Clarifying questions

Steps to understanding a process

Gaining a clear understanding of the functioning of a process or how it aligns with tactical or strategic objectives of an organization is not necessarily the easiest challenge for an auditor. Often, the counterparts interviewed are not fully aware of either why they do what they do (lack of tactical or strategic insight) or how certain functions are performed in reality (lack of operational insight.)

Effective information gathering

But how do you go about gathering as much relevant information as possible in the most effective manner? How do you ensure that you have thoroughly exhausted all relevant lines of questioning before you disengage and move to the next step in the audit process?

Depending on the direction of questioning, you can ask clarifying questions to further enhance your understanding of the process or the context in which the process occurs.


Imagine you are interviewing a blue collar worker on how a certain process occurs in reality, rather than as described on paper. You are performing an interview on the workfloor or in the field. The first thing you want to understand is the functioning of the process itself. In order to do this, you can ask “How?” questions. For example:

Auditor: Can you explain how you label the product?
Blue collar worker: Certainly. First, I print a ticket.
Auditor: And how do you print a ticket?
Blue collar worker: Well, I put a black ticket in the printer.
Auditor: And how

As you can imagine, “how?” takes you deeper and deeper into the operational activity itself, to a more granular level of the activity.

Of course, at a certain point you reach an adequately granular level for the purposes of your audit. That is usually the point where you need to bridge to the next step in the process. A bridging question can be, for example:

Auditor: Okay, I understand that. So then you do …?

That question will take you to the next “activity” which you then can examine to the required depth by asking new “how?” questions.

In too deep

But what if the answer provided is at too high a level of detail for the purposes of your audit? We’ve just discussed how to perform a deep dive into the procedural, operational aspects of an activity. If that detail is too much, you need a question to go back up a level.

The question which clarifies tactics or even strategy is the “why?” question. For example:

Auditor: So why do you put that paper in the printer?
Blue collar worker: Because I am required to print a ticket.
Auditor: Okay, and why do you print that ticket?
Blue collar worker: Because I need to label the product.
Auditor: Interesting. And why do you need to label the product?
Blue collar worker: Because my boss tells me to do that.

That or a similar answer is eventually what you will reach when going up. It’s essentially the “I have no clue” answer, provided by people who have no answers to the questions you ask.

Interesting questions, interesting answers

As an auditor charged with auditing a process, you then will move up the hierarchical structure and conduct interviews with the hierarchical superiors. Eventually, ideally, the “why?” question should take you all the way up to the strategic intent of the board. Again, this is in most cases a theoretical situation, because I am not very sure that most organizations would pass such a test with flying colors.

Quite interesting is also the comparison in answers provided by the different hierarchical levels. If they match, you can surmise that there is at least a modicum of operational, tactical and strategic alignment. If not, you can be certain that at least the communication on purpose and objectives of the process and potentially even the organization is hampered.

Building a cathedral?

All in all, it reminds me a bit of the story of the medieval scribe that toured works and met a man. When he asked the man what he did, the man replied he stacked bricks. The scribe walked a bit further along and met another man who was engaged in the same activity. He enquired as to what he was doing, to which the man replied he was building a wall. A bit later, the scribe met another man, who appeared to be doing the same thing the other men had been doing. When asked what he was doing, the man looked up with pride and said: “Sir, I, I am building a cathedral.”