Do you get the heebie-jeebies just thinking about your plant certification audit? Here’s the secret for nixing those exam jitters: Know what to expect and how to respond.
By Phillip Cutler, P.E.
We often hear plant reactions to certification audits, and most are based on fear of the unknown: “What will the auditor find?” “How will they grade us on our critical requirements?” In rare cases, plants may not be prepared for their inspections and worry that they will end up on probation – or worse yet fail their inspection altogether. But from NPCA staff experience, there is no need to be stressed when the auditor arrives for your annual plant inspection.
So, what can you expect on the day of your unannounced plant inspection? Here are some tried-and-true tips to take the anxiety out of plant-certification audits.
How are auditors qualified?
You can expect that the the third-party auditors have been thoroughly trained in the NPCA Plant Certification Program and your expectations of the plant inspection. They know the proper conduct for an NPCA auditor and are well-versed in the content and program requirements in the NPCA QC Manual. NPCA plant auditors receive face-to-face training each year. If the auditors do not attend annual training, they will not be allowed to perform plant inspections for NPCA during the subsequent inspection year. Auditor training is conducted prior to the beginning of annual inspections for a given year by members of the NPCA Quality Assurance Committee and NPCA technical staff in a classroom setting and in an operating precast plant.
What to expect on “test day”
On the day the auditors arrive for your annual unannounced inspection, expect that they will typically arrive early in the morning and ask to speak to someone in plant management. They will introduce themselves to you, explain the purpose of their visit and briefly describe what they will be doing throughout their visit.
Some precast concrete plants require that a staff liaison accompany and assist the auditors. Other production facilities simply let the auditors go about their business. In either case, expect auditors to inquire about access to the plant’s internet and the availability of a printer to provide hard copies of the preliminary report. Arrangements are made for the close-out interview at the end of the day.
Following introductions, most auditors will ask to tour the plant to get a general overview and feel for the size and layout of the facility and to organize their thoughts prior to diving in. As most plants are stripping out first thing in the morning, the initial walk-through may incorporate an extended visit to the production areas in order to view post-pour operations.
Throughout the day, expect the auditor to spend time in each area of the plant and to take a detailed look at plant records. Auditors should spend the bulk of the day on the floor witnessing plant processes, balanced with the appropriate amount of time looking at records and the plant-specific QC manual.
Get answers to any problems
Primarily, the auditors are at your plant to perform your annual inspection. However, it is also an opportunity for you and plant personnel to ask questions about your specific processes and request that the auditors explain any specific suggestions, improvements or experiences that may be helpful to you and your staff. Certification program requirements do not allow auditors to make specific recommendations on how to pass audit requirements in a professional consulting capacity. In training, however, auditors are permitted and encouraged to share their expertise and experiences with the plant by offering a variety of suggestions for solving a problem or improving plant processes.
Make sure that you take full advantage of this opportunity to share your own experiences and obtain the auditors’ perspective for manufacturing quality precast concrete products.
Make the exit interview work for you!
Now, about that exit interview, here are some typical staff reactions:
“Hey, I noticed that you gave us a deficiency for missing aggregate gradations – what gives?”
“The last auditor in my plant said we were all good!”
“Why are you giving me this as a deficiency and they didn’t?”
Have you ever asked questions like these of your NPCA auditor? My guess is most precasters have had similar questions at one time or another. Make good use of the exit interview! Getting answers to your specific questions or concerns is one of the most important reasons why the exit interview is such an integral part of annual plant inspections.
The printed preliminary report provided at the end of the inspection day (or the hard copy of handwritten deficiencies if your internet server is down or if the auditors have been refused access) is the basis for a constructive and successful exit interview. This is why it is to your advantage to graciously invite the auditor to print and distribute his or her preliminary report.
The exit interview is your moment to ask the auditors to explain why the plant’s processes were evaluated in a particular way. It’s your last chance to submit evidence of compliance with a particular requirement. The exit interview is an opening to clarify any plant-specific issues with the auditors and to share your experience and perspective on quality production practices.
Use that preliminary report to your advantage!
The preliminary report represents – quite closely – the final report the plant will receive from NPCA upon completion of a supervisory review by the inspection agency’s principal auditor. Thus, the exit interview is the plant’s sole opportunity to affect change in the final outcome of the audit.
If there happens to be a disagreement between the plant and the auditors on a particular requirement that cannot be resolved, plants are encouraged not to sign the exit interview sheet or to make specific notations expressing contention with certain aspects of the audit. Disagreement is not a bad thing, it is simply a difference of opinion, and within the program there is a framework for an appeal process to resolve these issues. The appeals process will be addressed in a subsequent Precast Inc. “Quality Assurance” article.
Remember, like most things in life, you get out of the audit what you put into it.
For additional information or questions please contact Phillip Cutler at [email protected] or (317) 571-9500, or toll-free at (800) 366-7731.
Phillip Cutler, P.E., is NPCA’s director of Technical Services.