From the opening meeting through the audit and closing meeting, the author describes an auditor’s best practices in issuing a major nonconformity.
As an auditor, one of the most important (and difficult) things to learn is how to issue a nonconformity—especially a major. This is usually done at the closing meeting of an audit, but the closing meeting is not where the process of issuing the nonconformity begins. Issuing a nonconformity starts in the opening meeting.
ISO 19011:2011 is the official guidance document for auditors of Quality Management Systems, and ISO 13485 is the quality system standard for medical device manufacturers. Section 6.4.2 of this Standard explains best practices for an opening meeting. The last five items in this section are critical to preparing the client for potential nonconformities:
- Method of reporting audit findings, including grading, if any
- Conditions under which the audit may be terminated
- Time and place of the closing meeting
- How to deal with possible findings during the audit
- System for feedback from the auditee on findings or conclusions of the audit
- Process for complaints and appeals
Methods of Reporting and Grading Nonconformities
The auditor should be crystal clear in their description of minor and major nonconformities or any other grading that will be used. The auditor should also make it clear that they are looking for conformity rather than nonconformity. This is an audit—not an inspection. Typically, a minor nonconformity is described as “a single lapse in the fulfillment of a requirement,” while a major nonconformity is described as one of the following: 1) “a total absence in the fulfillment of a requirement,” 2) “repetition of a previous nonconformity,” 3) “failure to address a previously identified minor nonconformity,” or 4) “shipment of non-conforming product.” When the auditor is in doubt, then the finding is minor, and never a major. For a major nonconformity to be issued, there can be no doubt.
Conditions for Termination
The option to terminate an audit is typically reserved for a certification audit where a major nonconformity is identified, and there is no point in continuing. Termination is highly discouraged, because it is better to know about all minor and major nonconformities right away, instead of waiting until the certification audit is rescheduled. The certification body will charge you for their time anyway.
Another reason for termination is when an auditor is unreasonable or inappropriate. This is rare, but it happens. If the audit is terminated, you should communicate this to upper management at the certification body and the company—regardless of which side of the table you sit. For FDA inspections, this is not an option. For audits performed by Notified Bodies, there is the possibility of suspension of a certificate in response to audit termination. Therefore, I always recommend appealing after the fact, instead of termination. Appealing also works for FDA inspections.
How to Deal with Findings
All guides and auditees should be made aware of possible findings at the time an issue is discovered. This is important so that an auditee has the opportunity to clarify the evidence being presented. Often, nonconformities are the result of miscommunication between the auditor and the auditee. This frequently happens when the auditor has a poor understanding of the process being audited. It is a tremendous waste of time for both sides when this occurs. If there is an actual nonconformity, it is also important to gather as much objective evidence as possible for the auditor to write a thorough finding and for the auditee to prepare an appropriate corrective action plan in response to the discovery.
Feedback from the Auditee
As an auditor, I always encourage auditees to provide honest feedback to me directly and to management, so that I could continue to improve. If you are giving feedback about an internal auditor or a supplier auditor, you should always give feedback directly before going to the person’s superior. You are both likely to work together in the future, and you should give the person every opportunity to hear the feedback first-hand.
When providing feedback from a third-party certification audit, you should know that there will be no negative repercussions against your company if you complain directly to the certification body. At most, the certification body will assign a new auditor for future audits and investigate the need for taking action against the auditor. In all likelihood, any action taken will be “retraining.” I never fired somebody for a single incident—unless they broke the law or did something unsafe. The key to providing feedback, however, is to be objective. Give specific examples in your complaint, and avoid personal feelings and opinions.
Complaints and Appeals
As the auditee, you should ask for the contact information of the certification body during the opening meeting. Ask with a smile—just in case you disagree, and so you can provide feedback (which might be positive). As the auditor, you should always make contact information for the certification body available. If you are conducting a supplier audit or an internal audit, you probably know the auditor’s boss, and there is perhaps no formal complaint or appeals process. In the case of a supplier audit, the customer is always right—even when they are wrong.
During the Audit
During the audit, you should always make the guide(s) and process owner(s) aware of any potential nonconformities as you find them. This is their opportunity to clarify the objective evidence for you and to explain why there is not a nonconformity. Often, at this point in the audit, I will refer to the Standard. I will identify the specific requirement(s) and show the process owner. I will say, “This is what I am trying to verify. Do you have anything that would help address this requirement?” If the process owner is unsure of how to meet the requirement, often, I will provide an example of how this requirement is addressed in other areas or at other companies.
If the audit is a multi-day audit, I will review the potential nonconformities at the end of the day and allow the auditee to provide additional objective evidence in the morning. If it is the last day of the audit, or it is a single-day audit, I will give auditees until the closing meeting to provide the objective evidence. Often, I will use this opportunity to explain what would be considered a minor nonconformity and what would be a major nonconformity. Usually, I can say, “This is not a major nonconformity because…”
The closing meeting should be conducted as scheduled, and the time/location should be communicated to upper management in the audit agenda and during the opening meeting. Top management won’t be happy about nonconformities, but failure to communicate when the closing meeting will be conducted will irritate them further.
At the closing meeting, the auditee should never be surprised. If an issue remains unfulfilled at the closing meeting, the auditee should be expecting a minor nonconformity—unless the issue warrants a major nonconformity. Since a minor nonconformity is described as “a single lapse in the fulfillment of a requirement,” it is difficult for an auditee to argue that an issue does not warrant a minor nonconformity. Typically, the argument is that you are not consistent with other auditors. The most common response to that issue is, “Audits are just a sample, and previous auditors may not have seen the same objective evidence.” The more likely scenario, however, is that the previous auditor interprets requirements, instead of reviewing requirements with the client, and ensuring both parties agree before a finding is issued.
If a finding is major, the auditee should have very few questions. Also, I often find the reason for a major nonconformity is a lack of management commitment to address the root cause of a problem. Issuing a major nonconformity is sometimes necessary to get management’s attention.
Regardless of the grading, all audit findings will require a corrective action plan—even an FDA warning letter requires a CAPA plan. Therefore, a major nonconformity is not a disaster. You just need to create a more urgent plan for action.