Mind of Jacka: The Root of the Problem
Blogs Mike Jacka, CIA, CPA, CPCU, CLU Nov 29, 2023
Let’s talk about the writing of reports. (Report writing again? Yes, report writing again. And I’m as sick of this as you are. But it keeps coming up, so, there you are.)
We all want better reports. We all work hard to make them better. Yet, in spite of all that hard work, have any of us seen any real progress? We seem to be on an eternal search for perfection that gets mired in mediocrity.
Right off, I don’t think a perfect solution exists. However, that shouldn’t stop us from searching for unattainable perfection. The search is the powerful part of the process, as long as that search results in improvements. We may not get perfection, but we get closer with every positive change.
However, we seem to never get any closer, even incrementally, to that perfection. If we are all trying and striving and straining and struggling and scraping and scrapping and scuffling, trying to get better, what keeps “better” from happening? Why is it we seem to be in a revolving door of changes, chasing each other’s tails, seeing something new and shiny that, in the end, just makes us want to try something else new and shiny — sometimes a polished version of the new-and-shiny we left tarnished and tattered a number of years ago?
I think the reason is simple. We have not defined what we mean by “better.” Yes, the reason is easily identified, the solution not so much.
To make our reports better, we have to first define what we think is wrong with our audit reports. Do they take too long to issue? Are they incompatible with the clients’ needs? Do they fail to resonate? Do they miss the point we are trying to make? Does anyone really know what they want a report to accomplish? Are they being written for the right clients? Are they inaccurate?
That’s a nifty set of questions. I came up with them after spending literally a couple of seconds of brainstorming while sitting here at my keyboard. Let’s face it. We have heard all of these many times before. I bet that, at one time or another, you’ve identified these same questions as issues with your reports. And I further bet that, given a few minutes, you could come up with quite a few more.
What this means is that the solution to writing better reports is not one thing, but a combination of issues, many requiring different sets of solutions. Each of the above questions is a problem in and of itself, each speaking more directly to what we mean by “better” audit reporting. And each then leads to more detailed and specific questions — questions that can help us focus on how to actually make our reports better.
Example #1: “Our reports take too long to issue.” Where in the reporting process do delays occur? How long does it take to review your reports? Is the review process bogging down the issuance process? (Let me answer that one for you. Yes, it is; quit reviewing them to death.) Do delays occur in getting the client’s agreement? Do delays occur in getting meetings set with clients to review the reports? Does the actual act of writing the reports take too long? Does every jot and tittle have to be perfect?
Example #2: “Our reports do not resonate with our clients.” Do you even know what your clients want? Are you assuming you know what they want? Have you talked to them about the overall report process and content? Are they too involved? Are they not involved enough? Is there too much detail? Do the reports miss the point you want to get across? Do you even know the point you want to get across? Does anyone really know what the report should accomplish? Are reports being written for the right clients at the right level? Is the problem in the report or in the audit work? Are concepts like condition, criteria, cause, etc. considered well before the report is being written?
Example #3: “Our reports are not easily understood.” Do you know what you are trying to say? (Some of these may start to sound familiar.) Can you elevator pitch what the report is about, what needs to be done, and why anyone should care? Do you need to write any more than that elevator pitch? Are you hiding behind big words to make the department seem smarter? Do you know when you are using audit jargon? (For example, you use the word risk. Do your clients know what it means? Do you know what it means? Do you?? Look it up some time.)
Questions lead to questions lead to questions lead to wormholes. But that is the only way you get to solutions. The five whys; critical path analysis; lean six sigma; eeny, meeny, miny, moe; one potato, two potato. Use whatever process you are best at, or you feel best applies, and start digging into the real problem, rather than simply saying, “We need better reports.” Define better, define the problems, and explore the underlying questions.
And, as already noted, it isn’t any one of the above that is the problem. My guess is that each has a small part in reducing the effectiveness of your reports. That means you need to not only analyze but prioritize. Quit focusing on the small problems (“We need to make our reports perfect”) when you should be solving the big ones (“Our clients don’t care about what we report.”)
Spend the time to determine where your problems lie. And determine where solutions — good and true solutions — are needed. And then take the time to identify the root causes — the good and true root causes — for which solutions are needed.
Then and only then will we come closer to perfection. No, we’ll never achieve it. But, done right, we can get a whole lot closer. And our reports can get better.