Most organizations understand the value of performing internal audits. The objective of auditing is to gain insights into your processes, help you maintain conformance, mitigate risks, and improve your operational excellence.
However, there are best practices you can incorporate into your audits to make them more effective, insightful, and useful to increase the likelihood of continual improvement.
This blog will cover some key steps you can take to change the way you conduct internal audits to increase your ROI. We will discuss:
- Next Generation Auditing - Changing focus to add value
- Interviewing Techniques for the auditee engagement
- Wording non-conformances to reduce push-back
In the webinar - Supercharge Your Internal Audits For A Better ROI - attendees voted on the most important topics they would like to learn about when it comes to internal auditing. The clear forerunner was next-generation auditing processes, and for good reason.
Internal audits need to be flexible to be effective, or they will simply be considered irrelevant. Next-generation auditing is agile and includes three critical components to ensure you’re getting the best insights possible.
1. Stop Looking For Non-conformances
When you go into an audit - or any performance review - it’s sure to make employees uneasy, especially if they know something isn’t quite right.
Rather than going into the audit with a problem-finding mindset, go in with the intention of finding out what is working. What are the results they’re getting right now? Are the process and/or procedures being used providing the end result they’re seeking?
Ask about risks they may be concerned about in their role, and ask their opinions about ways things could be better.
Focusing on results removes the natural defensiveness associated with criticism, and sets the stage for a cooperative evaluation among the team members. If all you do is look for non-conformances, you’re not as likely to find true, actionable, and profitable solutions. It may be hard to believe, but employees have been known to ‘hide’ them if they’re concerned about the consequences!
2. Stop looking to see if people are ‘following their procedure’
Employees have a lot of responsibilities and for many organizations, employees might feel a sense of dread or fear if they’re “caught” not following their procedures. This can lead to situations where the employee's focus is on ‘doing it by the book’ instead of focusing on getting the right result. In some cases, the employee had found a better way to perform the activity, but the change control process is so cumbersome that they can’t be bothered to suggest the change. Encourage employees to make suggestions about improvements and you’ll get even more value from your audits.
By nature, human beings want to do the best they can in all they do, including their jobs. In fact, experts have found a sense of meaning at work is crucial to retaining employees, so head into your audits understanding the importance of each individual wanting to contribute to a bigger picture and make sure your organizational culture allows them to.
They want to do well at their job and be appreciated.
To that end, if the procedure(s) they’re supposed to follow are not ideal, they may choose to change the way they’re done to make the process more efficient. When auditing, consider three things:
- Results - are they what we want?
- Risks - is the auditee aware of them and are they being managed well?
- Suggestions for improvement - is there anything that needs to be tweaked?
Instead of approaching employees with the challenge of whether or not they’re following their procedures, ask if their procedures are giving them the results they are looking for. This is going to empower them to feel comfortable speaking openly and, possibly, even reveal ways your organization’s processes can run more smoothly and, thus, improve the employee experience.
And, according to Harvard Business Review, companies that are vested in employee experience, are “more than four times the average profit and more than two times the average revenue.”
Simply finding feasible, reasonable alternatives to existing procedures may lead to better ROI on your internal audits.
3. Find a way to help without consulting
Remember: The people you’re talking to are there every day, doing the same things. They know their processes more than you do as an auditor, especially a ‘third party’ auditor. While you’re likely clear on the end goal, they are clear on that, as well as the processes that lead to that goal.
But since you’re likely only there for a few hours a year and they are there every day, that makes them the experts.
Using a flowchart to document the processes gives you a visual representation of possible fixes to improve the workflow and isn’t overwhelming with data that makes it seem too complicated. Visual tools are more powerful than text-based information.
While it may be instinctive to go into an internal audit looking for non-conformances (which is an important part of audits), going in with a different focus and attitude enhances your ability to identify risks of non-conformance. Plus, when you’re open to receiving input from employees on ways to improve processes, you are more likely to get buy-in from them because they’ll appreciate being heard.
When you are risk and results-focused, you’ll be more likely to find invaluable insights from those who are on the lines every day, which is another part of increasing your ROI.
Interviewing Techniques For The Auditee Engagement
You won’t be able to get the best information if you don’t ask the right questions, but it’s not just about asking the right questions; It’s also about how you ask them, and how you gather your data. There are three ways you can increase the effectiveness of your audit interviews:
- Create a conversation
- Simplify how you gather evidence
- Check handoff points in the workflow
1. Create a conversation, not an interrogation
As an auditor, you’re performing your job, the same as those you’re auditing. This makes you part of one team and a stakeholder of sorts in the success of the organization. You’re not investigating them or inspecting their work.
The language you use will change the cadence of the conversation when you’re talking to the employees about their processes. Try to avoid questions that can lead to defensiveness or discomfort (i.e., “Who is responsible for XYZ?” or “Where is the evidence that you’re following the right procedures?”).
Instead of coming off as accusatory or critical, open up a dialogue and ask questions about what’s working and what’s not. This will help avoid employees feeling scrutinized, judged, or ridiculed, and allow them to feel comfortable being more forthright.
Acknowledge them as experts in their fields and create a conversation that is fruitful, honest, and respectful on all sides. Instead of coming out with a question that puts them on the spot (i.e. “What do you do when this/that happens?”), ask questions that get them talking about where they get their input from. An open-ended question like, “Tell me a little about how this workflow goes,” will put them more at ease.
TIP: Try to avoid using the word “you” too much. For example, if you want to know what a line supervisor does when something happens, simply ask “What happens when…?” instead of, ’”What do you do when…?”. This removes the accusatory tone of the word “you” and opens up the lines of dialogue. This kind of conversational tone will improve everyone’s attitudes towards internal audits and how helpful they really are to the company as a whole.
2. Simplify your evidence gathering to cover more ground faster
Using a flowchart of processes and sub-processes, you can use a simplified checklist to document the activities within a particular process, the evidence provided to indicate the need for that activity, and other essential information, including if it’s a non-conformance issue or Opportunity For Improvement. This form of evidence gathering streamlines the process and makes it simple, so you’re getting valuable data without wasting too much time.
Using a technological solution such as SafetyChain will allow you to automate audit reports and even segment them for different departments. Color-coding creates a visually easy-to-follow representation of issues that need to be addressed, who’s attached to those workflows, and what is supposed to happen next. And since this is all automated, you’ll identify risks and issues that need attention quickly.
3. Follow the workflow to check the handoff from one process to the next
A flowchart also gives you the benefit of seeing the handoffs from each process, which is where non-conformance issues are frequently initiated and/or encountered. It can be helpful and illuminating to print out a flowchart or two on a plotter and put colored pins onto the chart where something has missed the mark. This gives an instant indication of areas that need some help.
Wording non-conformances to reduce push-back
It’s human nature to not want to make mistakes and to be appreciated for a job well done. Most people have experienced the discomfort of being challenged or accused of something wrong, even if there was no wrongdoing or the incident was an accident or oversight.
Naturally, this would cause most people to become defensive or upset, but there are ways you can curb your verbiage and adjust your approach, to avoid push-back when talking about non-conformance.
1. Operator error is the root cause only 6% of the time
Since operator error is the root cause of non-conformance only 6% of the time, this means 94% of the time, there’s a weakness in the system somewhere that’s causing it to happen.
Go into your audits with this mentality - and spreading that language - to reduce the potential friction from employees who might be feeling judged. When they know you’re aware most issues are due to a system weakness, they’ll be more likely to communicate the possible issues, rather than being afraid they will be blamed for exposing the weakness.
2. Poorly-worded non-conformance will inhibit continual improvement
Just as using nonjudgmental and personable interviews will bring more positive results, the words you choose when addressing non-conformance make an impact, too.
Simply changing the focus can significantly reduce the amount of defensiveness and/or denial in cases of non-conformance.
For example, instead of saying “The operator did not follow procedure” (which is accusatory), you could try more general phrases like:
- “The procedure has not been fully implemented.”
- “The current procedure does not match current practice.”
- “There is inconsistent (or lack of) evidence for…”
Using these variations removes the focus from an individual to a weakness in the system, which could have actually happened anywhere up or downstream from where the non-conformance was observed.
This is a non-abrasive way of presenting the reality that non-conformance happened without placing blame on an individual. This reduces the push-back.
Alternatively, if your wording is seen as adversarial, employees will become defensive and automatically jump into survival mode to protect their reputation. This, in turn, creates push-back which will minimize the facility’s continual improvement and make doing a root cause analysis unnecessarily difficult.
3. Make Your Closing Meetings Appreciated With 4 Components
Your closing meetings can be either positive or negative experiences. There are four things you can include to have an effective and impactful closing meeting.
Thank everyone for their hospitality
Even if you weren’t met with friendly excitement, thanking them for having you at their facility is a friendly way to go into your meeting.
Give a high-level statement of your conclusions, stating the overall effectiveness of the system
You don’t need to go into great detail here. Just a couple of sentences about how their system is working.
Keep track of notable conditions you saw throughout your audit and state them
Ideally, you’ll have a notepad handy and can reference notes you’ve made throughout your audit. During this time, make statements about the things you noticed that were really well done or that you found impressive.
Finish with the OFIs and NCs and next steps
Remember: The purpose of an internal audit is to ensure the smooth operation of internal processes. To do this effectively, NCs must be identified to improve them and that’s a conversation you can have with them, rather than a lecture about what’s wrong with everything.
Ask for feedback and actively listen. At the end, ask if anyone needs anything clarified, rather than “are there any questions?” because some people might not feel comfortable asking questions for fear they may be the only one who didn’t “get it.”
Internal audits are necessary to ensure the conformance of your management system and discover opportunities for continual improvement. Without audits, you don’t know what needs attention or what’s working well. The people in your organization are doing the best they can with what they have, but an effective internal audit - rooted in excellent communication skills - will help identify ways to improve workflows so your employees feel confident, capable, and perform at their best.
To learn more about performing internal audits, download the Magic of Internal Audits: Mistakes, Insights, & Advice, so you can get your organization operating at peak performance.