Who does all the talking in your audits?

The word “audit” derives from the Latin word “audire” which means “to hear”.

Sad to say, auditors sometimes listen to hear the answers they want to hear rather than to listen for understanding. Every so often, they also talk so much during the audit that there is no time left for listening, observing and understanding. If you were ever audited, you can probably recognise the frustration and irritation when you know that the auditor you are talking to is not listening to you. This is absolutely also true in your private life when you realise that the person you are talking to does not pay attention.

Effective listening is the foundation of good auditing but it may be one of the most difficult skill to master. Here are some good news though: open-ended and unbiased questions are great simple tools to help ensure that the auditee is being heard the way he or she deserves. Here is why and how…

Have you ever met this auditor or perhaps are you one of them?

I have been audited and have coached dozens of auditors during my career. I remember very well those low value adding audits during which the auditor was asking closed or biased questions and also evaluating what was being said before fully understanding the message the auditee was trying to communicate. The result has always been that inaccurate assumptions were made and wrong audit conclusions reached.

From experience I can say that this every time led to misunderstandings, frustration and a clear breakdown in communication.  If you are an auditor and you want your audit to be effective and the audited organisation get value from it, these are definitely not the right things to do. The key to effective listening and auditing is the ability to have a truly open mind and ask the right questions in the right way.

Well-chosen open-ended questions are more effective than quantity

Open-ended questions provide the auditee with the opportunity to elaborate on a process or a procedure, and create the platform needed for the auditor to assess the auditee’s level of awareness and competence, the conformance to applicable requirements, the relevant inherent risks, and the effectiveness of the process being audited. They allow the auditee to determine the range and scope of his or her response and to express it freely and in his or her own terms.

They look like: “what are the steps?”, “how is this being done?”, “why is this being done this way?”, “who is responsible?”, “when is such action taking place?” etc. Such open-ended questions provide valuable information to the auditor and require interviewing expertise.

On the opposite, closed questions restrict the range of the interviewee’s response, frequently to either yes or no. Closed questions such as “do you take a corrective action when such deviation occurs?“ or “do you think that this process is capable of meeting the required specifications?” restrict the amount of information gain to those areas already known by the auditor and they simply don’t deal with the “why”. They should be kept to a minimum and mainly used for confirmation, when needed.

The bias of a question affects the validity of the responses

The auditor’s objective in conducting an interview is to obtain valid and relevant objective evidence. Experience shows that biased questions produce neither valid nor relevant objective evidence.

It is very easy for bias to sneak into interview questions and most people respond unconsciously to cues embedded in them. When conducting interviews, auditors should always make conscious attempts to phrase all questions in an unbiased manner. Unfortunately, the tendency to ask leading and biased questions is one of the most common error auditors make in conducting interviews.

A biased question is a question that is phrased or expressed in such a way that it influences the auditees’ response. Such questions provide information that leads an auditee to consider the topic in a very specific way. Here is an example: “The right reaction when this type of deviation occurs would be to stop the process and inform your supervisor immediately. Would you please let me know what kind of action is being taken when such an issue happens on this line?”. This question is obviously biased and contains clear cues as to the answer. It is an evident illustration depicting what an unbiased question should not be. Simply removing the cues by asking : “Would you please let me know what kind of actions are being taken when this type of deviation occurs on this line?” provides space for the auditee to explain the truth with supporting objective evidence.

Adopting open-ended and unbiased questions to improve your audit

Talking too much during your audit and having frustrated auditees might be signs that you need to improve the way you audit.

Making use of open-ended and unbiased questions are quick wins. They are easy tools to implement and provide huge benefits and impact. They need self-awareness though. The next time you audit, try to reflect on how much you spoke versus how much your interviewees did. If you did more than them, then think about what you just learned while reading this article and put these simple tools into practice.

The return of investment will be high for you and more importantly, for the audited organisation.

By Marc Cwikowski
June 15, 2020

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