What is an effective Assurance Programme?

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The term “Assurance Programme” gets thrown about quite a bit. Sadly, this is the aspect of the management system that I consistently see ISO 9001 certified organisations struggling with. In this article we’ll explore why we need an effective assurance programme and what this means for your organisation.

Terminology

ISO 9000 is the International Standard for Quality Management Systems – Fundamentals and Vocabulary. Clause 3.3.6 defines “quality assurance” as “part of quality management focused on providing confidence that quality requirements will be fulfilled”. 

An assurance programme is a set of assurance activities planned for specific timeframes and directed for a specific purpose.

Where does the requirement come from?

There is no specific ISO 9001 clause that speaks to Quality Assurance directly, but it is intrinsically implied (just like with Quality Control).  They are both two factors that form part of Quality Management. In a previous article we discussed the difference between Quality Assurance and Quality Control. In case you missed it, you can access this article here.

ISO 9001 clause 8 (Operation), clause 9 (Performance Evaluation) and clause 10 (Improvement) is where the bulk of the information related to Assurance can be identified. Considering our definition of Quality Assurance, these clauses are mainly concerned with:

  • Identification of requirements
  • Design & Development of products and services
  • Implementing controls
  • Release of products and services
  • Taking action if things go wrong
  • Evaluating performance; and,
  • Continual Improvement

A good assurance programme will be born from risk-based-thinking to concentrate on areas with low confidence that requirements will be fulfilled and trigger targeted improvement efforts where it’s needed most.

What are assurance activities?

Most people think “internal audit” when they hear the word “assurance”. Yes, it’s true that internal audits are a small piece of the puzzle, but it’s about much more than just that. Some examples of planned assurance activities include:

  • Review ongoing effectiveness and suitability of Quality Control activities
  • External provider (supply chain) inspection, surveillance, external audit and performance assessment.
  • Internal audit of corporate and project specific management systems
  • Work process control audits to evaluate how effectively work process controls are implemented in practice
  • Monitor and measure processes through inspection and surveillance
  • Monitor and measure products through inspection and surveillance
  • Monitor and measure customer satisfaction
  • Validation and Verification of results
  • Analysis and Evaluation of data
  • Management review; and,
  • Risk assessment.

As you can see, there’s a quite a bit that goes into an effective assurance programme. To execute it well, and obtain returns on the effort and investment, you need a strategic and targeted approach. This needs to be undertaken by a person with the skills, competency and resources to get through the work load and be able to pull the data together to paint you the bigger picture.

Barriers to success

As mentioned earlier, it’s not very often that I see this aspect of the management system delivered effectively by organisations. This responsibility is usually assigned to a senior manager such as a Quality Manager or similar. These types of managers are often subject matter experts for the industry they operate within (e.g. qualified engineer in construction) but are not usually management system experts. This is a niche profession.

Additionally, these managers have so many responsibilities that they get stuck in the daily “doing” and assurance often falls off to the sidelines. It’s not desirable, but it is the sad reality. Assurance gets misunderstood and misrepresented as a time sucking endeavor or at best a “nice to have”. This is a real shame because this approach misses huge opportunities and unrealised benefits (spoiler alert…this is the topic of our next article).

Case study: an example of an effective Assurance Programme

I’d like to share with you a real example of a contractor in the construction industry that developed and implemented an effective assurance programme. At the time, they had two active projects under construction and were tendering for three more. Project A was newly awarded, and approximately 20% complete. Project B was a mature contract and at 75% complete. The scope of works for each active project was similar, and the contractor relied on some key external providers as follows:

  • Traffic Control
  • Drainage specialist
  • Crane hire
  • Earthmoving plant
  • Aggregate supply
  • Concrete supply; and,
  • Survey specialist

Their Assurance Programme was broken into four tiers:

  1. Corporate
  2. Project A
  3. Project B
  4. Tenders

Each tier had a customised set of planned assurance activities as follows:

Corporate

  • 6 monthly corporate management system internal audit
  • 12 monthly Certification surveillance
  • 12 monthly management review
  • 3 monthly monitoring and measurement of customer satisfaction

Project A

  • One initial kick-off internal audit of project specific management system
  • 6 monthly internal audit of project specific management system
  • Monthly review of operational risk assessment
  • Procurement assessment and selection desktop audit for each externally required resource
  • 3 monthly external provider performance assessment
  • External audits on all external providers, within first three months of commencement on site, ongoing activities and frequencies determined by risk assessment and performance assessment results, may be reduced to surveillance or inspections.
  • Work process control audits, within first month of each work process, ongoing frequencies determined by operational risk assessment, critical path programme and nonconformity data
  • Monthly Work lot verification audits, baseline of 20% of all lots closed, frequency increasing or decreasing as determined by risk assessment
  • Monthly analysis and evaluation of data
  • Monthly project management review

Project B

This project included all the activities during the contract lifecycle as per Project A, however due to the contract maturity, completion and handover of the project is now a significant factor in quality requirements. Therefore, the contractor added in assurance activities such as contractual completion deliverable audits every six weeks for its external providers and also on itself. They also implemented defect work process audits and surveillance.

Tender

Winning work is really important, but you don’t want to reinvent the wheel. Assurance activities were conducted to ensure that lessons learned were adequately incorporated into the new tenders so mistakes didn’t recur.

Where to now?

At this point you might be thinking “I don’t have the time to do this myself” or “we don’t have the resources to be this detailed”. While you’re not alone in feeling this way, my question is can you afford not to do it? Here are three solutions you could consider:

  1. Reorganise or delegate – perhaps you have a team member already that could be reallocated or trained to provide you with some support and share the work load
  2. Hire new talent – engage in a recruitment specialist to help you find the perfect candidate to be your organisational assurance champion; or,
  3. Outsource – at the risk of sounding mildly self-serving, this makes up a large portion of our services. We specialise in the establishment, implementation and improvement of customised assurance programmes that we know will work. Wouldn’t it be nice to know that an expert is taking care of this for you? We do all the heavy lifting, undertake all activities and provide you with the final results of each activity. It’s a simple, easy and cost effective solution that will get your organisation or projects back to improving your profit margins.

If you would like some help to handle your assurance programme needs, get in contact with us today for a no obligation free discussion about your needs.

Karice Grundon PCQI, 01 April 2021

Karice Grundon PCQI is an experienced Certified Lead Auditor and Management System designer across several ISO standards, a mentor for emerging auditors in the profession and the Director and Principal Consultant of Integrated Management & Assurance Solutions Pty Ltd. If you would like to learn more about Karice or get in contact, you can do so through LinkedIn or directly through our company website . You can subscribe to our blog below to stay up to date on our latest content. If you liked this article, please leave us a comment or share amongst your network. Thanks for reading!

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