Factory Quality System: What Auditors Usually Check

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As all sourcing professionals will admit, finding the right supplier is the most important step for successful China production. But how can buyers evaluate the probability that a given factory will deliver acceptable products without delay? They should perform factory audits to approve each manufacturing facility.

Buying teams, or the quality assurance firms that represent them, can perform two kinds of factory audits:
  • Audit to quality standards: overview of the factory (organisation, processes, capacity…) and study of its quality system
  • Social audit: study of the factory’s labour policy and/or any other issue relevant to the client (i.e. the environment…).

This article focuses on the evaluation of the quality system. Auditors generally follow a standard checklist inspired by the requirements of the ISO 9000 series. The vast majority of Chinese factories—including many of the so-called 'ISO 9000 certified' ones—will fall short on at least a few checkpoints. Buyers who need acceptable products shipped on time will easily weed out the most unreliable manufacturers, which will fail on most points.

The checklist below is only a suggestion, and each buyer is encouraged to customise it to their needs. Take the time to apply it in several factories and you will have a clear picture of who you want to work with.

Part 1 of the checklist: What you should check as a priority

Understanding the buyer's requirements
Does the factory have a clear list of all desired characteristics of a product, before production starts?
Is it clearly specified how each characteristic should be measured?
Are conform samples available to workers in production and QC areas?

Suppliers of inputs
How does the factory evaluate and select material suppliers?
Do they communicate the requirements accurately to material suppliers?
Do they check whether a purchased product is up to specifications? How?
Do they send samples for lab tests? How often and for what tests?
Are materials properly stored?

In-house production

Does the factory give clear procedures to each worker and for each job (including the QC staff)?
How do they validate that each production process achieves the desired results?
Do they do in-process QC? On what proportion of products? What do they do with the data collected this way (corrective/preventive actions)? What happens to pieces found to be defective?
How do they ensure that measuring instruments are available and correctly used?
Do the operators control their own work?
Is there regular training?

Subcontracted production
Are materials delivered directly to subcontractors? How are they checked?
How does the factory control the work of the subcontractor(s)?
What do they check about the subcontractors' operations?

Final QC
What proportion of products is checked? How are they checked? Does it include packing?
Is there one last inspection based on AQL statistics? Based on what level of AQL?
What happens when non-conformities are detected?

Part 2 of the checklist: What you can check if you have some extra time

Accepting an order
How does the factory decide whether it can make a product and meet all the customer’s requirements?
And how do they validate a change in the product or the packaging asked by the customer?
Can they explain the process and the decision makers?
Can they give an example of a product they have recently refused to make?

Sampling
When the factory prepares some prototypes/samples, how does it make sure that the resulting product can meet all the customer’s requirements in bulk production?
Do they also make a prototype for the packaging at an early stage?
How are approved samples stored? Are they protected?

Instruments and machines
How does the factory determine what monitoring and measurements should be undertaken?
How do they ensure that measurement devices are calibrated and verified at specified intervals?
How often are production machines maintained and calibrated?

Prevention

Does the factory determine the root causes of non-conformities, and what actions do they take so that they don’t occur again?
Do they determine potential non-conformities and take preventive actions?

Note about supporting evidence:
For every checkpoint, the factory should present corresponding documents. You should be able to form an opinion by yourself, for example by counting the QC staff or observing some workers. Don’t just ask questions in a meeting room—go and check! Chinese factories are often tempted to say “yes we always do this, but we cannot show you records today because [reason XYZ]”. In 95% of cases, this is a lie and the records either don’t exist or are not kept properly.

The inability to present supporting elements in a timely manner, in itself, is not acceptable—make sure you mention it to them before the audit.

Note about the role of factory audits:
Being shown a nice workshop is not enough. Subcontracting is very, very common in China. Many suppliers are not transparent about this issue. Therefore importers are strongly advised to check where their orders are produced. They can send an employee or a third-party inspector to check the goods during production. Another advantage of this is that quality issues are noticed and corrective actions can be taken early.


Renaud Anjoran is the founder of Sofeast Quality Control, a third-party QC firm specializing in garments and textiles in China. He also writes on the Quality Inspection blog. You can contact him at info@sofeast.com. 

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