By Michael D. Jones
Observation is a key factor in many roles. Can you really observe? How much of what you see do you retain? Do you see the right things?
Assessment is the role of looking at people, environments, and documentation. During a quality management system audit, the purpose of an assessment is to determine whether people are following procedures, that procedures exist, and that work is being conducted in the most efficient manner. It may also be part of an investigation where the team is working to understand what happened. Regardless of the purpose, you must be able to objectively see what is present or not present—it is a fact-finding exercise.
I regard the role of assessor, auditor, or investigator as that of the outside observer whose very presence can help an organization. As an outsider, it is easy for you to observe aspects that the workforce cannot as they have accepted it as the norm. When you see the same thing every day, it becomes part of the scenery and you don’t notice it. When someone from outside raises questions, it becomes visible again. It is about attempting to make sense of what you see, without raising any judgement.
Whenever I am involved in an assessment, I always want to start with the big picture. This means that while walking into the room or work area, I observe the environment. What can I see? Is the lighting appropriate to the facilities and the roles? Are there obstacles that people are constantly walking around? Are there dangers such as a pallet obstructing an eye wash station or emergency exit? When you last walked into a room, did you do this? As a parent, did you see the Lego on the floor?
During an assessment, you examine what is in place and evaluate whether it is appropriate for the activity. Let’s consider the receipt-checking people used by some stores to examine your receipt and compare it to your purchases. Usually, the lighting is quite bright, making it easier to read the receipts. Once they’ve looked at the receipt, they mark it with a line. Some now carry a small board to rest the receipt on while marking it. Since the floor is concrete, do they have a rubber mat to stand on? Auditing procedures want you to ensure that they are actually checking the receipts. By looking at the big picture you can ascertain that the work environment seems to be adequate. If there is no rubber mat on the concrete, you can note that a mat would help prevent sore backs, legs, and feet.
During an investigation into battery failures, we visited various locations including the assembly factory. There were two health and safety observations that were unrelated to the investigation, but I take great pride in observing. First, in a section where they were stamping out lead panels, I found it loud and asked why hearing protection was not mandatory. They measured the levels and discovered they had risen to 1/2 dB beneath acceptable levels since the last measurement. They then decided to make hearing protection mandatory. Secondly, the path to an eye wash station was partially obstructed by a pallet storage location—again this was corrected quite quickly. Neither would have been in our report. However, management requested that we include both so they would have an appropriate record. Management saw the value in our observations.
Not part of the role of an assessor, I have a habit of looking at fire extinguishers both at the gauge reading and the inspection date. Although these are inspected regularly at most sites, several times I have found one either with low pressure or out of inspection. This tends to be the result of organizational changes where a new person is now responsible for the area and did not know. This is easily corrected and carries a high safety value. Recently I discovered that some cities levy fines for each extinguisher that has missed inspections.
During an operational assessment, on three different records, we noticed that a manufactured piece was measured and this measurement was recorded a total of five times. Procedures called for a measurement by the installer, another in manufacturing, and one at an independent location. Each time this is done it takes approximately 10 minutes. As the necessary measurements had been taken, no observation would be required under ISO needs. The independent inspection had been added as the result of faults found in the field but not assigned to a specific group and three groups had taken up the work. The company was producing 25 of these units per day. Two additional measurements meant they were paying for 500 minutes (8 hours 20 minutes) of unnecessary work each day—in a year that is around 2,000 hours (potentially USD $200,000).
Observations can be positive. On one occasion we noticed a good practice in the way that a junior member was being coached by a more senior member. The mentor’s way of speaking, words, and physical interactions were exceptional. Although we were conducting an ISO quality management system assessment and this was not necessary, we still noted it in our report as a good practice.
An assessor can make these types of observations without much effort. I believe that you can add much more value in your role if you observe more than just what is asked of you. By opening your eyes, you can add value to the organization and personnel being observed and reverse the negative perception usually held of assessors, auditors, and investigators. A good assessor can create a positive impression by seeing the big picture and helping the organization see things that have become background noise. A simple way to add value—open your eyes and state what you see.
About the author
Michael D. Jones started his career in the Canadian Armed Forces as an aerospace engineering officer, ending his military career working with software on the CF-18 Hornet fighter including failure investigations.
Retiring after 14 years, Jones joined Ericsson as software tester and quickly moved over to being an operational development consultant when he began investigating quality escapes. In this new role, along with investigations, the duties included conducting quality audits on projects and departments. As his knowledge and skills improved, he was used extensively on a global basis, often being requested to look into a new product deployment, project activity, or service failure charged with being the impartial resource.
Jones continued to conduct audits, organizational assessments, and investigations on a global basis. He has been involved in over 100 audits and has led most of them. Outside of work, Jones enjoys bicycling, kayaking, and ice dancing. Today, he is looking for a new challenge.