failure. Auditing helps companies improve products, sharpen processes and build trust with customers. But what does auditing really entail, and why is it so important?

The future of auditing

Although it is bound by standards and involves a large amount of technical expertise, the auditing process is very personal – it’s about communication and building a trusting relationship. But as technology develops, the inspection itself may require less and less human intervention.

“I think auditing itself will always exist, but the way it’s delivered is changing,” says Luc Leroy, Chief Operational Officer (COO) of Kiwa. “In the past, you always had to go to a site and inspect the processes, but this can already be done remotely in many cases, through sensors, using drones or an online document check or meeting. In construction, buildings often have sensors that monitor the humidity or temperature of the concrete, to signal if there is a potential problem. In the future, different inputs will provide a picture for a skilled auditor to analyze.”

Auditing can also help avoid the risks this brings, says Luc: “Any wireless device can leave the door open to hackers. The companies that make these sensors and other inspection devices have to be audited and their products tested before they go to the market.”

Contribution to society

Auditing may have started out as a way of verifying financial accounts, but today it’s much more than that – any product, service, system or process can be audited, and this helps maintain a good standard of quality across all sectors, whether that provides consumers with a toilet that flushes well or a medical device that saves their lives. It works on the basis of a set of rules, laid down in a standard.

In the case of a quality management system, a standard like ISO 9001 defines what companies need to do to ensure they have rigorous controls in place; rather than checking the resulting product or service, auditors can examine the company’s system. Taken broadly, independent auditing contributes to a better, safer, healthier and more sustainable society.

Internal capabilities, external mark

Quality assurance can also have an almost unmeasurable impact on a company. Internally, an audit can reveal system failures or places where efficiencies can be introduced, saving the company time and money. And externally, the benefits can help a company build trust with customers and provide a means to distinguish its products or services from the competition.

According to Luc, auditing provides an external mark that gives visibility of internal capabilities. “If you’re a company trading internationally, you will want to demonstrate to external parties that your processes are good. Through auditing and assurance, you can show the outside world that you’re good at production and that your products will have consistent quality.”

Building a business of trust

In addition to broad scope international standards like ISO 9001 and ISO 14001 that apply to every sector, there are specialized standards for particular industries, such as IATF 16949 for the automotive industry and FSSC 22000 for the food sector. Many of these bring with them a requirement for accreditation.

“Our starting point to fulfil customers’ and accreditation body’s demands is always that we work with auditors or inspectors who are sector experts,” says Luc. “Our key to success has been in working closely with clients to understand what they need, and ensuring expertise in the right areas. It’s important to send a person who is specialized in food to a factory or restaurant, or an IT expert to an IT company; they must be able to speak to the client in their own language, and the client should recognize the expertise of the auditor.”

Independent voice for quality

The process of auditing has been around for centuries. The word ‘audit’ comes from the Latin audire, which means ‘to hear’. Before printed records took hold, auditors would listen to spoken reports given by officials in different capacities and confirm whether they were accurate.

Over time, this evolved to assessing written reports. Auditing moved along with changes in accounting, becoming more and more nationally and eventually internationally standardized. The International Federation of the National Standardizing Associations (ISA), the predecessor to ISO, was established in 1926, paving the way for international quality standards across a range of industries.

Kiwa first appears in the story in 1948, when it was founded by the Dutch water board, with the aim of monitoring the quality of the country’s drinking water. The Keuringsinstituut voor WaterleidingArtikelen (shortened to K.I.W.A.) was tasked with testing water pipes, fittings and valves to ensure they met certain quality standards. Kiwa’s stringent testing methodologies led to the company’s expansion throughout Europe and the rest of the world.