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Applying Appreciative Inquiry in ISO 9001 Quality Management Systems Auditing

Published: 29 Apr 2021

Jessen Yeoh, CQP, MCQI, IRCA QMS/EMS/OHS Principal Auditor, Principal Advisor, P Excel Advisory Pty Ltd, explains the benefits of the Appreciative Inquiry approach in auditing.

The motivation and ultimate intention of audit is to check conformance and determine whether audit criteria are fulfilled. Audit should not be a “non-conformance focus” process, concentrating on identifying non-conformances and problem-solving, or even worse, fault-finding and nit-picking. 

Audit is future-focused and should not be directed merely to what has gone wrong in the past. If nonconformance is identified, both auditor and auditee should work toward preventing it from recurring. In fact, this is the fundamental difference between auditing and inspection. Auditing has a conformance and future focus, conversely, inspection focuses on problems or nonconformances and what had gone wrong in the past. 

Appreciative Inquiry is a model that seeks to engage stakeholders in self-determined change. The model was developed at Case Western Reserve University, starting with an article written by David Cooperrider and Suresh Srivastva in 1987. They believed over-emphasising problem-solving hindered social improvements and a new method of inquiry (ie, Appreciative Inquiry) is needed to help generate new ideas. 

Appreciative Inquiry can assist auditors in changing their auditing styles to conformance and future focus. It is an approach to organisational learning and change that focuses on strengths rather than weaknesses. Applying Appreciative Inquiry in ISO 9001 quality management systems auditing will provide opportunities for auditees to be heard and create an audit environment in which auditees are able to choose how they can contribute to the continual improvement of the quality management systems. Appreciative Inquiry is capable of cultivating a sense of positivity, encouraging collaboration and inspiring auditees to do their best. Moreover, it aligns with the true intention of auditing, which focuses on conformance and the future.

Traditional auditors’ interviewing or questioning styles normally have the basic assumption that there is a problem to be identified and solved. Auditors feel the need to identify nonconformance and expect auditees to analyse the potential causes and implement possible solutions and treatments. Appreciative Inquiry, on the other hand, has the basic assumption that an organisation has unknown positive potential to be embraced. The model tries to use ways of asking questions to envision the future as a means to foster positive relationships with the auditee and build on the potential of the auditee and the organisation audited. The auditor will appreciate and value the best of “what is”, envision “what might be” and discuss with the auditee “what should be”.

The most common Appreciative Inquiry Model utilises a 5-D cycle. This can be adapted and applied in ISO 9001 Quality Management Systems auditing as follows: 

  • Define: The auditor defines the audit scope and objectives (ISO 9001:2015 Clause 9.2.2). 
  • Discover: The auditor identities organisational processes that work well or could be done better and, appreciate and value the best of “what is”. Audit evidence (ie, information and data) are obtained about what is working well for the organisation currently (the current state).
  • Dream: The auditor assists auditee, through asking the right questions, to envision “what might be” and how the processes would work better in the future, ie, seeing the big picture. The right questions should steer auditees to align what they are doing with the purpose and strategic direction of the organisation (ISO 9001:2015 Clause 4.1 and 5.1.1b). 
  • Design: The auditee determines “what should be” by prioritising and designing processes that should work in a perfect situation (the ideal state). However, due to technology, financial or resource constraints, the ideal state may not be possible at the moment. Inputs from the auditor (if permitted) may be obtained to benchmark good practices in the industry or sector. 
  • Deliver: “What will be” (the future state) can be defined in process flow charts or in documented procedures (ISO 9001: 2015 Clause 7.5.1) to address the issues raised by the auditor. The auditee establishes criteria for the newly designed processes and implements control of the processes in accordance with the criteria (ISO 9001: 2015 Clause 8.1). Objectives and KPIs may also be established for the new processes (ISO 9001: 2015 Clause 6.2). 

Appreciative Inquiry is able to energise both auditors and auditees because it begins the auditing process with possibilities instead of problems. The aim of Appreciative Inquiry is to build quality management systems around what works well, rather than trying to resolve what does not. The model is able to engage auditees and relevant interested parties and motivate them to realise the purpose and strategic direction of the organisation. 

In short, auditors should utilise the Appreciative Inquiry approach, as opposed to the problem-solving approach, to assist auditees in moving toward an organisation’s vision by continually improving the suitability, adequacy and effectiveness of the quality management system (ISO 9001: 2015 Clause 10.3).