by Denise Robitaille
Asking audit questions would seem to be a fairly straightforward activity. You ask a question; you get an answer. However, not everyone has the same comfort level when it comes to asking specific audit questions or when the context is a focused process rather than a casual conversation.
Audit interview skills should be developed and honed over time. The purpose of an audit interview is to gather objective information to determine the level of control of a given process. Are requirements understood? Does the process owner have the requisite competence and/or training? Are tools, documents, and other resources available? Is the output of the process what is intended? Do all these things conform to the requirements of the standard being used for the audit? Is everything working the way it’s supposed to?
At the end of the interview, the auditor should have adequate evidence to conclude whether the process conforms to requirements and if it is effective. The following tips are useful in achieving the audit interview’s goals:
- Remember that auditees weren’t hired to answer your questions. They’re paid to do their jobs. They’re nervous and unaccustomed to being interviewed—even by a co-worker. They probably won’t be quoting text verbatim from a procedure. Process owners should be describing their process in a way that lets you understand it and that demonstrates how well they understand it. Having them clearly articulate their responsibilities, the documents they use, and the steps in their process is the best indicator of their competence and awareness to perform the task. This, in turn, is a great indicator of how well controlled and effective the process is.
- Ask open-ended questions, as opposed to the kind that will get only yes or no responses. An interview that requires the auditee to explain will result in more complete and thoughtful responses. The yes/no question is like taking a true or false quiz. They have a 50 percent chance of giving you the answer you want. And, your notes will be sparse, lacking the details that justify any creditable audit conclusion.
- Give the auditee an opportunity to explain what he or she does. The person will provide more complete information if he or she isn’t being steered toward the auditor’s preconceived notion of what the answer should be.
- Ask how the auditee does his or her job. You’re not just trying to verify that something is done; you want to verify that it’s done correctly—as defined. Sometimes there are multiple methods to accomplish a task, but not all are correct and some may result in problems further down the line. In some cases, the sequence of steps must be followed exactly or the resulting product will not be acceptable—a fact that may not be immediately apparent. There are also those instances where the methods are defined by regulatory requirements.
- Remember to use documents to help you frame your questions. This lets you determine if the documentation accurately reflects the requirements of the process.
- Listen to the auditee. Practice your listening skills. Are you hearing what the person is saying, or what you anticipate his or her answer to be? Because we’ve read the requirements before beginning the audit, we have a preconceived notion of what the response should be. Just because someone says something that surprises you or is inconsistent with a procedure doesn’t mean that he or she is wrong. Hear the person out—with an objective ear. Listening is facilitated by the simple practice of looking directly at the person who’s speaking. Not only do you remain better focused, you convey to the other person that you’re interested in what he or she has to say.
- Use the “show me” tactic. This is especially useful if you aren’t understanding what the auditee is trying to describe. Ask him or her to perform a task, to record the results of a test, or to find a customer’s contract on the company’s server.
- Suggest a scenario and ask, “What would happen if…?” This will help you verify how well the process is controlled if there is a deviation or if something goes wrong. It will also help you assess the effectiveness of communication and awareness of authority and responsibility. Does the person know what he or she is authorized to handle, and what incidents require input from a supervisor?
- Ask what happens next. Avoid quality speak. If you’re trying to determine what the output of a process is, simply ask, “What happens next?” Asking a customer service technician, “What’s the output of the process?” will probably get you a blank stare followed by an awkward moment in which you’ll get the sense that you’ve just made him or her feel incompetent—which isn’t the case. The technician knows perfectly well that when the order is entered in the database, it next gets routed to the scheduler, who confirms the ship date so that the order can then be acknowledged to the customer.
- Ask “why? People who do tasks mindlessly, without understanding the reason for the activity, are less likely to be diligent in ensuring that the process is consistently and correctly implemented. It’s hard to care about something that makes no sense.
- Give the process owner time to answer. Be patient. He or she may be thinking. Don’t assume that a delayed response is an indication that the person is lying or making stuff up.
- Don’t be afraid to repeat or restate your question. Sometimes we need to come at a subject from a different angle. Restating a question helps the auditee to grasp what you’re trying to ascertain. In this case it’s helpful to communicate to the auditee that it is your shortcoming in not asking the right question—and not his or hers for being unable to comprehend what you’re trying to ask.
- Write down the answer so you don’t forget. Also, record the evidence you’ve assessed. Take copious notes. It helps with follow-up questions. It has the additional benefit of providing the foundation for the audit report and allays any confrontation. The auditor doesn’t need to defend his or her conclusion. All that’s needed is a reference to the evidence upon which the observation is based.
- If you’re writing while the person is speaking, make sure that he or she knows it. Say, “I’m listening to you, but I need to write this down.” If you get the sense that the auditee is afraid that your report will result in punitive action, explain why you write things down. My favorite line goes something like this: “I have a brain like a sieve. If I don’t write things down, I’ll forget, and I won’t be able to do my report.”
Another consideration when interviewing is the need to be simultaneously observing activities, records, and the work environment.
I had occasion recently to observe an auditor in a nonauditing setting. It was interesting to note the manner in which he carried on conversations with various people during an informal meeting. Whomever he spoke with received his undivided attention. The transition in focus as the conversation moved back and forth among the meeting members was subtle. His head shifted slightly, his eyes focusing on the new speaker as he re-directed his attention.
There was never a hint of boredom or distraction. I was struck by this man’s relaxed and yet respectful demeanor. I realized that I was observing one of the finest qualities of a good auditor.
The output of an audit, i.e., the audit report, is based upon observation. What do we observe and how do we observe it? What does the manner in which we scrutinize documents, records, finished goods, and other evidence communicate to the auditee? Do we register skepticism or disdain? Do our eyes glaze over revealing distraction or disinterest? Or, do we glare at the auditee, creating an atmosphere of intimidation or feigned superiority? Do our eyes refute our claim of objectivity?
In some cultures sustained eye contact is considered invasive and disrespectful, but in the vast majority of social settings, eye contact communicates interest and responsiveness. It’s deemed an expression of open candor. It encourages further discourse and alleviates tension. And, so, looking directly at the person with whom you are speaking is by and large the most effective technique for conducting an audit interview.
Auditors must also spend time observing the environment in which processes are conducted. They must be able to assess if the work space and general infrastructure are appropriate for the work being done. Is it clean and well lit? Are tools easily accessible? Are there distractions or safety concerns that will interfere with the process or affect the product? Are there particular environmental requirements related to the industry—humidity control, special garbing protocols, or hazardous material containment?
Auditors are also required to assess support processes, such as calibration. Is the micrometer calibration current? Does the preventive maintenance tag hanging from the side of the CNC machine indicate if the preventive maintenance has been done as scheduled? Are parts properly tagged for traceability? Auditors must be observant. This is an example of systems approach in action—seeing how everything fits together and contributes to the desired output.
How can an auditor balance these two disparate needs: to focus on the auditees’ responses and to assess the evidence and environment in which the processes are being conducted?
Auditors must be fully present to the individuals they are interviewing. This means that the auditor’s attention is deliberately focused on the auditee. He or she is neither distracted nor pre-occupied. The person being interviewed is entitled to the auditor’s undivided and respectful attention. This is non-negotiable. No auditee should ever be made to feel that the auditor’s questions are superfluous or their answers unimportant. The benefit is twofold: this demeanor decreases tension and it ensures more accurate and complete responses.
So, how to ensure that all the other observations about tools and infrastructure requirements get handled? This is just another of the skills auditors must hone. They need to develop a sensitivity to the pauses and rhythms of the interview and to recognize moments to glance over at machines and tools. Subtle opportunities arise to assess and observe while an auditee is searching for a document or when your conversation is interrupted by an important phone call. Auditors also need to identify the right moment in the question sequence to say, “I’d like to take a few minutes to look over these records, or ID tags, or warehouse configuration…”
Finally, it’s important to reiterate that the audit interview is not a normal everyday activity for the auditee. As long as I’ve been auditing and consulting, I’ve seen competent, intelligent people morph into blithering, jittering half-wits in the presence of auditors. They forget where to find documents. They miss steps in processes they’ve been performing for years. They babble on about what they think other people do. Or they just stare off into space with their mouths agape, creating the impression that they’re either praying for divine intervention or for Scotty to beam them up and out of this mess.
It’s easy for an auditor to say, “Relax; don’t worry.” We underestimate the sinking feelings of confusion, embarrassment, and, ultimately, regret that auditees experience after the auditor walks away. They say, “I wish I’d told her about the new form that makes tracking easier” or “I didn’t do a very good job of explaining how this works.”
Intellectually, auditees may know there is nothing to fear, but that knowledge doesn’t diminish the sensation of dread or inadequacy. Auditors’ cavalier platitudes about not worrying come off as dismissive, rather than reassuring.
There’s not much auditors can do to eliminate the negative feelings. People are either afraid of the auditor because they know processes aren’t operating the way they should or because they take pride in their work and want to ensure that the auditor fully appreciates the organization’s achievements.
So what can auditors do to ameliorate the problem? They can be a bit more judicious in the selection of their words. They can be more careful in the manner in which they ask questions. Often the tongue-tied stupor that numbs an auditee’s tongue is the result of unexpected questions or questions that seem accusatory rather than thought provoking. Auditors can amplify their ability to discern when very competent people are simply nervous, regardless of the auditor’s attempts at reassurance. Auditors need to remind themselves that the purpose of an audit is to gather objective evidence on the status of conformance to a defined set of requirements. It’s fact finding, not fault finding.
From time to time, we all have a deer-in-the-headlights moment. That’s that mortifying sensation you get when you seem incapable of uttering a single coherent sentence. Again, remember that the auditees were not hired to answer your questions. You just to need to cut them some slack and help them relax.
All of us, auditors and quality professionals alike, can strive to cultivate organizational cultures that reflect the objective fact-finding benchmark we need to achieve to have successful and effective audit programs. We need to internalize W. Edwards Deming’s most important point: “Drive out fear!”
Although these tactics may at first feel contrived, if they’re practiced regularly, they will eventually become second nature. The result will be a more respectful audit experience for both the auditor and the auditee, and a more productive audit result for the organization.
About the author
Denise E. Robitaille is an active member of the U.S. TAG to ISO/TC 176, the committee responsible for updating the ISO 9000 family of standards. She is also principal of Robitaille Associates, committed to making your quality system meaningful. She’s a Exemplar Global-certified lead assessor, ASQ-certified quality auditor, and ASQ Fellow. She’s the author of numerous articles and many books, including The Corrective Action Handbook and The Preventive Action Handbook, and 9 Keys to Successful Audits, all published by Paton Professional.