Rethinking Audit Reports

Improve the process by recognizing accomplishments

by Chris Harbeck

The Current paradigm is that auditing is a process of deficiency in which auditors ask, "What are the nonconformances?"

All too often, the focus of an audit summary report is on stating instances in which a requirement was not properly realized, and in my experience, the summary rarely provides much more information.

During a quality management system (QMS) audit, an auditor reviews an organization’s processes and uses evidence to assess compliance to an applicable standard and internally documented procedures. During the closing meeting, the auditor elaborates on the findings noted in the audit summary report.

If the extent of the summary and closing meeting is to point out deficiencies, employees may leave the meeting with a negative outlook and a feeling of relief that the audit is over.

Despite all of the errors or defects an auditor discovers, there can be several processes an organization is performing well, such as:

  • Well-developed data collection and review methods that lead to meaningful improvements at the process or organizational level.
  • Organizational metrics that are properly aligned with objectives, allowing for an effective QMS evaluation.
  • Highlighting which metrics any given employee can affect, thus identifying his or her contribution to the QMS.
  • Clearly identifying processes and how they interact.
  • Processes for management reviews, internal audits and corrective actions that are effective and properly documented from initiation to closure.
  • Processes and recordkeeping across different areas that are consistent, which lead to more efficient and effective management.
  • Effective product test methods that validate product for end-customer use.

The inclusion of an organization’s strong points during a closing meeting would be just as valuable as discussing nonconformances.

The term audit should be replaced with assessment to include the overall health of a system. No one looks forward to an audit if it is purely a deficiency process, and employees are likely to spend all of their energy ensuring nothing wrong is found.

What if half of that energy, however, could be spent on showcasing and expanding processes that are working well? This could lead to improved attitudes and process development among employees who know their work will be recognized.

Consider this baseball analogy. For a batter, the game is really a process of failure. A batter may only be successful 30% of the time and still have an eight-figure contract.

Coaches work with the batter to improve what he or she is doing well; for example, a nice, smooth swing that makes good contact with the ball. They also work on things the batter can improve. But if the coaches only discussed the batter’s 70% failure rate, it is possible he or she may believe improvement is impossible.

Performing and reporting an audit can be a self-fulfilling process. Focusing only on deficiency may not break a cycle of negative results, but including a comparable, if not equal, focus on the highlights can incentivize employees to push positive results even further.

I strongly believe in the importance of maintaining an audit process that assesses the overall health of a system, and highlights an organization’s strengths and weaknesses.

Internal auditors should be made aware of their audits’ potential effects on employees’ behavior. Certification bodies also should recognize this and develop auditors to provide organizations with complete pictures of how their quality systems perform. An organization will certainly appreciate it, and it could strengthen the partnership between the organization and its auditor.

Chris Harbeck is the director of quality management at BWay Corp. in Elk Grove Village, IL. Harbeck has worked in quality assurance and engineering for more than 22 years and holds a bachelor’s degree in chemical engineering from Clemson University in South Carolina. Harbeck is a senior member of ASQ and an ASQ-certified manager of quality/organizational excellence.

good informative article
if an audit or an assessment, etc. the none-conformances in any system should be improved such that a positive impact on financial results as well other results might be targeted / promoted.

Aylin N. M.

I liked this One Good Idea: "Rethinking Audit Reports" (December 2016, p 79). The author's message that an audit should not be just a "fault-finding exercise" and should result in improvement is applicable to every auditor of every discipline--such as finance, QMS, EMS etc. As a management representative, I used to impress upon both internal and external auditors that an indication of a good audit is the thankful acknowledgement by the auditee that the audit and the nonconformances raised will really improve them.
--Ramaswamy Ganesan, 03-19-2017

Always useful to include positive statements. But beware changing terms! An "Audit" may well be part of a larger "assessment", but the intent and process of an audit are particular. Changing the name will not change the subject's response - only truly supportive execution of the audit intent to improve a situation will do that.
--Steven Cooke, 12-07-2016

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