I’ve had quite a bit of experience with both announced and unannounced audits. This has included BRCGS audits and retailer audits including ASDA, Morrisons, TESCO, Sainsbury’s, etc. I prefer unannounced audits, but I can see why a lot of people are more comfortable with announced.
The prospect of unannounced audits seems to have a positive effect on quality culture and compliance. I’d say there’s a commercial perception that the reason to be compliant is to achieve positive audit outcomes, so when audits are planned in advance, compliance is prioritised at the time of the audit…. Which logically means compliance is (to some degree) deprioritised at other times. When audits are unannounced, there’s less of an incentive in favour of these peaks and troughs in compliance throughout the year.
Systematically and culturally, it seems like companies that go for unannounced audits often have better cross-functional ownership of quality and compliance. Knowing that auditors could arrive at any moment makes it a necessity for each department to maintain standards on a constant basis – especially since auditors will want to enter the factory shortly after arriving on site. The perception that ‘audits are a quality function’ is challenged quite effectively with unannounced.
I’ve seen sites that have announced audits spend a month and a half in the run-up to the audit date doing practically all of the planned preventative maintenance on equipment, updating employees’ training records and making sure supplier approvals haven’t expired. That ‘preparation phase’ happens annually like clockwork for as long as planned audits are scheduled in advance – whereas sites that opt for unannounced generally do a better job of year-round compliance.
For the same reason, it can be financially inefficient to go for announced audits because companies often find themselves employing interims or consultants to help with audit prep, and that day rate can surpass a team member’s salary in a very short period.
There are downsides to unannounced audits. I was once working at a site that sold products to multiple retail customers and we had 2 different retailers arrive for unannounced audits on the same day, for example. From an individual perspective, I’ve taken my first sip of coffee and been interrupted by a call to inform me that auditors have just arrived at reception – and if you’re used to knowing in advance when the auditors are going to turn up then that’s just part of the adjustment.
Overall, my experience is that unannounced audits take some of the pressure off the quality department because you end up with better ownership and standards throughout the organisation on a more consistent basis. You can end up with consistently better standards and less stress about compliance because the nature of the audit process demands that responsibility and accountability for compliance is well-defined throughout all functions and departments.
Companies that do not have a culture supporting quality ownership will generally do less well with unannounced audits compared to announced audits, but under those circumstances I’d say it’s better to develop the culture than stick with announced audits.