A View of Auditing (from Atop a Horse)

Most people don’t like being audited. Often, the word auditor is mumbled with a groan and an, “Oh, no!” when there’s news about an audit. I’ve recommended audits as a tool, and that conversation quickly got steered into another direction.

I have a positive way of looking at audits. Let me begin to explain my viewpoint with a personal story.

I’ve gone horseback riding twice in my life. The second time was with my family this fall. Both times, the horses knew I was inexperienced. They took advantage of that to walk me into brambles and trees to get a yummy treat off the trail. This second time, however, I learned a lot about horseback riding.

On my way to the stables, I was thinking, “I am going on a leisurely ride with a well-trained horse. It knows the trail and will follow the other horses leading in front. The trail is clearly marked. I can relax and just sit here! And I know that, in about an hour, I’ll be back at the stables, energized and renewed from a fun ride in the fresh air.”

Then, reality set in. I learned that I needed to be an active participant. The horse wasn’t taking me out on the trail; we were riding it together! Our guides were two young ladies. The quiet one rode in front, leading our posse of six other riders. And, the other was bringing up the rear, shouting instructions about how to better handle our horses. “Don’t let her eat too much!” With our guide from four horses behind me, I better learned to handle the reins, when to give a swift kick (if needed), and guide the horse through our trail. Before the ride was done, Cloi and I were horse and rider, a team out on the trail together, both working and enjoying each other and the trail. I had fun, but it was hard work.

So, what does this have to do with auditors and vigilance?

You, my reader, may be thinking, “I’m forward-looking, know where I aspire this business to go, and have set goals. I have created the best business system possible to allow me to reach those goals. I expect my system to be executed by my well-trained employees for years to come. And, I look forward to success.”

But, what you must realize is that you need to be an active participant. No matter how well-designed your quality system and how well-trained your users, you need to be constantly monitoring where it’s all going and making corrections, where needed. We cannot run business systems blindly, on auto pilot, and expect the long-term success that will lead us to our goals.

This is when our auditor friends are key. The information they give can be an invaluable supplement to those metrics we monitor. Auditors can have a unique and independent view of your systems. Their audit results can help you monitor your systems and make corrections before you’re too far afield. You tell the auditor what’s supposed to be happening, and he can evaluate if your plans are working. She knows common pitfalls. Experienced auditors know of some best practices, too. And, if you don’t really know how a system works, an auditor can help you figure it out; sometimes, a great time to do an audit is when there’s a change in personnel.

Our horse-riding guide at the rear of our line was our auditor, in a manner. We knew our goal: ride horses for an hour in the mountains and have a fun, safe time. We were riding on a marked trail. All of the horses were trained and experienced. Yes, we were all newbies to horse riding. But, our guide watched how we rode and then corrected us so we could better meet our goals. She audited our horse riding techniques: me riding my horse off the trail for snacks, my husband on his grumpy horse nipping at the others, and my son galloping on his horse ahead and cutting line (you can understand why she was instrumental in making sure we got back safely, and we gave her a generous tip).

Develop a working relationship with a group of good auditors. Ask them to come to look around and tell you what they notice. Invite them often, but ensure they maintain their independence from your systems. Auditors are there to provide evidence that your system is performing (or not performing) the way it was designed. Admittedly, most third-party auditors are there to do a job and their work may have higher stakes involved, but the results of their audit are still information for you. You’ll be better informed about how your systems are performing and can course-correct before it becomes really complicated to do so.

So, catch yourself pre-groan next time you hear the word audit and change your thinking. Recognize auditing as a way for you to get information to learn, grow, and make things better. Remind yourself that feedback is a gift; that we’d want to hold ourselves accountable for follow-through, anyway; and that change is really the only absolute. Consider auditors your friends in business success, and use their skills as a tool to help you be vigilant in monitoring your systems.

Happy audit trails to you!