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Denise Robitaille


The Farmer and the Stork

The wisdom of Aesop

Published: Tuesday, April 8, 2008 - 22:00

A farmer was experiencing a serious problem with cranes eating his seed, so he decided to cast a net upon his fields in an attempt to capture the cranes. Along with the cranes, he snared a stork. The stork pleaded for his life saying, "Honorable farmer, I am not like these others who came to steal your seed. I am a stork." The farmer replied, "You may very well be a stork, but from the evidence here, I can only assume that you, too, have come to eat my seeds." And with that he slew the stork along with the cranes.

I found this nugget as I was digging into my archives of Aesop fables. I’m continually delighted and amazed at the enduring relevance of Aesop’s moral tales, especially when they relate to things like auditing and quality principles in general.

When conducting audits, many of you have probably come across those hapless souls who find themselves in the uncomfortable position of being accountable for a finding of nonconformity in their area. They plead their case, insisting that this is an isolated incident of insignificant consequence and that it’s never happened before. They attempt to explain; they try to cajole. After all, look at all these other records or processes that are perfectly controlled. I’ve even had people say: “We didn’t think you’d be looking at these records” as though the only ones that need to be well controlled are the ones an auditor is expected to review.

It’s worth revisiting a few of the rules of auditing, both from the auditors and the auditees’ perspectives. This is a fact-finding event, not a fault-finding expedition. There are multiple documented requirements that must be objectively verified. The results and ultimate conclusion of an audit must be rooted in objectivity. That means there’s no room for sympathy or sentimentality. That leaves room for civility and discretion.

An auditor’s checklist is like a balance sheet. On one side are the documented requirements; on the other, evidence that the requirements have been fulfilled. It may seem a bit cold-blooded, but that’s simply because it needs to be devoid of emotion, opinion, and innuendo. At times it may seem that an auditor is turning a deaf ear to protestations that this is an isolated event. Auditors don’t nitpick. If there appears to be some doubt about a nonconformity, an auditor can listen to reasonable explanations that provide evidence of an alternate method or control or fulfillment of a requirement. This may lead to an observation or an “opportunity for improvement” rather than the overly-dreaded nonconformity (NCR).

Auditor objectivity is not only something to require; it’s something to celebrate. It ensures that you’re getting your money’s worth—an impartial and thorough assessment of how you’re doing. So, if all the evidence points to a conclusion—positive or negative—that’s what must be reported.

Auditors, for their part, can ameliorate auditees’ concerns by the manner in which they articulate a nonconformity. There’s a lot of difference between saying “The technician didn’t fill out the test reports correctly” and “There is no evidence that test reports have been completed in accordance with documented procedures.” One points the finger and says “That person screwed up.” The second sentence simply says that both sides of the balance sheet don’t match. Without further investigation, it’s not possible to know if the process has been changed, but the documentation has yet to be revised; if the supervisor had instructed the technician to use a new form that is being tested; or if the auditor was given the wrong revision of the procedure before beginning the audit. There are any number of other possibilities. All the auditor can ascertain and assert is that both sides of the balance sheet don’t match. Further conjecture only muddies the water and often usurps that auditee’s opportunity to investigate and experience the learning and improvement that will result.

Keeping the language as neutral and unbiased as possible should also allay fears that accompany overdramatically worded NCRs—leaving individuals to wonder if they’ll soon suffer the same fate as Aesop’s stork.


About The Author

Denise Robitaille’s picture

Denise Robitaille

Denise Robitaille is the author of thirteen books, including: ISO 9001:2015 Handbook for Small and Medium-Sized Businesses.

She is chair of PC302, the project committee responsible for the revision to ISO 19011, an active member of USTAG to ISO/TC 176 and technical expert on the working group that developed the current version of ISO 9004:2018. She has participated internationally in standards development for over 15 years. She is a globally recognized speaker and trainer. Denise is a Fellow of the American Society for Quality and an Exemplar Global certified lead assessor and an ASQ certified quality auditor.

As principal of Robitaille Associates, she has helped many companies achieve ISO 9001 registration and to improve their quality management systems. She has conducted training courses for thousands of individuals on such topics as auditing, corrective action, document control, root cause analysis, and implementing ISO 9001. Among Denise’s books are: 9 Keys to Successful Audits, The (Almost) Painless ISO 9001:2015 Transition and The Corrective Action Handbook. She is a frequent contributor to several quality periodicals.