by Peter Holtmann
Upon embarking upon this article I had to ask myself some really difficult questions about audit validity as a tool to drive improvement in an organization’s processes: If audits are such an effective tool, why do you need to conduct more than one of them? How is it that sites that are audited can continue to operate outside of limits of acceptance or compliance? Is it correlated more closely to the competence of the auditor seeking outcomes?
How I arrived at these questions was due in part to revisiting some of my own audit experiences and through reading Alain de Botton’s latest book The News: The User’s Manual. In it Alain professes that news is artificial and manufactured more to entertain than to enlighten. At least that is my take on de Botton’s book.
So I applied some premises from his writings to the theory of auditing and what could present a barrier to an audit “working” or delivering successful outcomes.
Before I go much further I want to profess that I am advocate of auditing to determine compliance. However, I am finding myself debating whether ongoing audits add value or direct improvement in processes. I am favoring an argument that change of process comes about by factors such as marketing, legislation/regulation, and in smaller amounts innovation and customer focus.
Yes, this reads like a true follower of Hypocrites, but hear me out; I am going to present some arguments for you to ponder.
Data, data everywhere and not a byte to think. Yes, a play on an idiom, but there is sufficient evidence to support the argument that presenting and overloading oneself merely slows your thought processes down and makes you sufficiently unproductive. When presented with data from audit outcomes on top of an already overloaded job this does little more to the auditee, than provide a set of subjective conditions to comply with—maliciously or otherwise.
Rubbish! Many audit clients wholly embrace the concept of data for use in improvement. True, but what happens when presented with the same types of data over prolonged periods of time?
Studies show that we become desensitized to risk and danger. What begins as a very primordial response to a threat quickly dulls to a feeling of comfort or even disdain as we adjust our brains and our stress levels.
There are those who look for the loopholes or work-arounds to systems and requirements. Why? There are a variety of reasons but it can be as simple as providing the person with a sense of power, control, and adrenalin.
This is not often the case; why would I be writing this stuff? OK, so your tone may be changing toward the article now as your limbic system starts to kick in to direct you through a sense of altruism or morals. This is expected for all auditors reading this; you are naturally altruistic folk and have a moral compass that points toward the righteous. Yes, we have completed studies on personality profiling and have the data to support this claim.
Let me continue. When you report your findings to clients at closing you may be presenting them with nonconformance reports or corrective action requests, which require a response by close of audit. This is a normal practice to ensure loose ends for the audit are closed and order is restored. Now look at it from the receiver’s point. The user may have insufficient time to truly seek the root cause and the corresponding solution or correction. It’s an answer for the sake of satisfying a requirement.
We know from more studies that the provision of short-term answers or solutions repeatedly actually shuts down the deeper thought processes in your brain and hence shuts down the capacity to exercise insight. It would be natural that the same problems would recur time and again.
How could this occur when we give sufficient time for discussion and response to findings? OK, but what happens when they can’t reach a solution and seek some guidance. You know as the auditor that you are not able to provide consultation but merely provide a balanced report.
There is such a thing as being too balanced or neutral. This can be perceived as being distanced from the outcomes, and the client runs the danger that no one is actually listening to the auditor who has come on site. Rather the client is comparing the auditing “gaps” from the previous auditor. Now your competence is brought into question as the statement “Why did you find this and the other auditor didn’t?” is raised. Now it’s no longer about the client’s activities and all about the auditing profession.
So what do audits deliver if there are so many behavioral attributes aligning themselves against the audit intentions?
For the external reader it is supposed to present a window into the soul of the business. It defines its culture and its mission to “make what it stakes,” it tests the reader’s own compass against that of the business, and, if the two equate, business is conducted. If not? Well, everybody slows down for a car crash; not to help but to look at the wreck. Why? There are a few reasons that go back to the times of Aristotle and Sophocles. Tragic outcomes create a civilizing effect on us. Seeing a wreck is akin to reading a list of critical nonconformance. We gasp in horror and say, “How could they operate like this. I would never let this happen”. Yet it still happens. But it does help true our own actions.
Tragedy again provides strong moral lessons about staying within compliance and what happens when we err. Although as the reader we may read in detail but the data are soon lost among fresh data and short bursts of bytes about other people’s tragedies.
Don’t believe me? Try this test. How much of the news headlines do you remember form yesterday? Now try to remember last week’s headlines and then last month’s. We are being programmed not to remember.
So where does this leave the argument for audits? Do they work? Are they providing a meaningful outcome?
Yes, but probably in ways more subliminal than anything else. I still come across people that get nervous before an audit. It’s a test or a physiological response to risk of self. But they do provide good stories from which to teach the uninitiated, and they do tell a tale of victories and tragedies.
But do they work every time after the first? For me, that’s debatable. I would favor simulations over assessments where the interactions of cause and effect play out in real time for the recipient. It’s proven that using more than one sense or hemisphere in the brain helps reinforce messages far more than being read outcomes or data regurgitated at us.
This may feel controversial and uncomfortable and you may completely disagree with me. This is a healthy response, as merely accepting data at face value does not allow us to consider an argument from all angles.
Perhaps auditors could use more training on philosophy, psychology, and physiology to deliver a highly impactful audit outcome. Perhaps this would mean one audit would suffice.
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.