Taking Control of the Facts

Do it right and auditing changes the way you think. Do it wrong and it changes the way people think of you.

What it’s not

For some,  their perception of “the audit” is that it has to be something of a diagnostic partnership. And you can forgive people for thinking that way, because they probably see a lot of that sort of thing. A self indulgent quasi-consulting exercise masquerading as a “management system audit”, where the actual audit criteria and the requirement for a clean impartial process fly right out of the window. This usually results in a report full of superficial and irrelevant “Opportunities for Improvement” that have little practical use in the management assurance process. A good audit is not about that at all.

What it is

The actual role of the auditor is to get to the bottom of things.  Once you’ve done that, you put those facts, be they good, bad or indifferent, in a report and give that report to whomever has requested it. You then trust that they find it useful, but that is up to them. Your work, for now, is done. That is how the auditor “adds value”, by doing what s/he is paid to do.

Changing the way you think

So why does systems auditing change the way you think? Well, getting to the bottom of things is reaching that point where everything makes sense. When that’s not happening, you’ve not got to the bottom of things, so keep going.

Eventually everything adds up

What you learn is that real idiots are rare, and the reason for a decision not being the right one or not making sense to you is rarely idiocy. When something doesn’t add up, there’s nearly always something you don’t know. Eventually all things add up. This might make you start to look at life events through a different prism. Political decisions that make no sense, for example. You can safely assume there’s something you haven’t been told. When things seem to good to be true, assume things aren’t what they seem – look for the catch. There’s no such thing as a free lunch. Know, for example, that cheap food is cheap for a reason and expertise is expensive for a reason. In the words of Red Adair, if you think experts are expensive, try hiring an amateur.

Why are systems inefficient?

Systems are all inefficient for the same reason – because they can be. You want to eliminate inefficiency? Start by removing the option of inefficiency. It is no coincidence that there is an almost perfect correlation between the more efficient systems and the lowest margins. A system that works to low margins simply can’t be inefficient, so guess what? It won’t be. Efficiency means hard work and nobody volunteers for a hard life, that’s human nature, so efficiency needs sustained pressure of one form or another, otherwise it won’t happen.

Causation, correlation and coincidence

Another thing you learn is to differentiate between the three C’s. Causation, Correlation and Coincidence. To get an appreciation of that, I can give no higher recommendation than to go back through a few Radio 4 More or Less podcasts. It’s a radio program that takes a look back at statistics that have been quoted over the past week, usually by politicians, and puts them through the test of careful analysis. A year or so ago, for example, the program looked at the apparent causal link between weekend admissions to hospital and a higher level of fatality. News reports and some politicians had seized upon the statistic, concluding that this was OBVIOUSLY as a result of poorer care provision at weekends – and that played well to a certain political narrative. But why would that be? What is the causal factor? Why would the quality of care provision plummet over a weekend? Money? The thing is, that’s not the only thing going on. Another factor is that there tends not to be any routine admissions at weekends (that is, for the type of condition where you have a very very high chance of surviving your stay). You’ll never be admitted on a weekend for an ingrowing toenail. Weekend admissions are nearly all emergency admissions and, naturally, the survival rates on emergency admissions are lower than they are for routine admissions. So, correlation and causation. Eventually it makes sense.

Personally I think getting to the bottom of things can be quite a satisfying and rewarding thing. A good auditor will simply take control of the facts, report them in an impartial way, and hope that the recipient can make good use of them in their decision making processes.

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The Curious Case of the Inverted Hierarchy

It’s been a while since I’ve written a new post. I’ve been busy. For that I apologise, but I’m sure you will understand. Baby needs shoes.

Anyway, here I am sitting watching some poor folk sit a Lead Auditor exam, with time on my hands. In this post I’m going to describe a rather unusual circumstance I encountered last year which presented its own almost unique set of management challenges. For fairly obvious reasons I won’t identify the client. Again, I hope you will understand.

Sometime last year I found myself working with a rather well known organisation. Part of my work involved understanding their operational risks and how they were mitigated. For that I needed to spend some time at the coal face. Now “coal face”, in this case, perhaps isn’t the most appropriate term to describe their point of service delivery. The “workers” were highly paid specialists, performing very complex tasks in a high hygiene environment. To some extent being able to witness the task felt like a bit of a privilege.

Part way through my time at their coal face I became aware that some of the controls in the “sterile environment” did not seem to be as stringent as I was used to in some other high hygiene environments, such as in food production. There were mobile phones in the work environment, documents, folders, pens that came apart and some of the staff were wearing earrings. You’d not normally get any of that anywhere near the food production area of a factory. It was explained to me that the sterile area was limited to the immediate vicinity of the task and the area just a few feet outside of the immediate vicinity didn’t need to be sterile. This still seemed a bit odd to me as, whilst that might have been true, it was possible, at no extra cost, to reduce the risk of contamination just that little bit more by excluding certain none critical objects from the adjacent areas. Later on I asked about frequency of hygiene checks and was very surprised to find the frequency of formal checks was “never”. This only added to my confusion as to why the hygiene controls for making sausages or fish fingers is generally higher than in this “sterile” work area.

I had to get to the bottom of it.

One thing you learn as an auditor is that when something doesn’t add up, there is usually something you don’t know. There was definitely something I didn’t yet know. So I pressed about the absence of formal hygiene checks. Eventually the answer came back that the coal face worker (the specialist) wouldn’t allow it. Then things started to make sense. In a factory (for example) it isn’t the worker that dictates procedures or management controls. They are expected to simply comply, and if they don’t they can expect to get into trouble, but this work area was different. In this case the “worker” was the most senior and the best paid person in the mix. They were also a very talented and a scarce commodity and very, very difficult to replace. In this case it was they that decided what would and would not happen on their patch. They decided what was necessary and what checks on them they would allow to take place. Anything they didn’t like didn’t happen. Going to war with the specialists was something their management just couldn’t afford to do. Consequently the system was “managed” to a large extent bottom up rather than top down. It seemed to “gravitate” to a set of controls and behaviours that were mutually acceptable, rather than by a top down risk based process of design, implementation and management.

It was then that I felt I had got to the bottom of things, which was scant consolation as there was effectively nothing that could be done about the hanging risks within the system. For a while I was wondering if this was unique. The only close parallel I could think of was a tier 1 football club that employed a number of galacticos. It may be that you can manage the superstars up to a point, but there is always a limit as to how much you can get them to do if they don’t want to do it, short of beg or cajole, and in the case where the two sides go to war with one another, it is always the manager that comes off worst in the end.

The interesting thing, apart from all the above, about the organisation in question, was that it spent a lot of money on quality improvement, but none of it ever went anywhere near what, to me at least, seemed to be a pretty obvious root of many of their problems. Again probably with good reason, once you have the facts ….

Shaun Sayers

Posted in Auditing, Leadership & Management, Quality Improvement | 4 Comments

ISO 45001:2018: Some Early Observations

The history

This standard has been several years in development, and reaching agreement on content hasn’t been easy, but finally, in March 2018, we have our first OHSMS ISO standard. Previous drafts have all been kicked back for a number of reasons. It has proven difficult, given the very significant variation in the level of national OH&S legislation worldwide, to develop an OHSMS standard that is robust and progressive and yet still attainable for organisations that operate in the developing world.

Some early observations

ISO 45001 replaces OHSAS 18001 as the certifiable management system standard of choice within accredited third party certification processes. OHSAS 18001 registered organisations have three years from now (March 2018) to manage their transition to ISO 45001. I was intrigued to see BSI hailing their first set of ISO 45001 certifications this week, literally TWO DAYS after ISO 45001 was issued. Generally it takes certification bodies a few weeks to develop their own systems to certify to a new standard and also upskill their auditors in the new standard, and gain UKAS accreditation, so it was a bit odd. I assume that over the past few weeks a pilot program has been running. My guess is that those certification bodies not part of the pilot will take some time to have their internal verification processes and competences approved by their Accreditation Body, and won’t be offering accredited certification until the summer.

The ISO 45001 standard itself adopts the Annex SL clause structure around which ISO 9001 and ISO 14001 are already based. That means the PDCA sequenced clause 4-10 framework. As OHSAS 18001 was already PDCA sequenced, this is not a major uplift. There are a few issues that organisations will need to look closely at and, for me, at first sight at least, the most significant relates to Top Management involvement in the OHSMS. There is an interesting and significant addition – Worker Participation.

Communication and consultation has always formed part of OHSAS 18001 so, on the face of it, there’s no big change, but the positioning of the requirement within Section 5, and also the addition of some quite specific elements, make it potentially a bit of a game changer (if the certification bodies choose to apply it as written, obviously, which they may not). It is now the specific responsibility of TOP MANAGEMENT to ENABLE worker participation, and that enabling function specifically includes REMOVING BARRIERS TO PARTICIPATION.

Barriers to Participation?

So what are barriers to participation? Well, there are certain structural matters that might make it difficult for workers to participate. They may work remotely for instance, without regular access to the organisation’s communication systems. They may not have high levels of literacy and they may not speak the same language as the one used by the management system. Issues like this will require special measures and processes to enable effective participation. Then there are more tricky cultural issues. The organisation may have an oppressive blame culture for instance. A worker might not see it as a good idea to raise a concern if the first thing that happens is a spotlight being turned on him or her. Blame cultures are unfortunately common, and personally I see it as a very progressive step that an OHSMS standard has chosen to grasp the nettle. It will be very interesting to see how well this gets enforced. It will be a great shame if it gets watered down or ignored.

A word on our training

At the time of writing (16/03/18) our revised Lead Auditor Course is with the IRCA for review. We are hoping to have it approved and running from mid-April. The transition module will be along a couple of months later.

Posted in ISO 45001, Occupational Health & Safety | Tagged | 2 Comments

Collected Wisdoms

Five things I’ve learned

A few days ago somebody asked me for advice on setting up his new business. You can get the basic advice on the mechanics (getting an accountant, bank account, registering at companies house etc) from anywhere, and I am the last person you’d go to for advice on personal admin – but that’s the easy part. The hard part is knowing what will work and what won’t, what will help and what will be a waste of time, how to keep thinking clearly and so on. So, to that end, I have decided to post a collection of my own personal collected wisdoms that are a product of 20 years trial, error and, in some cases, bitter experience. They are in no particular order.

I do this so you don’t have to.

  1. Don’t sound like a snake oil salesman

Be careful with the copy on your website and in your other comms. Try to avoid corny cliches and vague, general boasts about your expertise. Anybody can say things like “our consultants are seasoned industry experts with unrivaled experience” or whatever. ANYBODY can makes those same tedious boasts. That’s why it’s a waste of space on your website. It just gets tuned out by visitors as white noise. Do you think people going to read it and say “Oh, the website says they have years of expertise, they must be good”?  People can say it even if it isn’t true, AND THEY DO. Try to say things that other people can’t say and qualify them with specific examples. Why do you think I write these blogs?

2. Writing in your own voice

People that have met me often say that when they read my blogs, emails and even my training course notes, they can hear the words coming out of my mouth. I’ve somehow learned to write the way that I speak. It’s a way of writing that is consistent with the way I am in person. There are a couple of advantages in doing this. First, it stops your material reading like you’ve copied and pasted it. Second, people like consistency, people trust consistency. I’m not a natural writer and it took me a while to find a style of writing that I could actually apply in a way that worked. I don’t use a lot of adjectives and my writing isn’t stylish or flashy, I’m just not good enough with vocabulary to do that. I write in short sentences and I NEVER write a word I wouldn’t use in everyday speech.

3. Never underestimate the value in being taught a harsh lesson

You will make mistakes. Sometimes painful, embarrassing and expensive ones. I would never be so patronising as to suggest that whatever doesn’t kill you makes you stronger –  that is patently not true – but there is usually something to salvage from a wreck. Don’t dwell too long on the damage because it’s already done. Try to work out what the lesson is and learn from it. There is usually something you can take away from it.

Fool me once, shame on you, fool me twice, shame on me. Or something like that

4. Do favours freely

There are advantages in being the good guy and it’s a useful reputation to have. Putting some goodwill in the bank is like dealing in the stock market. Some people return the favour, some don’t. Some just don’t get the opportunity to. Don’t use the occasional complete lack of gratitude as a reason to stop doing favours. It is rare to encounter ingratitude, but odd times you get taken advantage of. I just see that as acceptable collateral damage and no reason to stop being kind. Sometimes people will ask a lot of you. Most people will realise when they are asking a lot and will be a bit embarrassed about it, so they’ll only do it as a last resort. Genuine people will tend not to ask then ask and ask again. People that do that are invariably going to take a lot more than they are ever going to give, and don’t care one bit that they are asking a lot of you. So put some limits on your goodwill.

5. You get more work from people you know than from people you don’t

I used to put a lot of time, effort and money into search engine optimisation (SEO). Whilst being high on google rankings is an advantage, it isn’t everything. Remember that customers that use google will usually be relatively uninformed and often price sensitive. There are customers for whom confidence that you can do a good job is more important than price. Think about what you need to do to develop that trust and confidence (see point 1 above).

Happy New Year. If you have any of your own to add, please post them as a comment.

Shaun Sayers

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Safety at Christmas

There are greater hazards than mince pies and sherry

It is easy during the festive period to allow our attitudes to Health & Safety to relax, however it is at times like these that we must make a special effort to be more vigilant than ever. Here is a link to a story that I came across on the BBC website that warns us of the health dangers of the “Santa Claus Diet”.

The article, whilst thought provoking from a health perspective, unfortunately overlooks several serious and perhaps more significant process safety weaknesses in Santa Claus’ working arrangements. Whilst there are health risks associated with binge eating and drinking, the fact that Santa has been doing this for several hundred years suggests that any adverse health effects would not necessarily be chronic. It is also unclear whether all mince pies are consumed in one sitting. It is possible, and perhaps more likely, that he collects them and takes them back to the North Pole in a Tupperware container for his elves.

Detailed analysis of his safety arrangements, on the other hand, are less easy to defend.

Working at Height, Confined Space Working and PPE

Santa Claus gains access to properties by a controlled landing on the roof. Whilst his work wear could be considered “hi viz”, the good news ends there. There is no evidence of the use of a hard hat or other appropriate PPE, safety harnasses or scaffolding – an absolute minimum for this type of activity. Furthermore access to the building is often via a “chimney pot” with no apparent application of structured confined space working arrangements, or a site specific fire risk assessment.

The failure to consider the Hierarchy of Controls in risk management demonstrates a flagrant disregard for an effective Safe System of Work. It would seem obvious that both Working at Height and Confined Space Working could be cheaply eliminated by simply parking up safely at ground level and gaining access by a door. Whilst this may not be as quick as landing on the roof and jumping down the chimney, and it may mean that the distribution of presents may need to be spread out over more than one evening or partially sub-contracted, safety must never be compromised in order to speed the job up or save money!

Manual Handling and Young Persons

A couple of years ago, whilst on a Search for Santa break in Lapland, I was able to meet Santa Claus. I took the opportunity to question him on his workplace safety arrangements. I found his attitude to be unhelpful. I noticed a queue of young persons waiting to see him (in fact he repeatedly referred me to the long queue as I attempted to put my questions to him). I accepted his assertion that his status on site was that of a subcontractor, however I was not convinced that he had undergone an appropriate contractor induction, had received manual handling training or that alternative lifting arrangements were in place in the event that a child was too big boned to safely lift using standard manual handling techniques. I could not see any mechanical lifting apparatus anywhere in his vicinity, or any signage indicating a weight limit. His claim that his working methods were safe seemed to be based solely on the fact that he “had been doing it that way for years”.  This demonstrated a very poor understanding of how grandfather rights are applied in law.

In summary I think we need to be very careful when dealing with international gift distribution contractors at this time of year. It is an unregulated industry dominated by a very small number of privately run providers for whom workplace safety appears a very low priority.

Have a safe and legally compliant Christmas

Shaun Sayers

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