Performing a remote audit (conducted without actually going to the factory) is nothing new. And a lot of companies have started using them because of the covid-19 pandemic.
In 2013, The ASQ Quality Press published eAuditing – Virtual Communication and Remote Auditing, and much of that book’s advice is still relevant today.
After all, there were already iPads and iPhones, as well as wifi connections.
What’s new? There are a lot more options when it comes to hardware (typically on Android at factory locations), and fast 3G/4G/5G connections where there is no wifi. Oh, and cellular coverage has improved in South and Southeast Asian countries.
Even third-party certifying bodies started doing remote audits in 2020. Our certification body, the BSI, has been auditing us both remotely and in person for 2 years now, and it worked well.
However, there are pitfalls. Switching from on-site to remote audit work takes some preparation.
The main difficulty lies in finding issues, not in analyzing the basic system implementation or confirming the corrective actions.
Companies that switch to conduct off-site audits have noticed a much lower number of non-conformances. That is not surprising, for two reasons:
- First-hand observation of real practices is severely reduced;
- Many auditors had to switch to a new method with no preparation, and they didn’t make the most out of it.
By reading this article, you will be better prepared to get a solid understanding of the real situation at the factory.
Why there will be more and more remote audits in the future, even in a “post covid” world
There are a number of benefits provided by a remote audit.
First, it saves time and money there is no need to send a local auditor to travel to the factory (speaking the local language is still quite important, though).
Second, it leads to lower carbon emissions, which is important to an increasing number of companies. Here’s an example trip that an auditor might make (based on a real audit that we conduct) and some information about the emissions created (based on this research from the UK government):
- SZ to Dongguan – train – 30 mins / 60 km / 2.64 kg CO2
- Dongguan station to outside district / village – Coach – 1 hour / 40 km / 1.32 kg CO2
- Coach station to factory – Taxi (petrol car) – 45 mins / 30 km / 4.17 kg CO2
So that’s a total of 8.13 kg of CO2 emissions saved, and that’s just one audit. If the auditor does a similar trip most days per month (20), then that’s 163 kg per month or nearly 2,000 kg per year saved when audits are conducted remotely.
Third, reviewing documents without anybody around can be much faster. If your auditors don’t already request some documents in advance for studying in a quiet environment ahead of time, they should probably consider it.
(However, that’s more true when everything is nicely laid out and easy to understand. In other cases, proper interpretation of email message records, procedures, etc. often necessitates interaction with a representative of the supplier.)
Fourth, it can improve access to the key people. In some cases, to have proper access to some key production and warehouse staff (who tend to be busy with many requests from their office colleagues and customers on weekdays), a call on a Saturday may be necessary. They might also suffer fewer distractions and have a clearer mind early in the early morning.
Typical risks of auditing remotely
The article ‘Making Remote Audits Work’, published in Quality Progress (Sept. 2020 edition), made me think of a number of typical pitfalls. Let’s look at some of them, and let’s explore how to mitigate them.
First, with small/immature operations, there might be very little documentation that corresponds to the facility’s processes.
Here are a few tips to direct a factory employee to collect useful observations via a live video stream during a remote audit:
- Follow the material flow from A to Z, to make notes of what to study in greater detail later on — ideally they can also send the floor map ahead of the assessment day.
- Make notes of the locations of incoming QC, quarantined and NC materials, and other interesting areas, as well as any restricted areas.
- Pick some areas (write “1”, “2”, “3”… on the floor plan map) and ask the interviewee to go to those areas, stop walking, transmit video footage with slow movements, and move as directed.
- If you want to see details, ask for a few photos, rather than try to read text on the video.
Second, there is a higher temptation for the auditee to script the responses rather than describing reality.
- Again, directing an employee to walk to certain places and share a video stream will help.
- In addition, I’d suggest requesting the names of several people in the organization (such as someone from the quality department, 1 or 2 production supervisors, a warehouse supervisor…) prior to the assessment. Include some people close to the operations, if possible process owners. Set up calls with them. Ask some of the same questions and compare the responses.
Third, some companies are reluctant to send documents by email, or they may have difficulty understanding what types of documents are needed.
What to do, in those cases?
- Prior to the audit, give them a detailed list of required documents, with some explanations.
- If they show resistance in sending them, propose that they prepare them on their side on 1 computer and do a call on Zoom/Teams/Skype/Wechat to review them. That might be more time-consuming for the auditor, but it’s better than no preparation at all.
- All along, reassure the auditee that all the information is kept confidential. Before taking a screen capture, ask for permission. If some photos/videos are sent out, ask if you can include them in the report.
The logistics to make virtual audits work well
There is, obviously, the technology issue.
The parties need to make sure it works fine:
- They need to understand basic commands such as muting and unmuting their sound;
- A bit of troubleshooting may be needed;
- It’s often a good idea to have a backup system ready to go and that doesn’t necessitate downloads & installations of a new program. For example, you may prefer Microsoft Teams but be OK using Skype as a backup.
Certain things are more difficult, such as sketching a diagram on a whiteboard to illustrate relationships. It does take some getting used to for the auditor who’ll be conducting the remote audit.
In on-site audits, there is always the risk of interruptions due to urgent requests. This is even stronger during a non-face-to-face interview of a manager who is used to being plugged 24/7 in Wechat or Dingtalk discussions. There might be 10 seemingly urgent requests for her time waiting on her smartphone! If the pace is not sustained, that manager will look at her phone and her attention will be taken away.
To avoid this, interviewees should make it clear to their colleagues that they are in a meeting until a certain time.
You need to hold people’s attention as much as possible, and that’s a challenge.
During the audit, when a set of documents requires more than 5 min to review, disconnect from Zoom/Teams/Skype/Wechat. If an auditee hears nothing and starts checking his inbox, an urgent matter might jump out and his/her attention might be lost for a while, and you want to avoid that.
Similarly, when someone needs a bit of time finding a document, offer then to send it by email later, but make sure you agree on a ‘latest time’ and you can go over it with that same interviewee for clarifications. That’s a good way of collecting evidence, too.
Preparation is key before the off-site audit
I think it is quite clear from what I wrote above, but let’s cover pre-assessment preparation in more detail.
Here are examples of good practices.
- If you are requested to use a new technology you are not used to (or the auditee may not be used to), do a ‘dry run’ a few days/weeks before.
- Get the floor plan, and if possible the information about areas with no wifi and no mobile network coverage.
- Setting up a detailed audit plan is even more important for remote work. Start and end times have to be respected, otherwise, you may not be able to get hold of someone who is suddenly absorbed in another task…
- Get the names and email addresses of the key contacts, and their phone numbers too (especially if you might use Wechat with them).
- You won’t be able to sit in a room and look at binders where all the key documents are arranged neatly. It’s much better to ask for some specific documents to be sent in advance by email.
- If you don’t schedule some ‘review time’ on your own, you may be unable to process all the information communicated.
The auditor has to adapt his/her working methods
Let’s take the closing meeting as an example.
- It is good practice to first write down the findings and then show them via screen sharing. Show it in a structured form if possible, with requirement + finding + conclusion on the screen at the same time.
- Then, collecting a signature might be challenging, so the auditee might simply be requested to write their name in a document and send it back by email.
- For confidentiality purposes, the emails received may need to be discarded. Make that process transparent to the factory staff.
A remote auditor can check much more than documents
Always remember, staying at the level of the documents is not ideal. You need to try and find ways to verify certain facts through observation as ‘live’ and ‘unfiltered’ as possible. This point is so important, so I want to emphasize it.
In a Chinese factory, it should be no problem to have someone do a live video within Wechat, as long as they can avoid showing confidential information.
However, ‘remote controlling’ an employee from the factory is not very realistic. If you are not supremely organized (with the floor plan that shows what processes are where), that employee can direct you to what they want you to see… and away from negative things you should be seeing, and you won’t even notice it. I already covered this above.
(An alternative is sending someone who is from that area and has no relationship with the factory. He/she might have no auditing skills, but you can probably ‘remote-control’ that person much more easily during the remote audit.)
An opportunity for a different approach to factory assessments
The general approach for on-site audits is often “try to observe as much as possible because we want to know where there are holes in their quality system”.
That might also be the general approach for an off-site audit, but it is more challenging. The focus will naturally be more on the management system (procedures, work instructions, checklists…) and on records, and less on observation of practices.
From some photos and short live video feeds, the auditor can glean a quick ‘general impression’ — for example, is there a lot of inventory lying idle, were process engineers involved heavily in setting up the work stations, is management maintaining a lot of discipline in the way to dress and work, and so forth. If the audit checklist is very specific, these general observations will probably be lost.
So, maybe it is an opportunity to make your factory assessments a bit less checklist-driven?
In What can you observe in a Chinese factory? I wrote a list of questions that might give you ideas for items to cover in a remote audit.
- Is the production floor clean? Are products in direct contact with the ground?
- Is the office organized? Or do they have papers all over their desks?
- Are there lines on the ground, and nameplates for each department?
- Do the workers wear protective equipment (masks, gloves…) when they perform dangerous operations?
- Are the operators mostly young (more into their work, more adaptable) or old?
- Do the workers perform only 1 simple and repetitive operation, in front of a conveyor belt?
- Is production organized in islands (bad) or in line (better)? Is there a lot of work-in-process in the workshop? (You can read about the different types of production organization).
- What operations are they performing? If it is only packing, you are wasting your time (the real action is somewhere else).
- What other customers do they serve in your country? Have a look at the labels on the packing line, and then at the shipping marks in the cartons warehouse.
- Do they agree to show you the latest designs they developed for their other customers? Would they give you quotations for these proprietary designs?
- Does the showroom contain branded items? If some designs were developed for a specific customer, would they accept to make them for you too?
Maybe someone from purchasing can also join the remote audit and cover some of these topics?
Remote audits are also a way of observing real practices, with cooperation from the factory. Let me explain.
Outside of a few industries such as food, unannounced on-site audits are often refused by suppliers, who are afraid of the disruption it can create. However, asking a couple of their people to be ready to jump on a video call any day (at certain times of the day) may be easier. It allows you to see their operations in action, with minimal risk of being faced with fake records or scripted behaviors. There might not be much of a surprise factor, as they have a few seconds to warn people before shooting, but they don’t have much lead time to prepare, either.
In summary, the question is, do you want to replace, or complement, your traditional (on-site) factory audits with remote ones?
In fact, many companies have already done that type of remote audit work without consciously recognizing it.
When you request a corrective action plan (sometimes in the form of an 8D report) and you review what the supplier prepared for you, you are auditing their analysis and their countermeasures remotely on the basis of their report, their photos, sometimes their videos. In some cases, you called them to gather more information and give them feedback. Now, do you want to keep doing this and bring that approach to other topics?
What do you think? Have you successfully switched from physical to virtual audits? What worked, and what didn’t work? Let me know by commenting, please.
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