Peter Bigelow
We got us a real expert circuit board facility auditor here!

Call me crazy, but I love customer audits. Seriously!

It’s not because we always shine so bright that the auditor(s) walk away in awe, nor because we end up with a boatload of new, high-margin business. More often than not the audit goes “OK” with various observations and “opportunities for improvement,” and never, ever in my 20 years in this industry has any auditor ever rewarded us with a lucrative order.

Yet there are two reasons I love that audit: First, on a personal level, it is great comic relief from our normal day-to-day activities. Second, in every audit there is an “aha” moment that proves a learning opportunity for all. The latter happens to the auditors just as often as it does to us auditees. The real fun, however, is how the comic relief and learning “aha” moments happen when you least expect.

First, the comic relief. The larger the company conducting the audit, the greater number of comical moments. I chalk this up to a simple mathematical formula that goes something like, larger companies = larger staffs. However as impressive the company may be and as nice the individuals are, larger staffs regrettably don't come across as smarter, more competent or more experienced. If anything, there is a reverse correlation, as larger staffs are usually further removed from touching actual product.

Some comic moments occur almost as if scripted. It starts when one of the auditors blows their own horn by telling everyone that in their impressive career they have reviewed every board shop, large and small, from here to Timbuktu. Minutes later, they invariably enter a department, usually the drill room, as it is early in any fabrication tour, look blankly at the equipment and ask, “What do you do with this equipment?” Uh-huh, got it, Mr. Hot Shot; every board shop from here to Timbuktu has this in common – they drill circuit boards! Or the ultra-degreed engineer who boasts of having designed a few zillion boards but is mystified that when you plate a freshly drilled via, you actually plate the entire panel, not just inside the hole. Yup, we got us a real expert circuit board facility auditor here! This actually happens during audits and leaves us with those comic moments you just can’t make up.

Not just the auditor provides the humor, however. Inevitably a tongue-tied operator will explain how they perform some process they could do in their sleep, but because they are now explaining it to the intimidating, all-knowing, all-caring auditor, they completely flub their explanation and usually start digging a hole for themselves, their department and the entire company as well. While damage control may – or may not – be difficult, seeing everyone realize that maybe, just maybe, the most important thing in the world is not a circuit board, or any specific process step in making them, can be a field-leveling event that creates camaraderie. Equally, those moments when ignorant, pompous people act like they know everything, while in fact being quite clueless, can be as humorous as when a highly knowledgeable person craters while trying to explain something, usually quite simple and basic, that they are truly expert in. It reminds us that humans are just that: human.

The “aha” moments sometimes are a direct result of the funny ones, while also often taking place in the most serious of times.

Humorous moments can afford great opportunities to realize that something as clear as glass to us is not so to others, requiring us to rethink how we explain things.
An auditor who gets all bollixed following a simple procedure has just provided an “aha” moment by showing us that maybe we can write clearer procedures. The dumb-but-simple question that leads you down the dialogue path to realize that maybe there is another way to do something is another “aha” moment. Even the wannabe know-it-all who can’t tell a drill from an etcher might explain how a company in Timbuktu processes some jobs and will create, knowingly or not, an “aha” moment that improves the operation.

The great thing about being audited is that those auditors do see many other facilities and will share the best practices they have seen, when asked. Hearing how other companies handle basic equipment organization; variable processes; housekeeping; training, and overall problem resolution can be invaluable. Some of the biggest “aha” moments for me have involved some very simple or small points that we often forget about. Stuff like basic housekeeping and improved methods of displaying data can inspire significant improvement in areas often overlooked.

Equally valuable are the closing comments that inevitably cap a customer audit. Typically I have found that approximately a third of the observations are not pertinent and/or are telling you how their company does things while making a very different product. While interesting – and sometimes blood-pressure raising to hear – they do not offer the value an audit can provide. Another third of the observations usually fit into the “yeah, I already know that” category. Things like “you should have newer equipment,” or your staff is too old/young/trained/not trained, etc. Great observations, often incorrect, as a one day tour offers but a snapshot, but also of no surprise – every audit yields similar comments.

The gems, however, are in that final set of comments. Often missed because those being audited are all foamed up by the previous comments, that third will include a road map of what the customer is looking for from its supplier base; the types of capabilities that are important to them; process management that they have found best ensures higher quality; the tricks to doing – or presenting – things that are slick, easy and of real benefit. These “aha” moments often show up when discussing the final observations. Write them down and you will have gained value from the experience.

Finally, one of the best reasons I love customer audits is that they provide an opportunity for both the audited and the auditor to learn. The audited learns via the process and then the follow-up discussion of observations. The auditor learns as you, the audited, have the chance to combine the comic relief and “aha” moments and respond in a way that will set the tone that will end up defining how the audit team will present or recommend your company when they make their final report – and how much dialogue may continue long after the audit team leaves. No, don’t expect that big order – at least not immediately – but do expect better relations and moments to both enjoy and improve from.

Peter Bigelow is president and CEO of IMI (; His column appears monthly.

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