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What is an Operational Audit?

By Osmand Vitez
Updated May 16, 2024
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An operational audit is a formal evaluation of the internal systems and procedures a company uses to produce goods or services. Made of at least four major steps, it tests how efficient and effective production operations are, which ultimately boosts revenue and profits. It also can reveal ethical issues in the business. External or internal accountants may perform the review, based on the needs of the business. This process has some disadvantages, such as potentially high cost, but it also offers advantages, such as new perspectives and increased risk awareness.


In general, the tools and processes a business uses to get a product or service to the public have to work as intended and be efficient. When they aren't, the company usually can't make as much money and can't be as competitive. Businesses, therefore, use these types of audits to streamline what they're doing, with the ultimate goals being to decrease waste and boost revenue and profits.

Similar to other reviews, looking at how the company is functioning overall can uncover ethical problems, such as employees using company property for personal reasons. The results of the audit let managers identify who is involved in dishonest practices, which often leads to greater accountability on the job. Companies' disciplinary and general policies often connect closely to the review for this reason.

External Auditing

Staff accountants from public accounting firms usually conduct operational audits. These professionals are not otherwise associated with the businesses they audit, so they can provide a fairly objective opinion. Stakeholders often prefer using their services to internal auditors to get information because of this lack of bias, but hiring an outsider usually is more expensive.

Internal Auditing

In some cases, it is a better option to have someone from within the company go through the review process. Companies usually turn to internal audits when executives want a more continuous picture of what's going on in the business, sometimes going through several audits each year to stay innovative and keep revenue high. Although many employees are able to be honest and objective in an operational audit, some are not. Relying on an employee to perform the job carries the risk that the ending figures or analysis won't be entirely accurate, because an individual sometimes gets a bonus or pay increase based on how good the results are.


Accountants look at administrative departments during these types of audits, as well. These areas can increase costs by employing too many individuals or having an improper workflow. Changes in teams, policies or administrative equipment sometimes result at the conclusion to fight these problems.

Cost Allocation

Cost allocation refers to the process of figuring out what a company needs to operate and determining the common price for each of those items. It usually is based on using similar materials and labor to produce goods and services consistently. These methods have to be accurate in order for the business to earn high profits. Auditors review these methods because factors such as poor quality material and untrained labor can slow production and decrease profits.

Scheduling and Time Efficiency

Operational audits focus on decreasing the amount of time needed to produce and deliver goods or services to retailers and wholesalers, because delays result in fewer sales and increased business costs. Sometimes, the problem is as simple as poor scheduling or communications, but factors like outdated equipment or a low number of employees can also contribute to slowed production. These issues are more critical because they might require drastic changes to the company's budget, policies or standard methods.

Audit Steps

Staff or internal accountants generally go through a standard set of steps when they conduct an audit of this type. In the first step, the accountant meets with leaders within the company to determine exactly what the scope of the process will be. This includes setting specific goals and objectives, as well as gathering some basic information about the business, such as its policies and history. The auditor develops a formal plan for how and when the rest of the audit will happen.

Once the auditor has some background information and knows what the process is supposed to achieve, he observes and schedules formal meetings with managers. They discuss operations in depth, including whether workers are meeting expectations. From here, the accountant moves on to similar meetings and observations of the employees, getting their side of the story and departmental details. This is the fieldwork stage of the audit.

Following the manager and employee fieldwork, the auditor goes over all the information he's collected, tests as many processes as possible and analyzes his results. He writes a report about what he found, ending with some suggestions for how the company might address any problems. Depending on the scope of the process, these reports can be quite long.

At this point, the accountant meets with managers again and presents his report, discussing its content. The business leaders have a chance to respond to the findings and provide reasons if they don't think they can carry out any of the suggestions for improvement. The auditor usually schedules a follow-up audit at this meeting or very soon after, which usually takes place about six months after the main one. The follow-up gives executives and the accountant the opportunity to see if progress has been made.


Reviewing operational processes can be very time consuming and costly. When employees and managers are working with the auditor, they can't do other activities that might benefit the business, so projects or production might slow temporarily. Sometimes, the changes that a business makes are hard for workers to get used to, which can increase conflicts or confusion.


In addition to making the business more efficient and profitable in the long run, an operational audit almost always provides a company with some new, fresh perspectives. It makes executives aware of problems that might not have been found otherwise and lets them evaluate risks for the future. Managers also can use results to motivate employees, as the company always has something to work toward at the end of the process.

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Discussion Comments
By anon180772 — On May 27, 2011

What if as an internal auditor, you empower the department managers to do their own daily, weekly, monthly audits so that they as those in the trenches are always aware of what they could be better? You know, train them to analyze their department's numbers, processes, reasonable expectations, and such. And of course, as mentioned, be open to employees' recommendations.

By miriam98 — On May 17, 2011

@allenJo - I think another problem is the gap between industry knowledge and what the auditor knows. For specialized industries, such as engineering, it becomes difficult to imagine how an auditor can improve processes except in a general sense. The employees themselves may have a better idea on how to cut costs and improve procedures, since they muck around in the trenches all day long. Therefore management needs to spend some time listening to the employees and ask for their advice, as you said.

The suggestion box needs to become more than a polite nicety. It needs to be something that really empowers employees to know that they can make a difference in how their company is run. When this kind of cooperation happens at the lower rungs then true improvements will begin.

By allenJo — On May 15, 2011

@NathanG - I agree with everything you said. None of those outcomes help the company in any way. That doesn’t mean the auditor’s job is useless or not practical. It does mean, in my humble opinion, the first order of business for a compliance auditor should be to establish trust with the employees.

He should meet with them individually and build some rapport. Most of all, his first priority should be to listen before even thinking of making suggestions. Otherwise, he will wind up making recommendations to management that get dispensed to employees but don’t get implemented, not in a way that brings meaningful improvements.

By NathanG — On May 14, 2011

In our company the problem has been more to do with egos than anything else. From the perspective of the employee, here is this auditor stepping in to evaluate processes and tell people how to do their jobs better. He has this operational audit checklist he has to tick off, and based on this he makes suggestions.

The employee either butts heads against these “suggestions,” or worse, does them out of sense of fear—thinking his job may be on the line. So a sense of panic sets in, and while he wiles away at his job duties he secretly plans an exit strategy.

By BadJohnson — On May 09, 2011

That's what I thought it was. Realistically, though, I think compliance with such audits tends to slow production, at least that's been the case in my experience.

Though I understand why they do what they do, and I'm sure that audits do prevent problems in some cases, the auditors that I have had interactions with tend to focus more on theoretical solutions that don't really work out practically in the every day running of a shop.

I'd love to hear about others people’s experiences with these things though -- maybe I just have had bad experiences.

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