Home Resources Blog February 2017

Guidance on the Assessment Process

22 February 2017
NQA Assessor Terry Fisher puts pen to paper and provides some useful and light-hearted guidance on the assessment process from our perspective.

After two decades of being assessed as a client and feeling the anxiety build as the assessment date approaches. Can I just mention that, assessors too get assessed by UKAS (our accreditation body in the UK) and we know it is only natural to feel a little anxious and apprehensive; we are, after all only human!

I have experienced assessments which I just wanted to end with a host of findings I would have rather not be identified and others which were better than I expected.

In recent years I have changed sides and am now a Regional Assessor for NQA. I feel this allows me to empathise with clients and hopefully provide an appropriate level of support and judgement when undertaking assessments.

So, with this in mind, I thought I would put pen to paper and hopefully provide some useful and light-hearted guidance on the assessment process from our perspective.

Pre-assessment preparation & planning

It may sound obvious, but clients should always have available to them, a copy of the relevant standard/s – all too often this is not the case, and discussion then develops into the reasons why a particular element or requirement is applicable to them.

As assessors, we are not permitted to consult and therefore are unable to give details as to how a requirement can be achieved – but we can explain what the requirement is trying to achieve within the management system.

If the visit is not an initial visit, and a previous visit report has been completed – please review it, as this will give you an insight in to the assessment process and the details of what was reviewed previously. It may contain details of any positive observations or opportunities for improvement as well as identified weaknesses in the management system.

Remember you are your business’s expert and your level of knowledge for your organisation will be far greater than the assessors – if you don’t show and tell us, we can only assess what is put in front of us.

If weaknesses have been found previously (either minor or major) you need to understand the current status of these findings and have the details to hand during the next scheduled assessment. It is one of the first things we will ask about.

An existing report, will also detail what we intend to review and the approximate timescales – this schedule can be flexed to accommodate business needs and changes in staffing and operations. The schedule however, is only a guide and can be subject to change both from the company and the assessor view. It is intended to allow you and the assessor to prepare for the visit – please use the information appropriately to plan the visit and make the required arrangements.

A previous report will also identify a long term audit plan covering numerous assessments and may include different operations and sites – on a visit by visit basis. It is there to help both parties.
It will also identify mandatory items for each visit (Management review and internal audits are examples of these). We will need to see documented information for these at each visit, so don’t be surprised.

The assessment

As assessors, we are looking for compliance (this may be contrary to popular belief), but it is true.
We don’t need to find things to justify our existence – when we follow an audit trial we want to achieve a positive compliance with the standard or business requirement.

From the clients view, please be open and honest with your assessor, we are not making judgements on individuals, but on the capabilities of the management system to deliver the expected outcomes and policy of the company. It is better for the company, if we find something that needs improvement rather than the customer, or external enforcement agency – it will also benefit the company in the long-term.

Don’t be afraid to ask questions and ask for explanations of the requirements as you go – don’t think it will make you look silly, it is better to understand what we are trying to establish and why.

You may not always agree with the answer but you should understand the requirement. It may be the assessor does not fully understand your organisation and needs more information on how it works within your company.

Most assessors will want to sample processes examples at random, as they go, so it isn’t always beneficial to prepare a lot of examples beforehand, although some can be useful to demonstrate how the process works.

Try and have an understanding where in your organisation information is for a particular requirement. It may not always be in a single place but can be gathered as the assessment progresses. The assessor will ask for more information or examples as they go and may make links to a range of requirements from a single area of operations.

Try and link the information before the assessment – it will help you on the day.

If the assessor uses terms or phrases you are not familiar with – then ask for clarification – you need to know. Standards are not always written in everyday language. It will work both ways – your assessor may ask you to explain a term or phrase you use within your company, which they may not be familiar with.

We understand that although we would love everything to be straightforward and link together without a hitch – assessments are rarely like that, so please be patient with assessors when we need to recap or need to go back to an item for clarification later. This is so  we from our part understand you better; therefore you may need to get more information to help evidence your process.

The closing meeting should not contain surprises for either the client or the assessor. All issues identified or raised should have been clarified within the assessment. If you don’t understand the findings or phrases used – don’t suffer in silence. Please just ASK!

The assessment report

Please bear in mind when reading your report, it is not only written for you and the assessor – it is used for NQA staff and potentially UKAS to review the effectiveness of the assessment activity. It can include information which is obvious to you and the assessor, but needs to be included in written terms within the report to provide background or context to the text.
As the introduction of revised Management System standards is gaining momentum and commercially there is a great deal of uncertainty in the air, management systems are designed to assist and help your business, whatever its scale or sector.

NQA – is there to help and ‘Never Stop Improving’.

Author: Terry Fisher, NQA Regional Assessor