Use Common Law Techniques To Foster Internal Audits

Establishing precedents and documenting case histories

by Gordon MacMaster

Have you ever been asked how you did on a test? It's natural to compare results where common events and shared experiences are concerned. Internal quality audits are no exception, as the departments involved will compare outcomes with one another. If inconsistent results are found between seemingly similar situations, the audit team will surely be questioned.

I once belonged to a small team mandated with conducting almost 200 process audits in less than two years for dissimilar projects. At first, it was possible for team members to share experiences and reach collective understandings regarding decisions. However, as the volume of audits increased, team members had a diminishing capacity to keep track of one another's decisions. A quick and simple practice was needed to bring previous decisions into current audits.

Precedents from common law

Common law operates in a milieu of written law, social custom and immediate social necessities. Common law examines case histories to derive precedents that apply to issues and situations, as long as a sufficient correlation exists. Most organizations operate through a similar combination of written procedures and standards, employee experiences and interactions, and immediate needs of the business. By borrowing the practice of documenting precedents from the common law methodology, my team maintained a consistent decision- making process.

The team selected a decision as precedent if the decision involved the interpretation of a standard or policy, or filled a gap where there previously wasn't guidance. Any precedents causing concern or disagreement between team members were discussed and resolved at meetings. As such, the precedents provided a cornerstone for uniformly making judgments on subsequent issues.

Each month, the precedents of the past month were condensed to a single page of case histories. In the case of this quality team, the histories could be created in as little as a half day, since all audit outputs were stored in a repository. Dumping the decisions into a common area would have been simple, but not as meaningful, since not every decision could be considered a precedent.

What made a decision a precedent or what made a decision supportive of a past precedent was the only information documented. In order to create a quick reference, much of the detail had to be removed; therefore, it was important to cross-reference the original documentation on each case history in the event more detail was needed.

More than decision making

Not only does this concept encourage consistent decision making within the team, but by making management and project leaders aware of the process, the team's consistency is anticipated at the outset. Most would agree that promoting the uniformity of decision making is always good for relations between the quality team and other function areas.

Listing precedents also feeds directly into developing trend analysis, which can serve as a basis for short term planning. Areas of concern can then be addressed the following month.

As is the case with common law, precedents can be overturned or changed. The evolutionary nature of common law is one of its strengths over a rigid, codified legal system. Internal quality audit decisions also evolved as standards and the working environment changed. The case histories highlight the progression of change.

The list of case histories also creates a portable, easy-to-use reference. After a year, there should be only 12 sheets of case histories (a sheet for each month), making it simple for team members to cite previously made decisions. It flattens the learning curve for new employees by providing the history of the quality team in an easy-to-read format. My quality group also found that the list generates questions from new employees on specific in- stances and the reasoning behind particular decisions.

The reliable audit team

It has been my experience that the benefits of compiling precedents and case histories exceed the effort involved. Keep in mind that the objective should be to foster consistent decision making within the quality team and assure project managers that the audit function is reliable.

It's important that the quality team is uniform without being rigid, because managers and project teams will have an opinion on the way decisions were made during the internal audit. After all, no one wants the ghosts of past decisions to haunt them.

GORDON MACMASTER is an information technology management consultant for Day Is Done Partners in Ottawa, ON. He is an ASQ member and the incoming section management program chair of ASQ's Ottawa Valley, Ontario Section.

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