We’ve been speaking quite a lot about factory audits recently in our podcast mini-series about vetting Chinese suppliers. In particular, let’s compare quality audits vs process audits.
Many buyers will send in a quality auditor. There are advantages to this approach, but experience has taught me that it is not always the best option…
The importance of factory audits when sourcing new suppliers
When it comes to estimating how reliable a potential supplier is, most importers choose to audit them on site. You may be auditing:
- Processes & systems
- Social compliance (not covered in this post, but you can listen to us discuss these here)
These audits will help you to understand how capable your prospective supplier is of reaching your expectations and how reliable you can consider them to be.
The question is if you do not get an in-depth understanding of the supplier’s capabilities, systems, adherence to the law, and safeguards, are you 100% confident that they will be able to do a good job and can be trusted with your orders and money?
In this article, I want to contrast conventional “quality management system audits” based on ISO 9001 and what I call “process-specific audits”.
1. Quality Audits
The checklist is generic and is designed to be relevant to any process.
We go into a lot of detail about quality audits in this episode of the podcast:
The auditor assesses whether the basics of a quality system are present:
- Are inputs properly checked?
- Is the process kept under control?
- Are outputs properly verified/validated?
- Are gauges and other checking instruments well-calibrated?
- Etc. (I wrote a list of the most common checkpoints here before)
This is sufficient to spot poorly organized manufacturers. So there is a lot of value in asking these questions.
Why is this type of audit generally considered “the norm”?
For two reasons:
- Hiring and training all-purpose quality auditors (who can check “any factory operations”) is a convenient thing to do. So that’s what all third party agencies push down their clients’ throats.
- It has the appearance of pure objectivity since all checkpoints are somewhat derived from the ISO 9001 standard.
- Quality auditors usually have a superficial understanding of the production processes they examine. They mostly audit “around” and “between” the processes, which means a lot of issues can go unnoticed.
- Savvy factories know how to script a visit and take advantage of a complacent auditor. This type of service can quickly morph into a document check in a meeting room, rather than an inquisitive tour of the factory.
- Findings often lead to solutions that aim at increasing the size of the quality department: more controllers at every step of production, more engineers to prepare procedures… And that’s a problem. Chinese factory owners & managers are very focused on costs and they usually resist this type of recommendation.
2. Process Audits
This type of service requires an auditor with working experience on the process in question, working out of a checklist that lists the main risks to assess.
Listen to us discuss the ins and outs of process audits here:
For example, when we audit an injection molding process, our engineers check the following aspects (in addition to the quality control steps):
- Technical Capability
- Process Controls
- Setup Procedures
- Process Parameters
- Cycling Parameters
- Preventative Maintenance
- Polymer Control
- Polymer Delivery
- Material Processing
- Tool/Die Storage
- Tool Design & Manufacturing Capabilities
- Tooling Efficiency
It is useful in catching poorly organized factories (since it also includes checkpoints related to the quality system), but it also allows the auditor to catch:
- Factories that don’t know what they are doing (e.g. jigs that allow operators to place a part in an incorrect position, a so-called engineer who doesn’t know the melting temperature of the most commonly-used polymers…)
- Factories that have habits detrimental to quality (e.g. using recycled material for plastic injection molding, taking shortcuts during the setup…)
- Factories that don’t pay attention to the long-term stability and reliability of their processes (e.g. in-adapted maintenance programs, machines that are running at too high a speed…)
The auditor’s findings naturally lead to recommendations that aim at working smarter: adopting best practices that improve both productivity and quality. For example, adding a control jig that catches problems more quickly and more reliably than the current method. That’s something a Chinese factory owner will tend to say yes to.
- The difficulty lies in finding ex-production engineers whose English level is sufficient to follow a checklist and report on their findings.
- Since fewer auditors are available, travel costs are a bit higher than those of conventional quality audits.
How about auditing existing suppliers in order to push them to improve?
Factory audits will also be suitable in a ‘continuous auditing’ program, too. Read this post to explore how this works: Continuous Auditing to Keep Pressure on a China Factory: How it Works
Do you think in terms of quality audits VS process audits, or are they both important to you? Have you found any limitations with using them?
Editor’s note: This post is a version of an earlier post on QualityInspection.org adjusted for Sofeast readers.
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