Several days ago, I caught up with some friends I haven’t seen for a while. They continue to work for organisations operating across several sectors that I am involved in as an auditor and, in the past, we had worked closely together on various initiatives that were ‘hot ticket items’ at the time. Back then, I had helped them with some of the knowledge that I had around training or to introduce and implement change in somewhat challenging situations, and I had also received much-valued positive support when I worked on projects that included research and lots of interviews. We talked a lot about what is happening in each of the sectors now as well as about some of the challenges organisations are currently experiencing with addressing change – of which there is a lot happening, some good, some very trying indeed! Yet, in amongst these changes, there are opportunities to be had, new things to try, better ways to make progress, ways to buck the usual trends.

And then the comment was made: ‘Oh Kathy, what on earth are you doing? We are doing all we can to make a difference, while you have well and truly gone to the dark side now!’ While this was said with a good deal of humour and certainly sparked a lot of laughter (including from me!), the point they were referring to was about my auditing work. I knew full well that none of these people understood why I believe this work to be so important. I also knew that they saw very little point to their organisation being audited, apart from the tangible links with ongoing funding. In fact, what they talked about was their view of auditing: the burden of it all, having to do things that don’t make any real sense, the imposition on the service when staff are removed from performing their considerably more important duties to doing something related to ‘quality’ (whatever that is), the financial costs and time needed to prepare for the audit as well as being expected to address things that are not right nor as strong as they need to be to meet particular standards after the audit has been completed.

Later on, I pondered the ‘dark side’ comment some more. I knew the origin of this statement to be based on the evil and malevolent aspect of both human personality and society as a whole. In religious imagery, for example, the ‘light’ side is often reflected as God, heaven and the angels, whereas the ‘dark’ side is often referred to as evil, sin and the Devil respectively. However, I also knew this statement was more often referred to in a light-hearted and comic context, which is what my friends were doing. They were humorously saying I had ‘gone over to the dark side’ because I have opted – and actually prefer – something that is out of fashion or not a social group’s accepted preference.

In fact, I think this statement is really quite spot on for me. I am a ‘Star Wars’ fan from way back and what my friends don’t see is that truly value-added and insightful audits and assessments provide so many opportunities for organisations to see not only the strengths of what they do but areas which may present unnecessary weaknesses to them. Thinking about the Death Star that was being built in ‘The Return of the Jedi’ and, in particular, what happened when the one key weakness for that huge satellite was found, there are many parallels to be had between this type of situation and the ones we see in an audit. For example, we can truly believe what we are doing is amazing, indestructible and invincible (the Empire’s view of themselves as well as of the huge size and might of the Death Star), but it may only take one seemingly innocuous small thing (the structural weakness identified in the thermal exhaust port) to eventually blow us out of the water (Luke Skywalker’s precise hit into the small exhaust shaft that triggered a chain reaction for the detonation to occur).

Parallels to the destruction of the Death Star can readily be seen in today’s organisation in areas such as discrepancies between what the governing body think the organisation is about and what the organisation actually does; the organisation seeking feedback from its customers and then not listening to them or ignoring what they are saying because the organisation ‘knows best’; ego driven attitudes and approaches implemented by people managing the business; inconsistent maintenance of recruitment and employment paperwork for staff; not keeping abreast of legislative, regulatory and mandated requirements; cutting corners with service delivery practices; ignoring human rights of staff as well as customers; the list could go on and on.
Reflecting back on the demise of the Death Star, one would have to wonder why ‘they’ (being the builders, commanders, etc.) weren’t aware of such a fundamental flaw. Surely ‘someone’ (perhaps an auditor or two?!) would have been saying the flaw was there? But as we see from the Death Star’s eventual destruction, apparently ‘nobody’ did anything about the flaw and the result was the significant loss of life (whether they were on the ‘right’ or the ‘wrong’ side!), a massive waste of money to build something that could be so easily destroyed, and a reprieve for the heroes.

What’s intriguing about the role of audits is that these are often conducted by external specialists who can identify where potential ‘flaws’ may be – or are. In many situations where flaws or improvement actions are identified, there have been no other ways for the organisation to listen to a different type of ‘truth’. At other times, organisations can greatly appreciate being made aware of the potential for unforeseen destruction and the fallout costs that occur after such times.

Don’t get me wrong – I am fully aware that the truth can be very hard to hear, particularly if we have a different point of view about what is happening. However, I think that the work that goes into developing and implementing an organisation that can and should be sustainable over time is something completely worth investing in. Knowing where potential pitfalls or flaws are so that something can be done to rectify them just makes sense.

So what can we do about this? I think there are several things that we can do:
1. Don’t make assumptions
2. Be a role model that ‘walks the talk’ and ‘talks the talk’
3. Set the standard – and be seen to consistently operate at that level
4. Get buy-in from all levels across the organisation
5. Look for solutions to the issues you see – and ask other people to do the same
6. Perform regular check-ups and do some spot checks – including of your own area
7. Praise performance – including of those times you don’t want to hear the truth

Thinking ahead:

1. Have you been involved in a situation where a flaw in a process was known but the organisation continued to operate on around it? What happened?
2. Do you think your organisation should have other ways to hear about potential issues, apart from auditors and from external audits? If so, what needs to be done to make that happen?
3. What actions do you take to hear feedback that you don’t really want to hear?