QUALITY IN THE FIRST PERSON
A quality auditing career is far from the Newman stereotype
by Ken Weinberg
When the general public thinks of auditors, they might imagine some stereotypical, humorless civil servant on a power trip. Imagine the character Newman from "Seinfeld" as an auditor instead of a mailman. The job is probably not one that many people would think of as fun.
Fortunately, the Newman types are few and far between, and a quality auditing career can be quite fun. Mine has been full of world travels that introduced me to a diverse group of great, innovative people who work very hard.
I started off auditing domestic regional partner airlines, upgraded to auditing international partner airlines and eventually became a manager of two different audit teams.
In my current position, I use voluntary reporting programs to preemptively address regulatory and safety issues, as well as prevent their reoccurrence.
It’s been a fantastic path for learning how the operational facets of an airline come together to safely fly people, bags and cargo from one point to another. In the off hours, I’ve enjoyed mouth-watering foods, breathtaking sites and fascinating cultures. There have also been great discussions and "cocktail napkin" ideas that have developed into new processes.
Just like in "Seinfeld," it seems like each audit has its Kramers, Elaines and George Costanzas, which can be both entertaining and nerve-racking, depending on the situation. That’s why, after hours of interviews and reviewing manuals, it’s a great stress relief to get out and enjoy the local culture, and you wouldn’t want it any other way.
Not only have the people been a little Seinfeld-esque on some audits, but the situations have, too. Take for example, the time I looked out the taxi window in Ho Chi Minh City as a motorcycle coming with a family of five zipped by. "That one’s an easy finding—clearly a workaround!" Come to think of it, I’m pretty sure the toddler on the handlebars was working the throttle. Some auditors can unfortunately be Newman-like, a person on a power trip desiring to demean the auditee. They aren’t helpful to the cause of quality, and nobody really likes to work with them.
How to approach an audit
There are better ways to approach an audit, while still being thorough and ensuring accuracy.
For instance, when looking for evidence of documentation in a manual written in a different language, I learned not to ask, "Can you show me where that is documented?" Whenever I did that, the auditee would open up what appeared to be some random manual, flip a few pages, point to a paragraph and say, "There it is," as they waited for my approval. For all I knew, it was instructions on how to make banana daiquiris.
Instead, I learned a different method. I’d open the manual, point to a paragraph and ask "What does this say? Can you translate it for me, please?" Sometimes, I just picked random stuff to throw them off a bit if I thought they might be trying to tell me what they thought I wanted to hear.
Most of the time, I learned characters or words after repeatedly seeing them and looked for them on the pages. For instance, when I was auditing cargo, if I learned "dangerous goods" in their language, I would look for it in the manual and ask them to read and translate various references around it. It took a little more time, but it led to good discussions regarding the standards and recommended practices.
Many auditees started off extremely confident that they were prepared, only to find out they were woefully lacking. Often, this was due to previous auditors who did them no favors by taking the easy route. Those who were focused on quality and not just passing the audit were very prepared and responsive.
Every audit has been a learning experience for me. Most people and companies in my industry are similar all over the world, yet each has unique characteristics. I’m grateful for the perspective I’ve gained by being on these audits, meeting people who’ve worked in the industry longer than I’ve been alive.
For a guy who never thought he’d leave his small hometown in New Jersey, it’s been quite an experience traveling all over the world, meeting veteran quality auditors and interviewing directors of operations, vice presidents and even a CEO of a successful international airline.
A coworker recently asked me about becoming an auditor. She was hesitant because she didn’t really know what our quality auditors did. I assured her that it was something she could learn and be successful at because of her inquisitive nature. She’s knowledgeable, likable and conscientious—all good qualities for a quality auditor. When it comes right down to it, there’s no need to be an auditing Newman. Of course, you have to stay vigilant, just in case the auditee tries to "Yada, yada, yada" through the good stuff.
Ken Weinberg is a quality assurance regulatory compliance specialist for United Airlines in Chicago. He has a master’s degree in aeronautical science in aviation/aerospace safety and education from Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Daytona Beach, FL, and an MBA from Colorado State University in Fort Collins. A senior member of ASQ, Weinberg is an ASQ-certified manager of quality/organizational excellence.