Andy Nichols CQP FCQI takes a closer look at why audit checklists can be a polarising subject.
Dwight D (‘Ike’) Eisenhower, the 34th President of the USA and World War II military leader, is famously quoted as saying: "I tell this story to illustrate the truth of the statement I heard long ago in the Army: plans are worthless, but planning is everything."
It could well be that the authors of ISO 19011:2018 Guidelines for auditing management systems had the same inspiration, since ‘planning’ is mentioned 18 times. Indeed, section 6.3.2 is devoted to preparing an audit plan that includes using information from two sources: the audit programme and the auditee’s documentation. Often, these two vital sources are overlooked in favour of a ‘silver bullet’ solution to assist this task.
In the initial phases of management systems implementation, it’s the preparation for third-party certification that is the main goal of the organisation, and the internal audits are key to a successful outcome. The organisation’s concerns are to ensure "all clauses" are covered (or similar) to avoid a major nonconformity and a delay to certification.
The use of a pre-defined checklist, usually formatted on the ISO requirements, is an obvious choice to accelerate achievement of this goal. The internal auditors, who are often inexperienced with both ISO 9001 and auditing, find it easier to read from a checklist formatted in this manner:
Does top management demonstrate leadership…? ¨☐Yes ¨☐No
Is the quality policy maintained as documented information? ¨☐Yes ¨☐No
Once certified, however, what then? If the same checklist is adopted for each audit, we will see a pattern of tick-box type events. The audits are likely to be ineffective and seen as simply going through the motions. Worse, the audit never reveals the true nature of the management system implementation which, in turn, casts a shadow on the audits and auditors. No wonder then, that the use of checklists by auditors is such a polarising topic!
We know that checklists are simply a tool in an auditor’s toolbox and that to blame the tool for the result isn’t appropriate. In which case, can we blame the auditor for using checklists? Dr W Edwards Deming tells us it’s "managements’ fault" for poor results a majority of the time and, in this case, it’s really audit programme management – or rather a lack thereof. ISO 19011 discusses the preparation of "work documents" and then gives examples that include "checklists"… What’s going on?
"We know that checklists are simply a tool in an auditor’s toolbox and that to blame the tool for the result isn’t at all appropriate. In which case, can we blame the auditor for using checklists?"
Andy Nichols CQP FCQI, Quality Program Manager at the Michigan Manufacturing Technology Center
The Zeigarnik effect
Enter ‘Ike’: it’s the planning, not the plan. The checklist is the plan. What’s missing is the planning – of the audit – by the auditor. The act of planning is critical to a successful audit, resulting in some kind of "working document" or checklist. Indeed, the Lithuanian-Soviet psychologist Bluma Zeigarnik discovered the following:
- People tend to remember unfinished or incomplete tasks better than completed tasks.
- Zeigarnik noticed that waiters in a café could recall the orders they had not yet delivered better than those they had distributed.
- Much research supports the Zeigarnik effect, but it can also be undermined by things such as the timing of task interruption, a person’s motivation to engage in a task, and how difficult someone believes a task to be.
In a similar manner to someone waiting tables, the auditor will better recall the details of the studied audit criteria, and so on, particularly if this is done immediately before the audit, the scope is sized accordingly, and the auditor is given time to conduct their preparation.
To get the most from your internal audits, some effort must be put in – and planning is the place. If you’re using pre-determined (canned) lists of questions, stop right now!
Now you know about the Zeigarnik effect, put it to good use and see your audits – and auditors – improve.
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