How can we prevent organisational accidents?

Part 2

Make “challenging” better. It’s generally better to have more than one set of eyes on an issue.

The classical challenge is to perform an audit. To take a sample of the work being performed and check that its everything that it’s said to be. This can be done at any stage: design, development, test, production, and in-service. Unfortunately, audits can get bogged down in process, procedures, customs, and practice that get so heavy as to distract from the essences of the task.

There’s a focus on the tangible aspects of work too. How many reports? How many corrective actions? Show me the measurements. Nevertheless, well focused auditing is a powerful tool.

It would be wise not to discount the intangible benefits of an audit. Such activities provide a chance to view the more intangible aspects of work. Here’s a few anecdotes.

Often when being taken for an official guided tour around a design or production facility there time to look beyond what the hosts want you to see. I often found a moment to look at notice boards around a factory, or office and they gave a hint as to the culture in that organisation. Cartoons and jokes of good humour led me to put a “normal” tick in the box. But if they strayed into harsh lampooning of the management or the way of working then there was something to note.

Siting in a manager’s office being briefed as to the timetable for an audit it’s as well to take in the whole scene. All those certificates displayed on the wall. Were they pertinent? Were they there to show off? Or were they showing genuine pride in the achievements of the organisation?

Timetables for an audit are necessary but can be a menace if every second is filled. But an auditor should never be intimidated by a timetable. On occasion, I’ve walked past a pile of records only to turn back and say – and what about this one? Then being told we must hurry on. To which my reaction was to dig in and follow the trail.

It’s true that the environment has changed. Digitisation has made the random selection of a sample more difficult. Digital records lend themselves to more pre-prepared situations.

Mealtimes can be a revelation on organisational culture too. This doesn’t happen anymore, I’m sure. The factory canteen that serves alcohol is truly a thing of the past. However, an auditor being taken out for lunch is still commonplace. It’s possible to get moralistic about such invitations only to miss out on getting a sense of those intangibles that might help understanding.

Additionally, I will warn that there’s the small danger of vexatious challenge. It’s a rarity but obsessions can follow even the most capable of people around. There’s a risk too that focusing on one pet subject can mean gapping great holes are missed. Each subject needs to be taken proportional to its potential impact.

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