by Denise Robitaille
Did you get your summer reading done? I certainly did. I’ve been hunting down a quote for several months and finally realized that it was from Robert A. Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land (Putnam Publishing Group, 1961). I read the book several years ago and had forgotten how much I’d enjoyed it. Once I located the quote I decided to re-read this sci-fi classic. It’s a thoroughly engaging novel.
The plot of Stranger in a Strange Land is only marginally relevant to the quotation I was looking for. Just to put things in context: The novel, which is set on a futuristic Earth, centers around the social awakening of a young man who was born on Mars and raised by Martians. Clueless when it comes to any societal conventions, the protagonist is sheltered and enlightened by an irascible nonconformist who lives in near-seclusion. This character has a staff of women managing his household and performing a range of secretarial and administrative functions.
One of the women bears the distinction of being a “fair witness.” By profession, she is trained, licensed, and admitted to testify in court. She is asked: “That house on the hilltop—can you see what color they’ve painted it?’ To this she replies: “It’s white on this side.” She’s only allowed to comment on what she has witnessed, so inferring the color of the other sides of the house is outside of her purview and would not be considered admissible testimony. She is prohibited from offering any opinion or providing any commentary on the facts. Regardless of what she observes, she cannot project an outcome or interject any emotion. She is trained in complete objectivity.
Auditors are expected to bring objectivity to their assessments. However, we are allowed to make inferences based upon a reasonable aggregation of evidence. We are expected to arrive at conclusions after careful deliberation of the information gathered from interviews, documents, and records. In an audit, we are expected to utilize samplings and to assess a representative subset of the whole. This is all part of an auditor’s training.
But human nature being what it is, we’ve probably all occasionally made inferences that weren’t adequately supported by objective evidence. The auditees interviewed might seem so confident and efficient and their responses so substantive that the auditor simply doesn’t take an adequate sampling of evidence to ensure that his or her claims are substantiated. Or, we may err in the opposite direction, projecting that if one particular aspect of the quality management system (QMS) is out of control, it’s likely that others features are equally slipshod. We allow that preconceived notion to skew the rest of our interviews and the manner in which we approach subsequent document reviews. We ascribe greater weight to minor blips or infer causality when there is really only correlation.
Auditors are usually pretty good about relating appropriate evidence and findings to requirements. But we probably all need to be more vigilant to ensure that our inferences don’t stray into the realm of conjecture and supposition. We should develop the habit of periodically assessing our observations to ensure their objectivity. We should refer back to the standards to ensure that a finding does indeed reflect the nonfulfillment of a requirement and not just something that we simply sense isn’t quite right.
Auditors need to re-read ISO 9001 (or a comparable sector-specific standard) to verify that we still know what it says. Years of auditing have probably piled shades of meaning onto the original text. There’s a certain inevitability to this. As third-party auditors, we are expected to have adequate expertise in the client’s field or industry. It’s unavoidable that we will therefore bring to the audit our knowledge of both risks and best practices. But we’ve got to clear away the debris that clouds our ability to distinguish between insightful inference and biased preconception. We need to refresh our mental browsers.
We should develop the habit of asking ourselves: “What did I really observe? What does the evidence really show?” and “What is the actual requirement?” (not my interpretation of the requirement). The optimum time for these questions is while writing the audit report and as you perform your final review before handing it in. It might prevent you from citing an unwarranted finding and should definitely improve the output of the audit process. And, ultimately, it’ll make you a better auditor.
So, how’s your objectivity?
About the author
Denise Robitaille is the author of several books on various quality topics. She’s an internationally recognized speaker who brings years of experience in business and industry to her work in the quality profession. As the principal of Robitaille Associates, she has helped numerous companies in diverse fields to achieve ISO 9001 registration and to improve their quality management systems. Robitaille is vice chair of the U.S. TAG to ISO/TC 176, the committee responsible for updating the ISO 9000 family of standards. She’s also a RABQSA-certified lead assessor, an ASQ Certified Quality Auditor, and a fellow of ASQ.
Her books include The Corrective Action Handbook, The Management Review Handbook, The Preventive Action Handbook, Root Cause Analysis, Managing Supplier-Related Processes, and Document Control, all published by Paton Professional. She also co-authored The Insiders’ Guide to ISO 9001:2008.
Her newest book, 9 Keys to Successful Audits, is available now.
Tags: auditor objectivity.