by Denise Robitaille
I’ve discovered over the last few years that well-written history is as compelling and engaging as good fiction. Recent readings include The River of Doubt by Candice Millard, a recounting of Theodore Roosevelt’s exploration of a tributary of the Amazon River; 1776 by David McCollough, about the American war for independence; and James Madison and the Struggle for the Bill of Rights by Richard Labunski, which chronicles the circuitous path that lead to the adoption of the most momentous amendments to the U.S. Constitution.
What’s so special about all these books? Despite the fact that we already know the outcome, the stories they tell are gripping and spellbinding. Roosevelt’s arduous trek left his fate often dubious, although history tells us he survived the ordeal and lived another five years. 1776, in particular, was an intriguing page-turner, notwithstanding the little voice in my head that whispered, “Denise, they won the war.” Equally fascinating are the political machinations, the oratory of the first congressmen, and the sheer perseverance that resulted in the Bill of Rights. In each case, the story is enthralling even though we know how it ends.
This probably leads to the next question: “What does this have to do with auditing?” After all, isn’t auditing pretty boring business? With the average audit, the outcome is generally known. Auditees know where the gaps are in their systems. They also know what they’ve done really well and what is meticulously documented. There may be some nail-biting moments for a certification assessment or when a regulatory body comes in, but there are rarely any surprises.
What this means is that while the results of the audits are not unimportant, the audit process has even greater value. How we get to where we’re going matters.
Turning audit reports into audit stories
A well-conducted audit should unfold like a story. It presents the ongoing narrative of how the organization understands what is required, plans activities, identifies the players and their roles, produces the desired results, and reviews the outcome to do it all over again. Along the way characters may change and someone discovers a more clever way to perform a task; the plot may take some unanticipated turns as problems arise. The path to the ultimate goal may be shortened or protracted, remapped, or even abandoned in favor of a more desirable mode of transport.
Process control, planning, innovation, corrective action, and continual improvement are all hallmarks of a functioning, effective quality management system. Rather than focusing on an outcome that is fairly certain, it’s worth reflecting on the “how.” Thinking of an audit from the perspective of an interesting narrative removes the specters that constrain the audit process.
An auditor’s role isn’t to assess the final product. It is to ensure that the processes and system that resulted in a conforming product are well-controlled, appropriate, and effective. Things change over time. Failures and lapses imperil the organization’s ability to manage change. What was appropriate a few years ago may no longer be adequate because it cannot demonstrate repeat-ability or does not allow for traceability or fulfillment of other new and changing requirements. Practices that foster agility, creativity, and responsiveness facilitate the ability to address evolving needs.
The auditor should be genuinely interested at the manner in which auditees have applied the requirements of an international standard. The auditees should then be more inclined to demonstrate how their application of those requirements differentiates their organizations from their competitors. They get to show the auditor that they don’t merely conform to a standard, they use it to succeed.
These narratives may not be the stuff of legend, but they are our audit stories. And, considering the economic times and the myriad constraints on the average organization, I think that makes for very good storytelling.
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 Document Control, Root Cause Analysis, The Management Review Handbook, and her latest book, 9 Keys to Successful Audits, all published by Paton Professional.