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Denise Robitaille


When Will It Be Over?

Continual improvement is forever

Published: Tuesday, January 8, 2008 - 23:00

There’s a great scene in The Agony and the Ecstasy where Pope Julius, played by Rex Harrison, reacts to the paint dribbles from Michelangelo’s perpetual work on the Sistine Chapel. He’s processing out of the chapel after Mass and Charlton Heston, in his role as the great artist, has unceremoniously spilled paint on the pontiff’s vestments. Julius looks up with supplicant’s hands raised and mouths one of the recurring themes of the movie: “When will you make an end?”

That scene comes to mind often when I’m auditing. Auditees, especially senior managers, anticipate that they’ll some day experience the perfect audit—one in which there are no nonconformities and no opportunities for improvement. Then they can put some kind of permaseal glaze over their entire quality management system to preserve it forever and not concern themselves with any further tweaking or document revisions.

For some things in life, expecting eventual closure is understandable; you want something to be finally completed, finished, done, checked forever off the to-do list of life. Audits don’t fall into this category.

Actually, the definition of the “perfect audit” as one in which there are no findings is just plain wrong. A perfect audit should be one that has been appropriately conducted, making efficient use of allocated resources and one in which the objectives have been attained and the outcome is effective in fostering organizational improvement. Even so, the word “perfect” really isn’t suitable here, as it connotes that nothing can be improved, which is rarely the case. Rather, we should look to see if the audits contribute value to the organization. Do audits affect change? Do the changes improve the bottom line? Is there a return on investment (ROI) for the resources allocated to the audit program?

In the context of auditing, perfection is difficult to attain and is particularly undesirable. Consider what perfection really means. You can’t improve because if you do, it means you weren’t perfect at the time of the audit and, therefore, the audit was flawed. Conversely, if you achieve an optimum level where you can’t change or improve anything, you will eventually stagnate and your competition will run right over you.

Things change. Markets reflect emerging technologies, shifting customer needs, and evolving supply-chain opportunities and constraints. Resources fluctuate; employees come and go. Audits are one of the myriad tools you use to monitor and manage change. So audit findings are a good thing, because they let you know if the changes you’ve experienced have put your organization at greater risk of failing to serve your customers or wasting resources. They help you gauge your compliance with regulatory agencies that protect your customers and often your own organization.

Audits help you to get back on track. They give rise to learning, improvement, and innovation through the actions and decisions that are taken as a result of well-articulated findings.

Of course, none of this improvement stuff can occur if the organization perceives the audit as an elaborate game of cat and mouse. The goal shouldn’t be to ensure that the auditor doesn’t find any actual or potential problems. The goal should be to get a clear, objective, and balanced perspective of the status of processes and systems—what’s working, what isn’t, what could get you in trouble, what great practices need to be benchmarked in other departments or divisions.

There are, of course, two exceptions. First, it isn’t desirable to have multiple repeat findings, as this would indicate that the actions taken as a result of the findings are ineffective and that the organization is garnering no value from the audit program. Although some findings can be great, recurring findings may be indicative of complacency. The other exception sits at the other extreme. It’s possible to occasionally have an isolated audit with no finding. However, if every audit report shows that processes are “perfect,” it’s time to ask if the audits are really being conducted properly.

In any event, there is no end to it. The cycle of planning, implementing, assessing, and adjusting is endless. So are audits and findings.


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.