It’s hard to believe that it was only two years ago that we wrote this blog post about the effect that COVID 19 was having on the wood product certification business.  It feels like just yesterday.  It also feels like a lifetime ago.  I suppose it may be both.

Reading our reflections and concerns from June 2020 is a little embarrassing.  In those days, we still viewed the global pandemic as a short-term disruption to our typical day-to-day routines.  Now – over two years later – we can see that the disruption to our business was less than we feared but far longer in duration than we ever imagined.

MixedWood doesn’t have anything significant to offer on global economics.  And still less to say about public health policy.  We all know that the COVID 19 pandemic is not over, but we are observing and experiencing a transition back to something approaching normal business conditions.  And that very transition is proving surprisingly challenging.

On The Road Again

One of our observations in our June 2020 article was that Chain of Custody (CoC) auditing had gone entirely virtual.  This transition happened quickly and, for the most part, was managed well.  By the summer of 2020, most Certification Bodies (CB) had adapted their techniques and provided audit services to their clients via telephone, email, and various video conferencing platforms.  We were all Zooming!

As a temporary measure, it worked.  Chain of Custody techniques has always emphasized the paperwork.  For years, it has been true that if you attend carefully to the transaction part of your business, many of the other details will care for themselves.  And transactions (invoices, packing lists, etc.) can be audited on a screen.  Some things that couldn’t be done remotely, of course.  Material management, inventory control, and product segregation are real-world operations.  But they can be described and understood at a distance.  At least for a while.

For some in the business, the transition to remote auditing techniques has been a welcome change.  For one thing, it saves money.  Auditors used to be road warriors, spending much of their time traveling from city to city, living in hotels, airports, and restaurants.  This comes at a cost, both to the folks doing the traveling and to the clients paying the bills.  Many of the auditors we know like working from home.  Nobody likes spending money on airline tickets.  And – if we’re honest – many of our clients find the audit process easier to manage when everything is done online.

Some folks have suggested that remote auditing should become standard for most Chain of Custody auditing.  It is too soon to tell whether things might happen, but we think it would be a mistake.

For us at MixedWood, the transition back to on-site client-facing work has already begun.  Some of our experiences have led us to reflect on how much we may have lost during the pandemic.  Here are a couple of examples:

Eyeball to Eyeball

One of MixedWood’s clients had an audit scheduled in March.  This company sources high-value hardwood logs from a large procurement area in the Eastern US and conducts its own Due Diligence System (DDS) following the FSC Controlled Wood standard.  The scope and style of this business make implementing the FSC Due Diligence standard challenging.  Their 2021 audit, conducted remotely, had been a bit of a disaster due primarily to poor communications and misunderstanding.  In the end, everything got worked out, but only after a lot of avoidable effort, energy, time, and cost.  Preparing for the 2022 audit, the CB offered the option of auditing on-site or remotely.  We strongly advised an on-site audit and MixedWood to provide on-site support.

The 2022 audit was also challenging.  Several of the same tricky issues kept us hard at work until nearly 6 pm.  However, unlike the previous year, all the key players were in the same room.  We could look each other in the eye, listen, respond, react, and interact.  It was a long, tiring day (as they sometimes are), but we got the job done.  At the end of our day together, everyone was satisfied.  Our client had to bear the cost of an auditor and a consultant traveling to their plant for the audit.  Despite this, the net cost of the 2022 audit was less than in 2021.  And the result was far more satisfactory.

Keeping It Real

More recently, MixedWood was asked to manage a recertification audit for a large, high-profile client of a Certification Body (CB) in the US.  Unlike the story above, this project was technically straightforward but made important by the client’s role as a key supplier to a large segment of the CoC paper and packaging marketplace.

We could have conducted the audit remotely, but we declined.   The audit plan involved three weeks of travel across the US, visiting a sample of large distribution warehouses.  The actual auditing process was the same in each location:  meeting key staff, confirming local role assignments and training, touring the facility, and validating CoC transaction samples.  Could all this have been done via Zoom meetings?  Yes.  It was done that way in 2020 and 2021.  However, this year’s audit was different, unlike the previous two years.  Very different.  We didn’t just go through the motions.  We looked in odd corners and asked and answered random and unscripted questions.  Best of all, we were able to do what auditors are supposed to do:  listen.  We made it real, and it felt good.

Returning to ‘Normal’

Reading our stories here, you might conclude that we are thoroughly sick and tired of talking to people on screens and want to do all our work face-to-face from now on.  The first point is true enough, but the second is not.  We have provided our clients with remote services for years and plan to continue.  And we have learned some good lessons in the last 2 ½ years that should prove helpful in the years ahead.

Our challenge now is to reclaim what we may have lost.  It could be more complicated than we think, so let’s get to work.