The Positives and Pitfalls of Auditing Checklists

Management interview

Every auditing course you go on, every book you read about auditing, every standard that’s been written essentially all say the same thing ­– if you audit you should use a checklist! Now that’s all good and fine, but there are some things to be aware of. Here we’re going to explain the good and some of the pitfalls of checklists and then we will recommend some ways to address them. It doesn’t matter whether it’s a quality management system, an environmental management system, an occupation health and safety management system, a food safety management system or an integrated management system; the issues are the same.

The good – positives

  1. Reminder – They remind you what you have to cover, the questions you need to ask, and the evidence you need to see. It is hard to forget to ask something if it’s on your checklist.
  2. Consistency – If different people are conducting audits (or inspections), having a checklist helps ensure that everyone looks for the same evidence.
  3. Continual improvement – If an additional requirement is needed, it can be added to the checklist to ensure everyone will know to ask for that from now on.

The bad – pitfalls

  1. Too many questions – Often checklists are prepared by people who do not actually have to use them and they do not realise how long it takes to get through all of the questions.
  2. Added but never deleted – It is very easy to add another question to a checklist but it seems almost impossible for organizations to remove questions. This means that over time checklists get bigger and bigger.
  3. Irrelevant – In some situations certain checklist questions are too general and become irrelevant. For example a checklist for a vehicle audit requires you to examine all four wheels, when the actual vehicle being checked is a motorbike or, even worse, a jet ski.
  4. Boring – If auditors have to use the same checklist every week, there is a tendency to get bored with it and overlook items because they were only checked last week.
  5. Tick and flick – Many checklists only use closed questions requiring yes or no answers, this often results in a column of ticks, and little confidence that anything was actually looked at.
  6. Focus – Often the focus is on ensuring that each and every checklist question is fully completed rather than focussing on the biggest risk area, which may vary from one situation to another.
  7. Scoring – Lots of organizations use a method of scoring for their audits, whilst this has some merit it will often result in people only focussing on the questions with the highest score rather than all of the activities.
  8. Happy sheet – If the checklist questions are too simple and superficial there is a tendency for people to think everything is compliant when in reality there are deeper issues.
  9. Order – If the questions on the checklist do not reflect the order of the activities as they happen, it can result in organizations modifying their process to suit the checklist. This can possibly mean doing activities in the wrong order just to keep an auditor happy.

The solution

  1. Multiple – Have a number of different checklists and rotate them. This way each can be smaller allowing more time for each question and people are much less likely to get bored because they will be looking at different evidence each time.
  2. Specific – If you want a specific answer then ask a specify question. Don’t ask questions like “Are the scales calibrated?” ask “What is the serial number of the weighing scales and when is its next calibration due date?”
  3. Freedom – If there is not a specific answer then allow the auditor some freedom in the checklist – however, steer away from the tick and flick.  Don’t ask “Are the people competent?” ask “How are the people deemed competent?”.
  4. Relevant – Allow some questions not to be asked if they are not applicable. For example, if there are questions about knife safety, but at that particular audit site there were no knives available.

In summary

Use checklists by all means but you have to keep it interesting. Mix it up a bit and ask specific questions when you have to, but allow freedom when the situation doesn’t call for it. The focus should be on confirming that what is happening and what the system/process requires are the same. Also, allow the auditor the time to do the job properly, if there are too many questions then it all gets a bit rushed and the audit report becomes another document to file away somewhere only to be looked at by yet another auditor.  

How do you use checklists in an audit?  Leave a comment to tell us which checklists you find most useful. 

Leave a comment to tell us which checklists you find most useful. 

2 Comments

Carnival of Quality Management Articles and Blogs – November, 2016 | The world is too small? or Is it?

[…] The Positives and Pitfalls of Auditing Checklists  – Every auditing course you go on, every book you read about auditing, and every standard that’s been written essentially all say the same thing ­– if you audit you should use a checklist! Now that’s all good and fine, but there are some things to be aware of. The article goes on to explain the good and some of the pitfalls of checklists and then recommends some ways to address them. […]

Richard

Excellent article.
Some auditors discredit checklists as too simplistic. To me, that would mean the checklists are viewed too rigidly. Flexibility and guidance are the key, imho.

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