by Kevin Posey
The different Bodies of Knowledge for auditors indicate that interviewing is a core competency for all certified auditors, yet it is still considered one of the profession’s more challenging responsibilities. In addition, there aren’t many training offerings that outline interview concepts or demonstrate practical applications of interview techniques or discussions of real world scenarios in any length. Recent articles in Quality Progress magazine on the appreciative inquiry (AI) method have offered interesting ideas on applying new interviewing techniques to quality auditing. This article seeks to expand and elaborate on how the AI method can be used effectively by certified auditors.
The following statement from Shu Liu is very provocative: “Appreciative inquiry is the study of what gives life to human systems when they function at their best. This approach to personal change and organizational change is based on the assumptions that questions and dialogue about strengths, successes, values, hopes and dreams are themselves transformational.” The primary benefit for AI according to James Ludema, David Cooperrider, and Frank Barrett of the Center for Appreciative Inquiry is “in the change of language; shifting from vocabularies of deficit (or nonconformance) to conversations of possibility that are unlocked by the unconditional positive questions of the method.”
Other benefits of AI are that it:
- Releases positive conversation within the organization. Unconditional positive questions ignite a virtual explosion of constructive conversations that refocus an organization’s attention away from problems and toward hopeful, energizing possibilities.
- Builds an ever-expanding web of inclusion and positive relationships. An increasing number of voices are included in conversations that highlight strengths, assets, hopes, and dreams. Respect, understanding, and strong relational bonds are formed.
- Creates self-reinforcing learning communities. As positive vocabularies multiply, people strengthen their capacity to put possibilities into practice. Organizational members learn increasingly sophisticated vocabularies for doing things in new ways.
In his book Smooth Approach (ASQ Quality Press, 2008), Jon Morris discussed more specifically how the AI methodology can apply to and enhance a company’s audit program and help it move beyond compliance to greater efficiency, effectiveness, and continuous improvement. Specifically, Morris showed that AI can help the audit process deliver more value and do it earlier in the audit process. He also showed that AI methods helped address and change previously negative opinions of the audit process, leading to more open dialogue and improvement opportunities. Most importantly, all the prior benefits were gained with no sacrifice of compliance to regulations or standards.
So, how do we apply the AI method to our audit program, and where does it make sense to apply it? For multiple reasons, AI does not fit well with the objective of third-party certification, compliance, or regulatory audits, and may not be the preferred method for second-party audits for supplier assessment or corrective action. However, AI methods fit well wherever efficiency, effectiveness, or continual improvement is valued, desired, or even required. This is especially true for internal audits and second-party supplier audits when strategic partnerships and growth are valued over simple economic considerations.
Let’s look at some audit interview questions that have been adapted from the Appreciative Interview Protocol developed by Ludema, Cooperrider, and Barrett. One quick and intuitive way to begin is to use organic metaphors for the process or organization, such as seeing the process or organization as a river, or a fruit tree. These metaphors and AI-based interview questions can help stimulate the positive questions and responses.
Some other examples or guidelines for forming AI questions for your organization:
- Think of a time in your involvement in (process, area, department, or division) when you have felt most excited, or most engaged.
- What were the forces and factors that made it a great experience?
- What was it about you, others, and your organization that made it a peak experience for you?
- How can we apply this to another (process, area, department, or division)?
- What do you value or enjoy most about (process, area, department, or division)?
- What are your organization’s best practices in (process, area, department, or division)?
- Are they consistently applied across all (processes, areas, departments, or divisions)?
- What are the unique aspects of your culture that most positively affect the effectiveness or continual improvement of (process, area, department, or division) and its work?
- What is the core factor that “gives life” to your (process, area, department, division)?
- Tell me about a time when finding and correcting a problem with the (process, area, department, or division) saved the day.
The purpose of our AI questions is to allow collection and analysis of the best of “what is” information, and create a bridge to the future “might be” state. We might also call our AI interview questions a series of provocative propositions or critical key questions. For example:
- “What if revealing system efficiency, effectiveness, and best practices was just as likely as finding nonconformaties?”
- “What if the act of asking audit questions began a process of change for the better?”
- “What if audit results became a key input to the CEO’s strategic plan?”
In summary, AI is a powerful tool for forming and phrasing audit interview questions to elicit objective evidence of efficiency, effectiveness, and continual improvement. Further, the AI method is perfectly suited to assist the organization in defining the “might be” state of improved operations. AI methods also address a fundamental weakness of conformance- or compliance-based auditing by providing tools for evaluating whether a quality management system has been implemented and maintained effectively, especially in an environment of limited resources.
AI audits are also ideally suited to assist the organization in identifying, spreading, and propelling best practices, as well as encouraging continual improvement. Best of all, AI can accomplish all of the above without sacrificing conformance to regulations or standards.
About the author
Kevin Posey is a quality and regulatory executive consultant with international experience in quality management, product development, manufacturing, and regulatory approval for medical devices, defense and aerospace, mining and exploration, and industrial equipment and controls. He also consults, trains, writes, and speaks on quality management, auditing, innovation, and medical devices. His undergraduate degree is in aerospace engineering, to which he has added an MBA in international business. Kevin is the Education and Training Chair for the ASQ Audit Division, a founding member of the Innovation Interest Group, and an ASQ Senior Member, with certifications as a Quality Auditor, Biomedical Auditor, Manager of Quality and Operational Excellence, Quality Engineer, Software Quality Engineer, and Six Sigma Green Belt.