Audits and Cheat Sheets

A “cheat sheet” is a concise set of notes used for quick reference. In the academic world, cheat sheets are so named because they may be used by students without the instructor’s knowledge to cheat on a test. However, in some educational settings, where rote memorization is not as important, the use of cheat sheets on exams may be sanctioned and even recommended by the instructor (and therefore not really cheating, despite the name).

In the business world, so called “cheat sheets” are popular in any setting where a quick reference is useful. New employees often make notes on how to perform their job, especially if written instructions aren’t available, supplied instructions are incomplete or complex, or the job training was inadequate. These personal job notes may be also referred to as cheat sheets.

On the surface, use of cheat sheets would seem to be helpful and may even be encouraged. However, these job notes may not accurately describe the tasks, may be in conflict with written instructions, or be unapproved by management.

ISO 9001:2000, clause 4.2.3 states that “Documents required by the quality management system shall be controlled.” So, if cheat sheets are needed by employees to carry out their activities, these cheat sheets would be viewed as documents that must be controlled.

To control a document means it must be approved prior to use, updated as necessary and re-approved, and identified with the current revision status. Cheat sheets become authorized documents if they are controlled. If not, auditors will write them up as nonconformities.

Employees do not like their cheat sheets being called nonconformities, especially if the corrective action is to just discard the cheat sheets. The existence of cheat sheets may indicate they are needed, so simply removing them might be a mistake.

Instead, find out why some employees need the cheat sheets and take the appropriate action, e.g., improve training, provide mentoring, add the cheat sheets as controlled documents, or include the reference information in existing documents.

Audits correctly spot the use of cheat sheets. Make sure your response supports the employees by providing alternative support.