Getting Value from Your Certification Body
Third party certification to one or more ISO management system standards is a fact of life for many organisations. Having achieved certification, often little thought is given to how it could do more for you than keeping certificates on the wall.
This article explains how real value can be derived by having the right kind of relationship with your certification body and, in particular, your auditor.
In the course of our work as management consultants and trainers, we meet organisations with various kinds of relationship with their certification bodies. In some cases, it is adversarial, with the organisation psyching itself up to withstand the probing of an aggressive auditor. In other cases, it is a very cosy relationship causing no anxiety but delivering no audit findings of any value either. Then there are cases where auditees are extremely deferential to an auditor. Too often the latter has a tendency to make recommendations based on whim and which may actually be harmful if acted upon. None of these kinds of relationship should exist, but they do.
Certification bodies try hard to deliver good service and to employ only highly professional auditors. However, third party audit is like any profession. Some of auditors are whimsical or of indifferent quality. Does experience with your certification body fall into any of the above? If so, it will be partly due to the certification body and partly due to you. Let’s consider some practical steps that can avoid these problems.
Begin at the Beginning
You choose your certification body, not the other way around. You are the customer and there is plenty of choice. In short, it’s about selecting a supplier and an important supplier at that. You require a provider of third party certification services who can meet your particular requirements.
Organisations often go wrong at the start by getting quotations and going for the lowest price. Perhaps it is presumed that all certification bodies deliver the same service? Sometimes, the selection is made by only one person. A good consultant should be able to assist, not by telling you which certification body to choose, but how to go about evaluating the options. We can briefly outline the process here.
The first step is to identify potential certification bodies and request information. Their sales functions will be happy to send it to you and may also offer to send a representative to visit you. Often the information pack includes a questionnaire to be completed and returned in order that you can obtain a quotation.
When you receive the information by post or email, study it and make a note of any questions. The next step, having received responses to all your enquiries, is to schedule visits for the certification bodies to present to you. You should invite colleagues from different functions to attend. They should be the same colleagues for each visit in order to compare views in a consistent way. Prepare also by drafting a checklist with questions and evaluation criteria. Typically, these should include questions such as:
- Is your certification body accredited for the scope of certification we seek?
- What steps are involved in the assessment process?
- How can your audits help us to manage risk better?
- Are you able to provide multi-skilled auditors who can audit an integrated management system?
- What is the policy regarding surveillance visits after initial certification?
- How do you categorise audit findings?
- Can you send CVs of the auditor or auditors who may be assigned to us?
- How do you resolve situations where the chemistry between us and the auditor isn’t working?
and so on…..
You may want a consultant to help you frame and explain the questions on the checklist. If the consultant attends, he or she should be able to interpret the information obtained but should not be involved in the voting or selection. It’s your show.
Getting the Balance Right
For audit to work, an auditor must maintain control of the audit to an appropriate degree. Auditor training emphasises that point and teaches protocols and techniques which enable auditors to do just that. You would not have much respect for an auditor who is easily deflected or cowered. On the other hand you do not want the auditor to be regarded in fear and awe.
There should an atmosphere of mutual respect and co-operation. Try to ensure that everyone who is likely to be involved in an audit understands and accepts these things:
- The auditor wants to do a good job and needs our co-operation
- Be open and honest in your answers
- If you don’t know the answer to a question, say so
- If the auditor misunderstands or draws the wrong conclusion, point it out politely
It is natural to be a little anxious about being audited, but these pointers should help to settle nerves. For more complete guidance on handling audits, see the article An ISO Audit Checklist for Everyone.
Having a Good System
In working with our clients, Gablesmead always tries to ensure that the management system is designed specifically for our client and has all the right attributes. These include making the system easy to understand and easy to audit. That makes auditors very happy! They don’t have to struggle to comprehend how things are supposed to work. Consequently, the auditor can gather a lot of information without having to interrogate people at length.
A good management system will have a subliminal, positive effect on employees facing an audit. It will engender confidence in being able to navigate the system to explain your work processes and to retrieve documents if the auditor asks to see them.
Auditors should include positive points in their reports to recognise improvement effort and gains which the organisation has achieved. This demonstrates a fair and balanced approach. By the same token, you should tell the auditor what you appreciated about the audit and the way it was conducted. Auditors are human too. They like to know that their efforts and approach are appreciated. Equally, any concerns should always be discussed openly in a professional manner. It helps to build a mutually beneficial relationship.
Changing the Auditor
After a couple of years or so, it might be wise to request a change of auditor. Another auditor should provide a fresh pair of eyes and thus be able to identify opportunities for improvement which might have been overlooked.
Changing the Certification Body
If you are really dissatisfied with some aspect of the audit approach, discuss it with the account manager of the certification body. If that does no good, then you may decide to change the certification body. There is a simple process for doing this and it is not expensive. However, before opting for this solution, consider whether or not there are issues to be addressed with the system itself and with the way the organisation has tried to manage the relationship in the past.
Getting real value from a certification body requires several things. If you are developing a management system in the first place, make sure it is a good one. Exercise your role as a customer and select your certification body with due care, involving all of the functions which will be audited. If your management system is inherited, consider whether or not its weaknesses presents difficulties to auditors and auditees alike. Prepare and support employees so that they are ready for an audit and know how to respond. It will bolster their self confidence and make the audit go more smoothly. Make sure that you learn from your audit experience. Give feedback to the auditor, particularly on what you liked about the audit approach. It will help to continue the pattern of productive audits.
If selecting and working with a certification body is new territory for you, you may wish to talk about your requirements. If so, Contact Us.