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How to Conduct Internal Audits of Your Environmental Management System

Does your EMS sit in a box on a shelf and look pretty or does it have the stains, dings and scars of your favorite drill? ISO14001, the International Standard Organization’s environmental management system standard is, in the end, only a toolbox for the C-suite to achieve the desired results of the business; be that cost containment, compliance perfection, or an improved public image. What varies from organization to organization is the use of ISO’s tools.

“Inspect what you expect” is a common-knowledge precept among managers, especially for those concerned with producing a product or service that meets customer requirements. The same can be said for meeting a company’s environmental goals.

If an environmental management system is a living, breathing organism, then internal audits are the central nervous system and, well crafted and supported, they tell top management what processes are working throughout the organization and what are not.

I often refer to EMS as the “Everything-else Management System”, by which I mean that if “it” (whatever the subject may be) is not directly related to the quality of the product or service that satisfies your customer  and keeps your workers safe, then “it” is an environmental issue in two steps or less.

Think of it this way: if all pollution is waste and all waste is pollution then anywhere you can reduce, reuse, recycle or use more environmentally friendly material you have improved your environmental impact and your sustainability as an organization. If you implement a purchasing policy that all office furniture has to be made from certified sustainable forests, for example, then you have stepped out of the crowd that destroys forests and the creatures therein. If you streamline a bureaucratic data processing system, you have saved electricity, time and manpower. If you install a wind-turbine on the back lot, solar panels on the roof, cisterns under the parking lot, geothermal heat pumps, and paint the building a cheery bright green with photo-catalytic paint then you’ve done even more.

But a common mistake I often see in certified environmental management systems is an organization that does not identify the driving mission of the EMS and the processes that accomplish the mission.

If the driving mission of your EMS is maintaining perfect compliance then the processes – and people – who perform those functions are each critical to your mission.

Similarly, if the driving focus of your EMS is cost containment and you are not monitoring and measuring the fluid that leaks from your machines, you cannot control the cost of fluid replacement, clean-up, and disposal (not to mention slips, trips and other OSHA reportables).

The establishment of key performance indicators for environmental processes is no different than establishing KPI’s for production controls, product inspections, scrap rates, product delivery and customer satisfaction. And just as in production control, potential failure or breakdowns in the environmental management processes need to be identified, monitored and prevented.

What you monitor and what you measure is what you control and what you improve.

Let’s say for the sake of example that your organization has determined that to be competitive in the marketplace a “green” image is an advantage. How do you maximize your sustainability and communicate that to customers and suppliers without investing the capital for new technology?

Start with purchasing and ask: have we evaluated what we buy based on a set of standardized, systematic environmentally sustainable criteria? Do we buy recycled content material? Have we evaluated our suppliers for their commitment to preventing pollution, compliance with applicable laws and continuous improvement of their management systems? Do we choose a supplier with a certified management system over one without or is price the only consideration? What are the indicators that tell me my team is performing to my expectations?

Administration activities do impact the environment and must be considered. Natural resources consumed by electricity, paper, heating, cooling, furniture, fixtures, equipment, and travel all play an important role in determining that your organization is not drawing more from the earth than the earth can sustain. As the business plan evolves and changes do we consider environmental impacts? And again, what is that data that indicate the processes are in or out of control?

Key performance indicators and critical failure points must be as integral to the environmental management system and internal audit program as they are to the quality system, but sadly are often not.

Without the clarity of a road-map drawn from processes central to the business plan and the mile markers of KPI’s, internal audits become an exercise to satisfy outsiders, not top managers or drivers of business improvement. Under the best of circumstances internal audits provide objective feedback and suggestions for improvement that allow top management to make intelligent, business-positive decisions. Under other circumstances, internal audits can be a waste of time and resources.

The failure of internal audit programs is the failure to identify what is important environmentally to the organization. Inspect what you expect but first, be clear as to what you expect.

Lynn B. Jean is owner and principal of Best Impressions Environmental Management Systems.

Lynn B. Jean
Lynn B. Jean is owner and principal of Best Impressions Environmental Management Systems.
 
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3 thoughts on “How to Conduct Internal Audits of Your Environmental Management System

  1. Thanks Lynn for providing that little bit of inspiration as we set of on our auditing programme within our company. a great common sense piece – I like the ‘inspect what you expect’ comment – really good.

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