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John Nolan

Questions to successfully perform ISO 14001 top management audit

Anyone who has had to audit the top management team as part of an environmental audit will know that it can be both challenging and daunting. If your EMS (Environmental Management System) is certified to ISO 14001:2015, you will know that internal audit is a critical component to measure and improve your activities, and this will generally involve interaction with your top management team. Given that your top management team may be busy and less involved in the day-to-day running of the EMS, there is a danger that the output you receive from them may be of less value than you need and expect. How do you ask ISO 14001 top management audit questions? What methods should you use to ensure that full value is received from such an audit, and your EMS can improve from the resulting actions? Learn in this article.

Plan for audit success

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Planning your audit is the key to success. Ensure that you have an audit schedule that can be clearly explained to your top management to allow them to clearly understand your needs. Secondly, ensure you adhere strictly to the terms of the ISO 14001:2015 standard, and to the evidence you need to see from top management. Explain the objectives clearly to your top management team, and be sure that evidence of compliance to the standard are key goals. This will help you with both certification and continual improvement of the EMS performance.

Use your common sense to win over your top management. As we learned in the article How to ensure your ISO 14001 implementation is profitable, it is in the financial interest of the organization to be environmentally effective, and what top manager doesn’t like this?

Lastly, use language that is open-ended and engaging, ask questions that encourage top management to speak freely about the organization as opposed to questions specifically related to narrower audit-related topics. Encouraging top management to speak freely on topics such as organizational context, interested parties or objective setting usually encourages a top manager to speak openly about the business they are deeply engaged in. This can provide a valuable insight to the auditor.

The 14001:2015 standard is the key basis for questions

When you are auditing your top management team, it is wise to remember that the clauses of the ISO 14001:2015 standard remain the basis of your audit. It can also be beneficial to ensure that your top team has the audit schedule in advance. This will allow them time to prepare and ensure the correct evidence exists for the audit. These should include questions on, and evidence regarding:

  • Context of the organization
  • Leadership
  • Planning
  • Support
  • Operation
  • Performance evaluation
  • Improvement

Question examples

Prepare some intelligent questions that will encourage and allow top managers to speak freely to you. For example, questions like “What changes have you seen to the company’s organizational context and interested party list this year, and how do you see that affecting environmental performance in the next year?” can encourage a broader picture than simply comparing this year’s interested parties with last.

“Can you explain how the management review process works and how environmental objectives are decided by the top team?” is another valid type of question.

Open ended questioning like this can often illustrate some of the thought processes the management team employs behind the decisions it makes. Subsequently, this illustrates the depth of leadership and management commitment to the issues that are governed by the EMS itself.

Likewise, a question like: “How effective do you think your environmental risk identification and environmental aspect process is? Are there any major legislative changes on the horizon that may affect the business?” can be hugely effective, especially with global issues like BREXIT in the UK, and the doubts over the trade situation between China and the USA.

ISO 14001 top management audit: What questions to ask

Speak in top management language

You will find that speaking to top management in a language they understand and appreciate will bring benefits to your audit. Highlighting opportunities for improvement often leads to reduced cost and increased margin, as we learned in the article 6 key benefits of ISO 14001. Remind top management that internal auditing is a positive and collaborative function where both sides can work together to identify gaps, opportunities for improvement and ensure that the company EMS and overall performance can be improved as a result.

Non-conformity found – how to approach this

You have involved your top management in your audit and have found a non-conformity. Firstly, be discreet and diplomatic. Secondly, remember two things: a non-conformity discovered at internal audit is better than one found by your certification auditor, and it provides a tangible opportunity to improve your management system by performing an effective corrective action. This is the time to remind yourself and your top management that you are both on the same side. You all want the same outcome – an EMS that continually improves, meets objectives, meets the terms of the ISO 14001:2015 standard while helping to maximize company profits at the lowest environmental cost. Working together with your top management in a collaborative fashion can achieve this more quickly and effectively than before.

To learn more about how to perform top management audit, enroll in this free online training: ISO 14001:2015 Internal Auditor Course.


About the author:

John Nolan is a Fellow of the Institute of Leaders and Managers in the United Kingdom, and Prince 2 accredited with a background in Engineering and Electronics and Data Storage and Transfer. Having studied and qualified as both a Mechanical and Electronic Engineer, he has spent the last 15 years designing and delivering Quality Systems and projects across many sectors in the UK, including both national and local government.

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