Recalling a Recounting: Part 1 – Audits are Awesome!

It’s January, which means its almost Inauguration Day.

It was a tumultuous election season that didn’t end until mid-December for some of us (particularly MI, PA, and WI residents).

Michigan held a statewide hand ballot recount for three days before the courts prevented its completion. I had the privilege to volunteer at a county recount site as an attorney for Jill Stein’s campaign. Half of my job was to ensure that county workers followed state election law; the second half was arguing with other attorneys over whether a pen mark was a vote or just a stray pen mark (that was seriously a huge issue).

But I also found the experience to be incredibly informative on how we, as HR professionals, can improve our workplace effectiveness in 2017. While the recount could be viewed as a formality that may never happen again, it gave us three ways to help our organizations achieve real business goals.

This is the first segment in a two-part Lessons series.  Part 2 can be found here.

Think about an important work task you perform on a regular basis. When was the last time you evaluated the process for completing it? Is the procedure documented somewhere?

Process audits are imperative for organizational success. Employees perform tasks that may at first seem routine and established, but likely could be made more effective or efficient through a simple process evaluation.

Before 2016, Michigan had not held a statewide ballot recount since 1968 (election on whether to accept daylight savings time; the issue lost by about 500 votes), long before the current ballot-scanning machines were used. Recounts require officials to look at every ballot properly cast on Election Day, and determine whether the results reported by the machines match a hand count tally. The entire effort is designed to audit a particular Election Day task – the step where optical scanner machines accurately count the ballots.

During this recount, officials discovered problems with Election Day procedures stemming from ineffective pollworker training (see Part 2 of this series). For example, some precincts were unrecountable because pollworkers erroneously placed bad ballots (known as “spoiled ballots”) in the good ballot pile. Since you can’t tell which ballots are the bad ones (they all look the same), you can’t legally recount any ballots in that pile.

While the hundreds of state and county workers hustled to hand count millions of ballots, we learned how the entire recount process works – including court involvement, hidden costs, personnel needs, time constraints, and political pressures. We saw gaps in the recount process – areas with higher risks of failure or inaccuracy.

The State Board of Canvassers and county clerks found ways to improve election and post-election processes. It was a very enlightening experience for the state of Michigan.

Everyone was there to audit the Election Day ballot count; but what ended up happening was much bigger. As this was the largest recount in state history, the effort gave state and county officials (as well as the public) a chance to fully review the process for conducting  a statewide recount. They will be more prepared for future recounts because of what was learned here. In essence, we participated in an audit of the recount process while auditing the ballot total – a process audit of a process audit.

How often do you perform process audits? Do you have a library of Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs) you can review? What processes do you and your employers routinely perform that are not written down? How can you improve routine tasks?

We spend a lot of time assessing job descriptions and restructuring positions, but we need to focus on the tasks as well. It is vital to periodically take a quality improvement approach to our common work tasks and processes.

Factory line supervisors do this all the time, searching for faster and more effective ways to turn a ratchet or attach a screw. UPS improved delivery times by engineering a specific process for drivers to get out of their trucks. Task audits are fundamental to the success of those organizations, and it is just as important for office-based jobs.

For example, we can audit our basic HR department tasks and processes. How do your recruiters arrange candidate interviews? How do you document the results of an employee discipline decision? Think about even the most fundamental office tasks. How do you answer the phone?  Do these processes work the way we want them to? Audit!

Start by writing down the tasks you do as part of your job, and note which tasks have written procedures. What tasks do you think could be made more efficient? Evaluate those processes, and create a written SOP for the tasks without one (bonus effect: your successor will greatly appreciate these). Then move on to the tasks performed by others in your department.

Don’t be afraid to open your basic tasks and processes to scrutiny. Evaluation leads to improvement; developing your organization’s efficiency and effectiveness directly increases its chance for success.

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