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​Geysers, Butterflies, and Internal Audit

Blogs Mike Jacka, CIA, CPA, CPCU, CLU Oct 29, 2019

Two stories from the real world.

They aren’t about internal audit, per se. But, hang in there, I’ll figure out some way to tie them all together by the end.

Story No. 1:

I’m a big fan of Yellowstone National Park in general and geysers in particular. I try, at least once a year, to take the 14-hour drive from my home in Phoenix to Yellowstone in order to spend anywhere from three to five days sitting, waiting for geysers to erupt. I am the epitome of the word “fanatic” from which the word “fan” was derived. (I want to quickly note there are some geyser gazers — yes, that is what we are called — who are crazier than me. For example, sitting overnight in near freezing temperatures hoping to catch a glimpse of Steamboat Geyser.)

I think the longest I have waited (successfully) was about six hours for a geyser called Beehive. Its four-foot tall cone is no more than 10 feet from the boardwalk and, for those willing to wait (or just plain lucky enough to walk up at the right time) they will get to experience a geyser shooting 200 feet into the air for approximately five minutes.

(One time, standing next to Beehive waiting for the eruption, I phoned in to an all-hands meeting where it was going to be announced that I was being promoted to Senior Manager. As my boss called on me for comment, I had to apologize for not paying attention because Beehive was erupting. Later, my boss, not really understanding where I was, asked “Bees were shooting 200 feet into the air?”)

Unfortunately, it is a rather unpredictable geyser with intervals between eruptions lasting anywhere from eight to 24 hours. However, one of the nice things about this geyser is that it has a companion geyser that usually (usually is the key word when it comes to anything related to geysers) goes off anywhere from five to 25 minutes before Beehive’s eruption. In a wellspring of originality, it has been named Beehive’s Indicator.

Here is what drives us geyser gazers crazy. People will walk by, see the Indicator erupting, pause momentarily (sometimes) to watch, and then wander off without waiting around for the spectacular that is Beehive. Now, it might be easy to excuse these people because, unless you are a geyser gazer geek (another term for us, often used by my wife and kids) you would not know the role of Beehive’s Indicator. However, there is a plaque nearby explaining Beehive's Indicator’s role, and there are usually gazers nearby imploring anyone who will listen that they should stay to see the real show.

But people just keep walking, not wanting to wait the extra moment. They drove hours, sometimes days, to see this very show. Yet, they keep moving, focused on seeing everything while missing out on one of the reasons they made the trek in the first place.

Story No. 2 (Not as long; I promise):

My wife and I were in Monterrey, Calif. and decided to visit the Monarch Grove Butterfly Sanctuary. We had been before, didn’t see any butterflies, but decided that, since it was a pretty area, we would walk the paths again. This time, there were a lot of people along the path looking at the eucalyptus trees.

(Just to show I actually research these things, I thought I remembered they were eucalyptus trees, but didn’t trust that memory. I looked it up and, danged if I wasn’t right. When it comes to horticulture, don’t expect this to happen again.)

We paused, didn’t see anything, and walked on down the pathway looking at the ocean and other sights on the trail.

As we came back, we paused again. I can’t say if our eyes adjusted, we stayed a little longer, or we just finally got smart enough to really look, but I thought I spotted a butterfly on one of the branches. My wife agreed, and pointed out another … and another … and another … and …

Quite simply, the trees were covered with them, hundreds upon hundreds. But you had to take a moment to really look and see them. As brightly colored as they were, they still blended in with the surroundings.

You had to stop and really pay attention.

When we do our audit work (See!!! I told you we’d get there!!!), we are always in a hurry. There is a deadline, another meeting, another interview, another test, another audit, another lots of things. We barely have time to do the work we are supposed to do, so we rush through that work, doing an excellent job (of course it’s excellent; could it be anything but?), a most-excellent job of completing the task we have been assigned.

But what are we missing?

If we spend just 10 extra minutes talking to people, looking around the office, grabbing a cup of coffee, doing anything that allows us to relax and actually see what is going on around us, what might we discover?

At Farmers Insurance, we used to do a lot of agency audits, covering a number of areas in those half-day reviews. Every auditor knew the drill — four hours, at most, and move on to the next one. But every auditor also knew that, even while counting the cash and reviewing receipts and performing all the other particulars that made up the audit, it was his or her responsibility to also listen to what was going on when customers came in the door, when the agent or staff was on the phone, when the agent was speaking to the staff, when people were doing their jobs. It spoke volumes about the agent, the agent’s staff, the way they worked, and potential issues. Auditors paying attention to what was going on around them instead of focusing solely on the work in front of their faces.

Stick around at Beehive Geyser when the Indicator is going off. Let your eyes adjust, take a closer look at the trees, and see if there is something more there than just a forest. And be mindful of what is going on around you as you complete your audit work. Sometimes it’s as simple as seeing a pile of paperwork on a desk and asking one question.

Mike Jacka, CIA, CPA, CPCU, CLU

Mike Jacka is co-founder and chief creative pilot of Flying Pig Audit, Consulting, and Training Services (FPACTS), based in Phoenix.