How to Avoid the Pain of Audits

Author: Matthew Grant

Over the past few months, Bluefield has been working to build a different approach to reviewing and assessing our clients’ asset management practices and capabilities. 

Most of us have experience with “being audited” – and it’s often been a negative one.  Yet reviewing what you’re doing – and finding ways to improve – is supposed to be an essential part of business.  Everyone knows it, and we all say that it’s important.  So why do so many of us feel we don’t get value from this type of exercise?

We spent a lot of time discussing and reflecting as a team on our experiences, both from the perspective of the client who’s being reviewed, and from the perspective of the reviewer.  Lots of issues were brought up, including many that we’ve been guilty of ourselves, but in the end, one problem kept coming up again and again:

Too many useless recommendations.

Reports sit on the shelf (or a hard drive these days) because leaders either don’t understand what the recommendations are asking them to do, or they simply don’t believe they’ll add value to their business.  We looked at why this occurred, and identified five main reasons:

  • Assessing against a theoretical framework rather than what the business actually needs. We’ve all been in an audit where someone asks, “why do we need to do that?” in response to a question.  “Because it’s in the standard” isn’t a great answer.
  • Focussing on “how” instead of “what”. Getting bogged down in process questions – how you’re doing something – is less useful than looking at whether your practices are effective or not.  There’s nothing more frustrating than being told that something which is working well for you isn’t being done “the right way.”
  • Not differentiating between “perfect” and “good enough.” A reason why recommendations are hard to implement is because they’re often not prioritised.  Everything can be improved, but there’s generally a “critical few” issues that are the key to driving your business forwards.  Unless the assessment criteria can make this distinction, they’re not that useful.
  • Too many repetitive questions. How many times have you thought to yourself, “haven’t they asked that already?”  Going too granular with the questions tends to keep finding the same problems over and over, which means the same recommendations appear over and over.
  • Making assumptions. Often when an issue is found the people conducting the audit can make assumptions about that event. It is essential to discuss with the site team anything that was noticed and don’t assume anything. Often when breakdowns have occurred and it seems like the site was not aware of the defect, actually they were aware, however there were other reasons why it was not repaired in a scheduled manner. It is essential to ensure that any observations are discussed with the people on site who know.

Having learned these lessons, we’ve based our Bluefield AM assessment toolkit on the following principles:

  • Basing the questions on a site’s internal AM Framework or Strategic Asset Management Plan rather than an external standard. Our aim is to assess a business against what they say they need to have in place to be successful.  We’ve learned that the process of “holding up the mirror” is far more effective at bringing about change.  If a business doesn’t have an internal standard in place, Bluefield has one of our own we can use as a starting point.
  • Focussing on effective practices and outcomes. We’ve learned that processes are only as effective as the discipline with which they’re executed.  Rather than get caught up in “how” something is done, we ask three questions.  Firstly – is there a defined process in place that sets expectations for your team?  Secondly – is the process followed?  Finally – is the process achieving what business says it needs to achieve?
  • Prioritising recommendations based on value and risk. Although we offer value-adding improvement suggestions, we know from our own experience that leaders are generally focussed on what’s going to stop them achieving their plan.  We prioritise our recommendations to ensure that priority is given to issues that are either destroying value, or exposing a business to a risk that’s not being effectively managed.
  • Offering multiple levels of detail. We’ve built our tool with three levels of detail.  Our preferred approach is the proverbial “inch-deep, mile-wide,” which aims to get in and out of a site within two days and highlight the priority focus areas.  From experience, that’s normally enough to identify the critical recommendations.  If needed, we can then use our more granular tools to focus on one or two key practice areas to help clients understand exactly how they can improve.

Above all, we’ve learned that the output of an assessment can’t just be a list of recommendations – it must be an improvement plan.  We know that a client never agrees 100% with the recommendations, and that’s fine.  A team doesn’t own recommendations, they own actions that they’ve discussed and agreed to implement.  That’s why we’ve built our process so that the last step isn’t delivering the report to the client, it’s facilitating a workshop where the team decides on their plan and takes ownership of it.  We apply the same principle in our Bluefield Transformation projects.

Different businesses take different approaches to implementing improvements.  Some have continuous improvement processes that they can feed the actions into, others include them in their annual business plan or Strategic Asset Management Plan.  Provided the team believes that the actions will deliver value, it doesn’t really matter.  And if you can get the improvement without the pain of an “audit”, then that’s even better.