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Craig Cochran

Quality Insider

A Quality Lesson from Hopeulikit

Auditing against opinions

Published: Monday, April 16, 2007 - 22:00

A few years go I had the good fortune of doing some consulting with B&C Specialty Products in Hopeulikit, Georgia. B&C does light manufacturing, primarily plastic molding and assembly, and they also distribute imported products produced by companies in the Far East. They have about 150 employees and are the biggest employer by far in Hopeulikit.

B&C was a perfect place to learn about managing and quality. Every day presented a new lesson. Usually the lessons were hard-learned, and those are the ones that really stick with you. B&C was gracious enough to allow me to interview their personnel about things that came up during my time there. Here is an interesting lesson: Auditing against opinions. The scenario is described by the people who actually lived it.

—Jesus Rivera, molding operator and department trainer
“Auditing was a bit of a mystery to me at first. I didn’t understand what it was or what it was trying to achieve. To tell you the truth, I was a little afraid of it. I had never been audited before, and I figured that the point was to weed out the low performers. I’m a high performer—anybody will tell you that—but I don’t function well when somebody puts me on the spot. Sometimes I just freeze. I’ve even had bad dreams about being audited. Thank goodness the real audit was much different than I expected.

“The auditor who spoke to me, Emily, was really nice. She works in Human Resources. The first thing she did was explain the purpose of the audit, which is to help us improve. She said it wasn’t about finding fault with employees, but to identify opportunities with our procedures and methods. Here’s an interesting thing she told me, ‘When employees make mistakes, it’s usually because our processes weren’t defined or effective.’ That made sense, and it also made me feel a whole lot better.

“During the audit, Emily showed us dozens of things we could do to improve. We had some nonconformities, but that’s how we get better. The audit identified opportunities related to document control, calibration, nonconforming products, and a number of other things. I was very impressed by Emily’s preparation and knowledge. It was obvious that she had been reading a lot and studying different management methods. I want to get personally involved in the things she suggested. That was the great thing about the way she audited: she pointed out our problems, then suggested a specific remedy for it. Some of the solutions weren’t what I would have proposed, but they’ll probably work. And besides, when we’re audited next time, the auditor will see that we’ve acted on her suggestions and we’ll do that much better in the audit. It’s continuous improvement. That’s what auditing is all about, in my opinion.”

—Emily Hammond, human resources director
“I have to admit it: I love auditing. I didn’t think I would, but it’s one of the most exciting things I’ve done at B&C. There are lots of reasons for this. First, I’m getting exposure to parts of the company I’ve never seen before and meeting people I’ve never really spoken to. Second, auditing is task variety, a break from what I normally do five days a week. Third, and most importantly, it enables me to really make a difference for our company. The things that I uncover during the audit can help us become more competitive and more successful.

“I’ve been doing a lot of research into world-class management methods, and I’m finding that most of them can be adopted quite easily. Benchmarking with other companies has also helped me bring good ideas into the audit process. My brother is in the Air Force, and they have a procedure for absolutely everything they do. That makes a lot of sense, in my opinion. During the last audit I performed, I was able to suggest some Air Force methods as a way to address a nonconformity. The bottom line is that we can borrow ideas from a variety of sources. If it helps us get better, then we should embrace it wholeheartedly, no matter where it came from.

“As I audit, I see lots of opportunities to tighten up and improve discipline. I’ll write a nonconfomity if I see something that needs improving. A nonconformity has a magical way of getting people’s attention. Of course, I always preface a nonconformity by saying that the audit is not about our people, but our processes and procedures. It’s not a personal attack on anybody, but a way for us to always be looking for improvements. I think I’m finally making an impact on the organization. There are a lot of things we’re going to do different in the future. It’s called transformation. Come back here in a year and you won’t recognize the place.”

—Big Phil Fedorov, warehouse manager
“Our procedures are becoming unrecognizable to me. Every time an auditor comes back here to audit us, we make little changes to our procedures to satisfy them. It’s death from a thousand cuts. We’ve even had one auditor suggest X, and the very next auditor tell us that X was stupid and we should be doing Y. Holy smokes! These auditors have never worked a single hour in our department and here they are telling us how we should run the place. I’ve instructed all our people to be courteous to auditors, but we’re not going to jump through any more hoops to satisfy them. The auditors are not our customers, dammit!

“Probably the worst thing I’ve noticed is auditors writing nonconformities based on their opinions. If we’re not doing something the way they read about in a management magazine, then they want to write us up. I even had a lady come back here with a copy of the Harvard Business Review. ‘Look,’ she said, ‘this is what you should be doing around here if you’re trying to be world class.’ Never mind that what she was proposing made absolutely no sense. It would have added cost, time, and a higher potential for errors. I told her so, too. Then she wrote us a nonconformity! I couldn’t believe my eyes.

“The audit process has become a thick soup of ideas, opinions, and ‘what they do in the Air Force.’ We’ve completely stopped auditing against requirements, as far as I can tell. If the company commits to doing something, and my department fails to do it, then write us up. But don’t write me up for things we didn’t commit to. I mean, our procedures have plenty of requirements already. The way I look at it, the audit has loads of real requirements she could verify. We also have a number of objectives we’re trying to meet, and an auditor could also check our progress against these. And if an auditor has an idea for improvement, they can certainly mention it or even write a comment. But don’t ding us because we’re not doing something the way they do it in the Harvard Business Review.”

—Dennis “Cowboy” Kelly, finishing department supervisor
“The audit process is a load of b.s. as far as I’m concerned. Lots of extra work for us and nothing of value. The last three things they suggested failed miserably. We implemented their ideas exactly the way they said. The result: failure and frustration. Auditing is a process of jumping through flaming hoops, only to get burned no matter how hard you try. I can’t tell you how many goofy things we’ve done as a result of audits. Here are just a few. We repainted our orange hold bins red because the auditor said red was more logical. We now get at least three signatures before scrapping a product. We use a stopwatch to time our cleaning process. We held classes to teach everyone the central limit theorem. All these things were just some auditor’s bright idea. They didn’t help us work faster, easier or better, and they certainly didn’t have a positive impact on our customers.

“Instead of auditing, how about someone come out here and learn about our process? Spend some time and really understand how we make the product. Then help us improve. You don’t improve by writing nonconformities for problems that don’t exist. The truth is that we’ve got plenty of problems. If someone wants to know what they are, I can tell them. Help us generate some options to fixing our problems. The ideas aren’t going to come out of a magazine. They’re going to come from us. We just need some direction and guidance.

“I didn’t mind the audits at first, but now I hate them. I wish we’d focus on improving and stop this parade of opinions and crazy ideas.”

When it comes to audits, remember:

  • The objective of an audit is to improve processes, not to find fault with employees. It’s helpful to remind everyone of this on a regular basis.
  • A nonconformity results from not fulfilling a requirement. If the auditor can’t find a requirement, then there’s no nonconformity.
  • Ideas, opinions and best practices don’t constitute requirements.
  • There’s a risk in an auditor suggesting specific ideas for improvement, especially when the idea wasn’t solicited. If the idea doesn’t work, the credibility of the entire audit process will suffer.
  • The best role of an auditor is to point out where improvements can be made, then let the people within the process decide for themselves what will work in their circumstances. Ownership for the improvement always lies with the process.
  • Sometimes facilitation, coaching or training is a better use of improvement resources than auditing. Use the correct tools of improvement at the right time. Auditing isn’t always the best tool.

Discuss

About The Author

Craig Cochran’s picture

Craig Cochran

Craig Cochran is a project manager with Georgia Tech’s Enterprise Innovation Institute. Cochran is the author of The Seven Lessons: Management Tools for Success; Problem Solving in Plain English; ISO 9001 in Plain English; Customer Satisfaction: Tools, Techniques, and Formulas for Success; The Continual Improvement Process: From Strategy to the Bottom Line; and Becoming a Customer-Focused Organization, all available from Paton Professional. His most recent book is ISO 9001:2015 in Plain English, also available from Paton Professional.