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Audit vs. Consulting – What is more important for ISO 9001?

Very often, companies worldwide consider whether or not to take consulting services, as well as external certification services against ISO 9001.

Both of those may be a cost or investment. However, neither of these is obligatory for the company by any regulation or standard. So, in the majority of cases it’s up to the company to take or not to take consulting services and/or audit services. Having in mind limited resources, this article shows some strong and weak points of consulting and audit, and may help you to reduce risk in your decision-making process.

Arguments for using consulting services

There are two main motives regarding implementation of ISO 9001. One is to implement it as a management tool for better organization and control over organization, and another is to achieve compliance with ISO 9001 because customers require/expect it.

Usually, when companies try to implement ISO 9001 without consultants, there are three major problems. They are not sure: what exactly is needed, how “deep” they should go in order to achieve compliance, and when they are ready for the audit. This results in lengthy implementation followed by low motivation of employees, increase of bureaucracy and an even worse organization than before.

If companies decide to take a consultant and find a competent one, than those hazards mentioned above are at least significantly reduced. These are certainly strong points of consulting services, but the word “competent” is a key issue.

Who defines consulting competencies? Is it according to the number of organizations a consultant has helped in ISO 9001 implementation, the number of references from your industry, or something else?

Competencies basically depend on your needs, and you are the person who evaluates consultant competencies, so it is important to speak with a person who actually will provide consulting services. It is always good to look at consultant experience from “both sides of the standard.” One is consultancy and another is his audit competencies (how many audits, where, what kind of organizations, against which standards, etc.). This is important since it assures you that he will lead and control the project in needed depth and within defined time frames, saving your resources.

Potential problems with consulting services

On the other hand, if you choose an incompetent consultant, you may achieve compliance, but definitely will not have a tool for improving your organization.

Usual signs of those kind of consultants are: he more or less insists on already defined models of his documentation, he’s not willing to develop tailor-made documentation, he’s unable to answer many of your questions or explain where something is needed (he simply says that the standard requires it), he’s not willing to talk to or interview the employees and speaks only with a project manager, he’s not willing to include your documents and records that are useful but not required by the standard, and his documents don’t reflect functions specific to your organization, but rather some generic functions. Usually, those types of consultants say that you don’t have a system even if you already have many of documents already like proposals, contracts, dispatch orders, invoices, etc.

In this case, this may pass certification, but it will result in “parallel” processes. For example, the sales department will work the same as before implementation of the system, and then before the audit, they will review a procedure(s) again and prepare documents and records requested by the procedure. Many of those documents are already done but in another format or type, or you will wind up making new, additional documents and records that you obviously don’t need in everyday sales operations.

The result is even lower motivation, inefficiency, increase of bureaucracy and even a worse organization overall than before system implementation.

Strong points of audit services

Your customers, suppliers and other interested parties very often ask whether you have implemented some of management systems. Usually, they ask for ISO 9001, ISO 14001, OHSAS 18001 and some specific schemes related to business continuity, information security and social accountability. However, it all starts with ISO 9001.

Audit benefits depend again on the competencies of the auditor(s) and the audit methodology. In beneficial audits, processes are checked based on samples of already delivered product or service. Audits go through all processes from the end to the beginning following their interconnections, based on specific product/service all the way up to customer inquiry.

This audit approach is very rarely used in certification audits, but very frequent in SPA audits (Second Party Audits). In this manner, a competent auditor can very often check overall efficiency and effectiveness of your system much better than a huge audit team.

As you may see, this is not connected to any certification body or certificate.

Weak points of audit services

If you do the audit with a certification body, you cannot choose the auditor; you choose the certification body and they decide, based on many parameters, which of their auditors will be used.

One definition defines a system as a “set of interacting and interdependent elements (processes) forming an integrated whole (organization).” Auditors usually check separately the processes stated in the audit plan, but do not check these interactions between processes, so you don’t know how connections between processes work even though this is the most important issue when you read the definition.

As a result, after the audit, you get the certificate but you don’t know how your organization works better, or even if your organization actually conforms.

Your customers are not interested in how good your processes are, or even in your certificate, but only their output – quality of product and/or service, which heavily depends on the quality of interaction and interdependency.

Who wins: consulting or audit?

Having in mind the organization’s needs and everything stated above, a good approach is first to have an audit (by a competent consultant) based on SPA methodology, and then based on audit results, make specific requirements for a consultant and implement the system. Depth and details of the system (number and structure of documents/records, scheme of processes, competencies, etc.) will depend on your strong and weak points and not on standard requirements and/or consultant needs. The system will be used as a management tool in order to achieve desired results.

Click here to download free  List of questions to ask ISO 9001 Certification Body.