Alan NicolIn our quest to minimize our work to only the essential value-added elements, we often overlook the benefits of non-value-added activities. One such activity is the quality process audit.

Few of us enjoy conducting audits. Fewer of us enjoy being interrupted in our work to cooperate with an audit of our work. In the Lean methodology, we define process audits as non-value-added because they are activities that do not contribute to the betterment or the fulfillment of our product or other work.

In Six Sigma, we strive to eliminate the need for audits by proactively, visually displaying our process capability. In almost every sense of business and process performance we try to eliminate quality audits of process.

It is, however, in my opinion, a misplaced understanding, a misunderstood connection between the goal of eliminating anything for an audit to find, and eliminating the importance of the audit. We absolutely should do the former. We really cannot do the latter.

The importance of the quality process audit cannot truly be eliminated because the importance doesn’t rest solely in its ability to find mistakes. That is the least of its importance. It has much greater meaning that we cannot afford to ignore or lose.

Take a moment to reflect on any routine task or chore. Consider your children’s chores, your own household chores, every time you 5S your own workspace, or each time you clean and service some equipment. This is just to point out a universal human phenomenon. Do those tasks always get done precisely and thoroughly every time they are done?

Does your son always mow the lawn without a thin strip or two of untrimmed grass? Does he always use the trimmer to get the edges under the bushes? Do you always dust every knick-knack on the mantle every time you dust? Do you always clean out the grease trap when you reset the machine?

Not every tedious process we do gets exacting attention every time we do it. That happens in the workplace too. The real threat is that if there are no consequences to shirking a detail once in a while, and no one seems to notice or care, once-in-a-while increases in frequency as our own patience for something of dubious importance becomes shorter.

However, when we inspect the lawn and make our son trim the missed spots, when a guest notices the dust on the knick-knacks, when someone else points out that we didn’t sustain our 5S workspace, or when the operator on the next shift complains about the mess we left him in the grease trap, we re-learn, or re-teach the importance of those details. 

While regular process audits do not add value to our processes, or our product, or our work directly, they do reinforce the discipline of maintaining our processes and their performance, and they communicate the importance of process perfection. They are an essential part of leadership and discipline for a culture of continual improvement.

I recently spoke with some colleagues who became aware of a major problem at their business. That business receives systems for its product from a supplier, as many do. They recently learned from the supplier that some of the systems already delivered and fielded do not possess proof of conformance to the design specifications or compliance to regulatory standards. What’s worse is that a recent investigation demonstrates that at least some of the product delivered does not meet regulatory requirements and should be recalled and replaced.

The process gap that allowed this problem to originate and persist is systemic and probably affects other systems and products too. Obviously, this is a big problem that hasn’t been completely assessed or contained and it has generated a great deal of unpleasant activity.

The natural question of, “when was the last time we audited this supplier and its process,” was asked. The answer turned out to be, “never.” Coincidentally, the regulatory authority also has never conducted an audit of the supplier’s documentation for regulatory compliance. The system has been in production for more than a decade.

Obviously, we cannot blame the lack of audits as the cause for process failure in the example above, or for any situation. However, almost any meaningful audit within the last ten years would have discovered the process gap and documentation failure. Anytime before now would be better than now.

What’s more, because the supplier has gone so long without proper documentation of configurations and actual components and materials used, and without a rigor of comparing actual as-built systems with regulations and specifications, its team of quality, engineering, and regulatory personnel needs to call in help to determine what the right thing to do might be. It is simply out of practice making the proper decisions and understanding the correct actions.

It is an unfortunate example of how far things can slide out of control when no one is watching, appears to be watching, or appears to care. Other things that people do obviously care about will naturally get more attention when time and energy are limited. It is what can and does happen when we decide that process audits aren’t necessary.

The truth is, even when our processes are performing excellently and thorough process audits can’t find anything to correct or improve, process audits are important and necessary. They are communication and leadership tools. They make it clear that process perfection is important and expected.

Here are some axioms that we can leverage to make the most of audits as a communication tool.

  • Greater frequency implies greater criticality
  • Thoroughness means it must be important
  • Ernest effort to find fault and failure to do so deserves congratulations

The opposites of those axioms are also generally true. A half-hearted, unconcerned audit implies a lack of importance, for example.

We can continue to reward good process performance with fewer, less frequent audits, however, the longer we go without an audit, the more thorough our occasional audits should be. Dig deep. Hunt hard. Demonstrate the criticality of the process with an earnest effort to prove its actual consistency. Celebrate process excellence at the end of a thorough audit that finds little or no fault.

The foundation of successful cultural change and leadership is setting expectations and holding people accountable to meet those expectations. Quality audits of processes are tools that do just that. It is important to use those tools because when we choose not to use them, we inadvertently communicate an opposing message, that process performance is not important.

Stay wise, friends.

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