|Author’s Soapbox: Why does the food industry, as well as other industries, have so many acronyms? Just to name a few – GMP, HACCP, SOP, SSOP, FDA, USDA, CDC, FFDCA and FIFRA. Do not assume your audience knows the definition of industry acronyms. Undefined acronyms lead to a lack of understanding with a message not being understood.|
The old saying, “A job is not complete until the paperwork is finished,” is partially correct. Documentation is necessary in today’s world. If written inspection and audit reports document the same problems, there are other problems. These problems are likely to be associated with priorities, accountability, assignments, and completion dates. For example, a weekly pest management service inspection report may document the same conducive condition for months; annual third-party audit reports may document the same problem over and over. Repetitive quality assurance and food safety problems lead to frustration and, worse yet, to willful negligence.
On the other hand, well-written inspection reports will lead to action to finish the job. What are some ideas to write an effective report? What are some practical solutions? Following are five key steps:
1. Know your audience. Relevant information is presented to a particular audience. Recognize the differences among internal, external, executive, and confidential reports.
- Internal reports are intended to stay within the company, but this can convey a false sense of security, as these reports do not always remain internal.
- External reports include those of suppliers, service providers, customers, regulators, and others outside the business.
- Executive reports usually require brevity.
- A confidential report is another false sense of security as these reports may not remain confidential.
Many reports are conveyed by email, and they should be considered external and permanent. Ensure that everyone understands the truth of the saying: “Once on the Internet always on the Internet.” Read your reports through the eyes of your audience. Will they understand the wording? Have you described the facts? What action is needed from them? Do they get the message?
2. Four sections are included in a well-written inspection report.
- “Title” page or cover memo summarizing date, subject, recipients, purpose, participants, description of activity and other basic information.
- “Executive brief” summarizing the main issue(s) which are usually a few systematic flaws leading to numerous observations. Priorities are established in this executive summary section. (Note that executives seldom read past this section.)
- “Contents” – a chronological or systematic order of observations. Each observation should have a recommendation. Although discussions should be noted, be cautious with writing opinions. It is better for analysis and opinions to come out during a review meeting. The recommendation may not be the right solution as an idea may lead to a better solution. Listing observations without recommendations is writing just part of the story.
- “Conclusion” highlighting key points, planned actions, and next steps.
3. Good writing tips. Well-written inspection reports follow similar characteristics, such as describing facts. For example, “Observed insect trails in approximately 20 pounds of flour on floor under a leaking sifter pipe.” This description is better than “Observed a lot of flour on the floor.” Other tips are to have short sentences, avoid repeating, write with clarity, use a numbered listing, avoid acronyms, send a short message with the first sentence of each paragraph, use a direct precise writing style, proofread your report a few times, use an easy-to-read font and spacing. Another characteristic is to recognize the good with the bad. Many inspection and audit reports do not recognize industry best practices. A written “pat on the back” or “atta-boy” helps build the relationship with the inspector.
4. Formal reports require formal responses. Responses should be made within one or two weeks, or a month, depending upon the nature of the report (i.e., potential consequences). Most responses should be the result of a follow-up meeting documenting what has been done, if it can be done, when it will be done and by whom. To better manage follow-up activities, consider using the original report with two blank columns on the right side, titled “assigned to” and “completed on.” A well-written inspection report, formatted for action, is documenting action all in one place.
5. Require a follow-up process. Although different approaches exist, follow-up is fundamental to corrective action. Almost anyone can determine priorities and identify accountability, assignments, and target dates by pulling information from a report. If the report is written with good structure, one can utilize the report itself as a management tool for follow-up activity. Discussions help responsible persons understand the issues, both acute and chronic, and develop best solutions. The team agreeing to assignments with agreeable completion dates is a necessity for corrective action. Documenting action and dates on one report is an approach to help prevent repeating problems.
Writing an effective report is not an easy task, although good reports are deceptively simple. Effective reports are concise, factual, and well-structured. Check with readers to see if your reports are concise, factual and well-structured. When inspection reports become shorter, something is working right. Good writing is a skill natural to some and learned by others; but, once learned, it will stay with you. The discipline, style, or structure needed for an inspection report is likely different than other reports. Yet it is similar in its key points: Know your audience, understand the purpose of the report, and know how the report is being used by the audience. This will help you write effective reports overall.