The day I discovered the audit profession had been one of these I will always remember. I was a young quality professional when one of our main customers decided to send an auditor to our factory. We had a quality system in place that an external pair of eyes would evaluate for the first time. The stake was high, and so was the level of stress. It was – we thought – all about keeping the customer relation alive or losing the business.
There was no reason to believe that this day would change forever my perception of the value an audit can provide.
1) They take the lead
Everyone in the plant was curious about the audit process, and the audit trail the auditor would follow. We did prepare all the available documentation for him to review and organised a facility tour. The latter proved to be a waste of time as the auditor took the lead and told us what he wanted to see and with whom he was willing to have a conversation. The auditor was leading the audit, not us. That was my first learning: high performing auditors take the lead. They prepare well and know where to go, what to see, who to interview and what documents to review.
2) They are agile
This was my second learning. Our auditor was changing the trail as the audit was progressing. He was to us unpredictable while following a clear to-him rationale. He was listening, processing the information instantly and directing his efforts to where he perceived the significant risks were. By doing so, he took us to unknown areas of concern and helped us to uncover risks. The agility of the audit process proved to be a key element in providing value. It was a deliberate strategy from the auditor to maximise the return of his time investment.
3) They tell auditees why
High performing auditors tell auditees why. Our auditor took the time to explain the why behind his findings and their potential impact. It was his way to ensure that we understood the importance of fixing the issues after the audit. And we did. He was generous in explaining and letting us know that it was not so much about the requirements but their reasons to exist. Again, we learned from the experience, turning it from something we feared to something very beneficial.
4) They are knowledgeable
It requires knowledge and understanding of the business risks to tell auditees why non-conforming situations need corrective actions. Our auditor ticked this box too. He demonstrated technical expertise and business acumen. We understood later that he acquired these skills by working as a quality leader in a manufacturing environment for several years. He was credible, and as a result, we trusted his findings and evaluation.
5) They think positively
Interestingly, our auditor was also highlighting the things we were doing well and talked to us about opportunities to further improve our processes. High performing auditors stimulate continuous improvement by using a positive language and uncovering opportunities, not only risks. That was new to us and certainly not common for auditors in the late 80’s. Auditors can be a source of motivation for auditees is something I keep in mind. I have seen many of these situations since, and it is all about the auditor’s attitude.
6) They listen
Recognising the good things in place and interpreting the information collected during an audit needs good listening skills. Our auditor was one who was taking the time to listen while interviewing someone. I witnessed his ability to communicate at all levels of the organisation with the same attention and patience. He had conversations with the general manager, the supervisors and the plant operators with the same approach and generosity. To his ears, all information gathered had the same importance, so felt the associates he interviewed.
7) They report in a compelling way
The auditor debriefed us verbally at the end of the day. He focused on the things that were the most important and reiterated the why behind his findings. There was no discussion on the audit outcomes as we understood the rationale. There was no surprise when we received his final written report a few days later. It was fully aligned with what we heard, clear to the point and supported by objective evidence.
The overall audit outcome was a pass, and the business relation continued. We were delighted for sure, but this was not the most important thing. We learned from the audit, appreciated the value provided and improved.
From a personal point of view, I understood that auditing is a great profession that takes efforts, skills, and generosity. I remember this auditor as if it was yesterday. I thank him for what he taught me without knowing and for contributing to why I like and value the audit profession so much.
By Marc Cwikowski
February 11, 2021