by Denise Robitaille
I regularly conduct training on auditor techniques. This includes guidance on the kinds of audit questions to ask, the language to use, and how to approach a topic and follow the audit trail. One of the points I emphasize deals with how we ask questions. I tell auditors-in-training that they should avoid asking closed-ended questions, that is, the kind that can yield a mere yes or no answer. Unfortunately, in recent months, I’ve become increasingly aware of just how difficult it is to conduct an interview without ever asking any “yes or no” type questions.
Therefore, I have had to modify my training a little. I’m not going to back off from the underlying tenet. It’s preferable to ask open-ended questions because it results in more productive responses, but I’m willing to concede that it’s not always easy, practical, or even possible.
Let’s review why open-ended questions are more suitable than the closed-ended alternative. Implicit in the auditing process is the chance for all parties concerned to experience learning. Auditors learn about the process and the auditees view their own activities through fresh eyes. Closed-ended questions don’t accommodate this learning scenario. The answers don’t provide any useful information. Utilized repeatedly over the course of an audit, they yield a long column of “yes” and “no” answers with no substantiation for the answers. Auditors walk away without acquiring any additional information. Any opportunity to realize improvement is lost.
In contrast, an open-ended question provides the process owner with the opportunity to elaborate on a process, creating the forum needed for an auditor to assess the auditee’s level of awareness and competence, conformance to defined requirements, the robustness of support processes, inherent risks, and effectiveness. Auditees get to describe what they do, how they do it, why they do it, and what happens next. It’s easier to perceive gaps and omissions when the auditee is not being steered toward to a simple “yes or no” response—when the answer might be: “It depends, and here are some of the conditioning factors.”
That leaves us with a conundrum: How do we limit the occurrence of closed-ended questions? The fact is, we don’t want to limit them as much as we want to exploit how and when we employ them. In monitoring my own interviewing practices, I’ve become conscious of the fact that we often use “yes or no” type questions to launch a discussion. We use them like ice breakers. “Is that where you record the data?” “Are those the documents you use?”
We can use the “yes or no” questions to tee up the rest of our inquiry. “Tell me what information you need to record and show me how you do it.” “Explain how you receive the documents and what information the documents provide.” “How do you use them?” The “yes or no” question only has value as the intro into the more in-depth discussion—the one that will provide the essentials for a successful audit.
So, my modified instruction is to use closed-ended questions sparingly and with the deliberate intent to follow them up with open-ended questions to acquire greater understanding. Got it?
About the author
Denise Robitaille is a member of the U.S. TAG to ISO/TC 176, the committee responsible for updating the ISO 9000 family of standards. She is committed to making your quality system meaningful. Through training, Robitaille helps you turn audits, corrective actions, management reviews, and processes of implementing ISO 9001 into value-added features of your company. She’s an Exemplar Global-certified lead assessor, ASQ-certified quality auditor, and ASQ Fellow. She’s the author of numerous articles and several books, including The Corrective Action Handbook, The Preventive Action Handbook, and her latest book, 9 Keys to Successful Audits, all published by Paton Professional.