by Peter Holtmann.
Here’s an inflammatory statement I keep hearing about auditor competence: “Good” auditors are in short supply and there are many auditors out there who shouldn’t be auditing. Is this statement accurate? If so, should we be focusing less on auditors in the field and more on experts to support their work?
You can’t lob a grenade like that into the middle of the room and not expect a dramatic reaction. When I press people for real-life examples or ask why they didn’t report it to us (Exemplar Global) to investigate, they look like the proverbial deer caught in the headlights.
So what’s behind the comment and is it really justified? Does it also point to a repurposing of the audit population where there are fewer auditors and more technical experts?
Let’s investigate some of these questions.
Auditor competence: The super audit and the uber auditor
Why are people so emotional about auditors and the work they are doing, and why are the opinions so polarized? It stems, in part, from the bleed of audits and the people conducting them.
Third-party audits are no longer the realm of the employed certification body auditor. We see second-party supplier auditors doing the same work, using the same standards, but achieving different outcomes. This creates all kinds of issues in the market with one auditor over-auditing another’s work, finding different issues, and then justifying the differences to the customer as “I did a more thorough job.” In truth, the second auditor can’t make that claim as the audit is a sample of events from a specific time period. To compare audits is akin to comparing the weather on two consecutive days.
So the start of the issue is auditors not supporting the profession and not educating customers about how conditions and auditing sampling can vary. But that’s not the end of the matter of auditor competence.
We have the rise of the super audit, where auditors are working on 3-5 standards at once. Most of these standards are private, interlaced with components of global standard requirements. Sound confusing? Definitively.
Now imagine the report write-up. Auditors are doing too much in a single audit. They usually aren’t in a team environment where the load can be shared, so they have to manage the audit outcomes as best they can, increasing the potential that something might get missed.
Finally, it’s the application of the auditor to the audit outcome that needs attention. We all know majority of our auditors are in the 55+ age group, who are retiring at a rate not matched by the addition of newer auditors. When they retire they are taking their knowledge with them. This leads to auditors moving into fields that they are not qualified to audit. So while the process of auditing is similar, the detailed knowledge to problem solving comes from the years of experience gained working in and around the processes. That’s like asking a house painter to paint an aircraft. Sure the paint is the common element here but the process of application is not.
In essence, we are creating “bad” auditors and losing “good” ones. We are trying to use the remaining auditors in ways that are unsustainable and causing great harm to our profession. This must change, rapidly. The registrars and CABs as much as the auditors themselves must own it.
Auditor competence: The future auditor
Let’s look at the future now. We will soon have too many auditors doing the same thing, with far too few doing the right things that affect great change. Before you raise your torches and pitchforks let me explain.
The need for second-party auditors to do third-party audits is totally unnecessary. Second-party audits should focus on proprietary content only.
A good example is the food industry. Second-party standard owners should be concerned with matters of labelling, packaging, branding, and supply. They should not be focused on food safety fundamentals. Imagine having your car serviced at your local dealer, then driving your car to the next dealer on the same day and having it serviced again. It’s unnecessary and expensive.
Standard owners need to agree on shared content and principles and not impose more of the same on the manufacturer. The systems must reduce complexity and make it possible to recognize another standard as meeting requirements. Using another metaphor, it’s like reading the same weather report in two different newspapers because you are trying to get a different viewpoint.
A good way to facilitate this is to talk in terms of risk in the process and the effect it will have on the outcomes of the product or service. From there you can assign audit type, duration, standard, and auditor.
This model is already reducing the demand on the auditor. Let’s extrapolate it one step further. Let’s agree on a common report format across multiple standards in the same field. I know of at least three or four studies that have done the comparisons and have found a minimum of 80 percent compatibility of outcomes. If we report on this first, we could spend more time on the 20 percent that has a different approach or lens.
Now we are reducing the number of audits in the field and reducing the demand for auditors. Let’s focus on the function of the auditor. What do we really want them doing? Do they need to be working independently or even as a second-party team of auditors onsite? Perhaps not. There are competent, capable resources both at hand on the customer site and externally as technical experts who can assist the auditor reach an outcome onsite. It will definitely accelerate the process, share vital technical knowledge, and cross-pollinate information between colleagues.
We then need to look at how to utilize the incoming stream of auditors. They won’t have the years of experience currently demanded and they won’t have the technical competence or specialization, but they will be competent in following the audit process. How much of the process they perform needs to be debated and allocated to auditor grades. Should the provisional auditor get to interview, observe processes, review records, and report findings? I think so. Do they get to make determinations on compliance or conformance? Most likely not.
Again, we have so many models from other industries to draw on here to make this work. Accountants and financial auditors, forensic auditors, Six Sigma work groups, and so on. Why aren’t we applying this to our profession? I believe the more expertise at hand for an audit the better the outcome.
Auditor competence: Cost!
There will be some readers who believe it is prohibitively expensive to do this and the model will not hold water. What if the collaborative approach doesn’t require all audit personnel engaged in the process all of the time? What if they drop in and out of the process as needed and the main coordination still falls to the lead auditor? What if the team never need visit the site at all and can instead use remote operations to perform their functions?
Technology is on our side. Embrace it! Reduce the financial burden through smarter processes, and improve the outcome through much smarter collaboration. It’s definitely achievable.
The Wind Up
We are asking too much of a diminishing pool of experts who are taking their lifetime of skills and technical competence with them. We are relying on the remaining professionals to do much more with much less. We are not innovating our space to build sustainability.
We can make great change, save a profession, build confidence in outcomes, and better engage resources to deliver more.
Too many chiefs (auditors) not enough Indians (technical resources)? Yes.
I encourage others to share their opinions about this vision. Please share your thoughts in the comments section below.
About the author
Peter Holtmann is president and CEO of Exemplar Global (formerly RABQSA International Inc.) and has more than 10 years of experience in the service and manufacturing industries. He received his bachelor’s degree in chemistry from the University of Western Sydney in Australia and has worked in industrial chemicals, surface products, environmental testing, pharmaceutical, and nutritional products. Holtmann has served on various international committees for the National Food Processors Association in the United States and on the Safe Quality Foods auditor certification review board.
TAG: auditor competence.