Last week, I spoke about the important role of policies and procedures in an audit and the challenges that organizations face when policies and procedures are purchased ‘off-the-shelf’ and not modified to reflect what the organization actually does, as well as situations where policies and procedures are neglected or people,  have no idea what these actually say.  Yes, policies and procedures are critical for any audit process, including the first audit that the organization undertakes with an external certification body.  However, these are not the only considerations.

The first externally assessed audit of your organization is usually an incredibly stressful time.  While you may be provided with useful guidance from the certification body and possibly from your networks prior to the actual first audit date about what to expect, the reality is that you are preparing for an experience you haven’t ever had before.  For some people, there can be a very real fear of the unknown and for other people, they might be feeling extremely confident about the process while in reality, they don’t know what they don’t know.

Reflecting on this topic for myself, I know I had no idea about what to expect when I had my first audit for my Registered Training Organization and I know at the time I hoped it would all go well.  Sounds like wishful thinking, doesn’t it?  For me, it certainly was!  Somehow, I bumbled my way through that first audit, after answering what I thought were unusual questions about the time.  For example, ‘I would like to see your meeting minutes please’.  Hmmm, interesting question.  My response was, ‘Gee, I would really like to help you with this but you see, the reality for me is that I am the sole Director of the company and no, I don’t do meetings with myself.  I talk to myself quite a bit and I answer myself with some very reasonable responses which I think sound quite plausible but, no, I don’t write them down as minutes.  I put them in the continuous improvement register because most often, what I am talking about to myself are really ways to make improvements to the content of training materials, that sort of thing.  I think me talking to myself and answering myself sort of sounds quite nuts but it actually really works as you can see by looking at the register and how the entries translate into improvements to the materials.’  The auditor did apologise and we continued on throughout the audit quite calmly after that.

Even now, I still operate the same way.  Several weeks ago, I attended a week-long class to learn how to paint portraits.  The only real preparation I did for that was to purchase some paint and several canvas boards.  The rest of what I thought I would need I figured I would sort out during the classes.  Really?  I had never painted anything remotely like a portrait before and to be honest, had only ever had about one week’s worth of experience with painting anything before that week.  I was pretty optimistic I would work it out – sort of like my approach to my first audit for my RTO.  Here is day 1’s painting of a model who was a normal-looking man.

All I could do was laugh at the end of the session – my painting of him looked like he was an alien on drugs!  The tutor didn’t say anything (really, what could she say?!!).  At the end of day one, I realized I was in big trouble – I had no idea about how to paint portraits and I knew there was no way I was going to be an Anh Do or Ben Quilty style of painter anytime soon.  What I hadn’t realized is that some background knowledge of anatomy would have been useful before I started.  For example, who knew that the eye socket is like a ball and that people’s ears are actually a lot bigger than you think they are?  I had a lot to learn in a short space of time.  By the end of the week, I had painted this version of the model:

What I realized from that week, and considering my ordinary approach to managing new situations is that I come at it from past experience of working it out as I go along.  This works most of the time, but from my painting experience, I know that I really should prepare for some situations a whole lot better than I usually do.  And perhaps I shouldn’t even start some things – like painting portraits!!

Similar experiences are what I sometimes see with people going through an audit for the first time: people falling back and using their own life skills to adapt to something new.  Sometimes it works well and other times not.  Sometimes people will be extremely exhausted at the end of the first day of their audit, and some people have said it was like preparing for a battle that they didn’t know what the outcome would be.  For other people, feelings of failure can be exposed, particularly if they are very attached to what they have in place or are perfectionists.

The reality though, is that the first day is the start of a new journey, one that can bring out all of those pre-existing survival strategies as well as opportunities for doing things differently from now on.  I know I need to remember that too, not only for myself and what I am doing for my own company’s preparation for audit but so many times when I am working with people who are just starting on the accreditation pathway.

Thinking ahead:

1. Are you aware of how to manage in situations that completely outside your previous experience?  What does this look like for you?

2. If you are about to go into your organization’s first audit, what strategies do you have in place to address how you will manage not only the audit outcomes but your own feelings and thoughts about the outcome?

3. What strategies do your staff have to manage positive feedback or opportunities for improvement, not only in their work area but for the organization as a whole?  If there is a discrepancy between how people manage outcomes and what the organizations needs to go forward beyond the audit, what can you do about that?