Aviation’s lessons for audit – the difference a checklist can make

  • Mercia Group
  • 9 November 2021 10:43

Some of the UK’s most prestigious accountancy firms have hit the headlines in recent years for some seemingly basic failures in the auditing of some of the country’s biggest businesses.

The subtext of much of the reporting around these failures is that they result from conflicts of interest because these firms provide advisory and consultancy services to the very clients they are auditing.

But, perhaps there is another, more mundane, more human, culprit.

Since the publication of Daniel Kahneman’s, Thinking, Fast and Slow, a decade ago, awareness around the effect of cognitive biases in business has grown rapidly.

Writers including Matthew Syed and Atul Gawande have subsequently helped maintain interest in the wide-ranging impact of cognitive biases and the steps we can take to counter them.

Gawande, in particular, advocates in The Checklist Manifesto the use of checklists in complex tasks, even when they are being undertaken by an expert.

It is all too easy for cognitive biases and high levels of complexity to send even expert judgement in the wrong direction and checklists seem to provide a vital tool in keeping them on track.

The aviation industry has known this for decades and Gawande was one of the pioneers of bringing the approach into hospitals to combat medical errors.

As Gawande puts it: “Discipline is hard–harder than trustworthiness and skill and perhaps even than selflessness. We are by nature flawed and inconstant creatures. We can’t even keep from snacking between meals. We are not built for discipline. We are built for novelty and excitement, not for careful attention to detail. Discipline is something we have to work at.”

This is likely a significant factor behind some of the high profile audit failures of recent years.

Gawande explains in a discussion of the effective use of checklists in hospital intensive care units: “The checklists provided two main benefits […] First, they helped with memory recall, especially with mundane matters […] A second effect was to make explicit the minimum, expected steps in complex processes.”

He adds: “Checklists established a higher standard of baseline performance.”

While Gawande’s focus was primarily on healthcare, they outline how checklists can safeguard against cognitive biases and other errors in other complex tasks.

And those include audit. Auditing a business is an incredibly complex task, with huge volumes of data and intricate processes to assess.

Gawande says: “Good checklists, […] are precise. They are efficient, to the point, and easy to use even in the most difficult situations.

“They do not try to spell out everything–a checklist cannot fly a plane. Instead, they provide reminders of only the most critical and important steps–the ones that even the highly skilled professional using them could miss. Good checklists are, above all, practical.”

But how can auditors make use of checklists in a way that is pragmatic, proportionate and effective?

This is what MyWorkpapers offers auditors. With MyWorkpapers, the whole workflow is essentially built around checklists that prompt certain actions and require confirmation that they have been completed.

They reduce opportunities for error and risk while leaving room for professional judgment.

That is why our clients are telling us how powerful a tool MyWorkpapers has been in improving audit performance. We have even heard about QAD visits resulting in no points for improvement.

As Gawande says, “under conditions of complexity, not only are checklists a help, they are required for success.”

How we can help

Speak to us today to find out how Mercia along with MyWorkpapers can help you improve your audit performance.

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