Too Much Talk, Not Enough Auditing?
by J.P. Russell
I was attending a local community volunteers meeting when I was approached by a member. He knew I was involved in the standards community, so he told me his company just received its ISO 9001 management system certification.
During the conversation, he casually mentioned that many of the auditors who have audited his organization liked to talk a lot. He said he didn’t mind it too much because while they were talking, they weren’t auditing.
During my career, I have observed this talking-too-much behavior several times, and on occasion I have been guilty of it myself. I was shocked that I was hearing about this in a social setting and wondered about the extent to which this behavior has spread.
If you are an auditor who likes to share your wisdom with those you audit, you might want to stop reading now and move on to the next article. Some of my comments could make you uncomfortable. But, if you keep an open mind, there might be something here that will improve the effectiveness of your next audit.
If you are the one being audited, you might want to hide this article before your auditor sees it.
I have no way to estimate how many auditors lecture or pontificate during an audit, but I fear it is a good number because I not only have observed it but have also heard many auditees complain about it.
When I have discussed this issue in classes, one auditor told me that people he audited are genuinely interested in what he has to say. That could be true—but perhaps not. It might depend on whether the information relates directly to the audit or the organization’s approval status.
Auditors must come to terms with the reality of the relationship between auditor and auditee. This relationship is not 50/50. Both parties have rights, but one has power to pass or fail the other.
This relationship exists in other situations, such as the one between customers and suppliers. If the customer’s purchasing agent or auditor starts rambling or pontificating about quality improvement, the environment or the latest recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize, the supplier representative is not going to say, “Stop! I disagree. Let’s get back to work.” Instead, he or she will say, “That’s interesting. Yes, that’s very helpful. What other insights do you have?”
This supplier response is called solicitous behavior. It’s comparable to a yes-man, who is eager to please to gain or maintain favor and improve his chances of getting a promotion. Similarly, auditees are not going to risk upsetting or inadvertently offending an auditor. If the information being discussed is not relevant to the audit, the auditee will let the auditor go on and on—perhaps actually encouraging talkative auditors to reduce audit time.
In reality, auditors are subject to the solicitous behavior trap. Outwardly, an auditee can make auditors believe they’re the smartest people in the world. Inwardly, however, the auditee might be thinking something entirely different.
I am not advocating that you become dull or eliminate all small talk. Some small talk can make people feel more comfortable.
Being long-winded might not be a violation of ISO 19011, the auditing standard, or the ASQ certified quality auditor body of knowledge, but it might reduce the effectiveness and perhaps the efficiency of the audit.
Maybe the auditing principle of due professional care applies here. It says auditors should be diligent and use good judgment. It would be a good idea to add, “Be a good listener” to the personality traits an auditor should possess. When I conduct interviews, it is about 80/20, listening versus talking.
On their next audits, auditors should say to themelves, “I am not going to lecture the auditee or pontificate about irrelevant topics.”
If you’re an auditee, you might like talkative auditors, but it is best for everyone if the auditor stays on track. Thank the auditor for the information and then segue into a topic related to the audit. Auditees could also ask the auditor to send more information about a subject after the audit is completed, and then circle back to information relevant to the audit.
Most auditors work by a code of conduct and will get the hint if the auditee finds a tactful way to break the nonconstructive conversation.
Lecturing and pontificating by an auditor is usually hidden from the view of the audit program manager. Management observers are not going to observe it because when they are around, auditors will be on their best behavior. Auditees are normally not going to complain because they don’t want to get the auditor in trouble—or they actually could like auditors who talk instead of audit.
A standard after-the-audit survey isn’t likely to uncover problem performers in this area unless the auditor specifically asks whether he or she stayed focused and used time efficiently. The best way to uncover problems is through random telephone interviews, with questions designed to uncover problem areas, such as:
- Did the auditor keep you well informed?
- Was there sufficient time for all areas?
- Did the auditor do too much explaining?
- Did the auditor stay focused on the audit?
Another idea is to discuss this trap in auditor training programs. It might not seem a big deal, but too much talk can be a time waster and doesn’t represent the best professional behavior.
Audit program managers and auditors should watch for the development of negative personality traits of auditors that detract from the effectiveness of the audit.
Auditors must remember that the auditor-auditee relationship is artificial because of the lack of equity in the business relationship.1
Because of the attention and courtesy shown to the auditor, it is easy for the auditor to develop a sense of self-importance and a know-it-all attitude. As auditors, we feel good about ourselves when we are treated as all-knowing, revered experts.
But, we should never boast about our accomplishments or share our views on life, office politics, crime, automobiles, race cars, diet plans or any topics unrelated to the audit.
Auditors should stick to explaining the audit plan, requirements, expectations, findings, audit evidence and samples they need.
If you are an auditor and find yourself jabbering about topics not relevant to the audit, stop. Remember that in Latin, the word “audit” means “to listen or hear.”
- J.P. Russell and Terry Regel, After the Quality Audit: Closing the Loop on the Audit Process, second edition, ASQ Quality Press, 2000.
J.P. RUSSELL is president of J.P. Russell & Associates, Gulf Breeze, FL, and managing director for Quality WBT Center for Education at www.QualityWBT.com. He is a fellow of ASQ, voting member of the American National Standards Institute/ASQ Z1 committee and member of the U.S. technical advisory group for International Organization for Standardization technical committee 176. Russell is an ASQ certified quality auditor and author of several Quality Press books, including Internal Auditing Basics, second edition. and the ASQ Audit Handbook, third edition.