In the aerospace industry, nothing is more important than product quality and compliance to FAA regulations. To ensure all parts meet the strict specifications of OEM’s like Boeing and Airbus, not to mention the Federal Aviation Authority, quality begins early in the supply chain with a concept known as Supplier Certification.
To understand certification, it may be useful back up and refresh the concepts around defect prevention. Prevention is the avoidance of non-conformance in products and services by preventing errors or defects to occur. While preventive activities take many forms, the focus is always on the need for consistency and reduced variation. An emphasis on prevention makes reliance on appraisal, inspection, and detection less important. A rigorous approach to supplier selection and supply chain metrics helps ensure that selected suppliers have the systems, processes, and methods in place to prevent defects.
Supplier quality certification, a primary way to pursue defect prevention, is the formal process of verifying – usually through an intensive site audit – that a supplier’s processes and methods produce consistent and conforming quality. Certification demands that suppliers demonstrate process capability, establish statistical process control charts, and conform to other accepted quality management practices. The objective of certification is that non-conforming items do not leave a supplier’s facility. Certification usually applies to a specific part, process, or site rather than an entire company or product.
In a sense, certification is a way of trying to prevent defects from happening in the first place by certifying that the supplier’s processes are capable of producing parts at the specification tolerances established by the product designer. But sometimes accidents do happen, and defects happen as well. The extensive use of corrective action requests can help support prevention efforts in such cases. For example, FedEx, a Baldrige award winner, uses corrective action requests to protect the physical appearance of its brand. When FedEx or the supplier discovers a critical defect with printed shipping forms, the supplier must immediately investigate and remove the source of the error to prevent additional defects. The supplier is also required to sort and inspect current production, remove all defective units, and examine ten boxes of stock below and ten boxes above the discovered defect. Finally, the supplier must submit to FedEx a full written explanation for resolving the defect (root cause analysis) along with a continuous improvement plan. While corrective action requests do not prevent the initial problem, they do help prevent future problems.
Perhaps the most important shift in thinking required to move towards supplier certification surrounds a shift from a product to a process orientation. Total quality management demands that our focus be on the processes that create output rather than the output itself. Since processes create output, a logical focus is on the process of creation rather than the result.
An emphasis on process rather than product demands that suppliers provide evidence of process capability on a regular basis. Furthermore, each time a supplier modifies a process requires a new capability study. Focusing on process means minimizing a reliance on samples unless a timely and comprehensive method exists to validate sample conformance.
When issues do occur – and they will – communication is critical. Aerospace supply chain software like CAPSTONE can provide a real-time vendor scorecard and updates to their certification status, defect notification, and ongoing corrective action plans.
Perhaps the best way to maintain a process focus involves the development of a company-wide supplier evaluation and selection methodology, which itself represents a process. A well-defined selection process supports the development of best practices, reduces duplication across units, supports the transfer of knowledge across teams or units, and recognizes the critical link between the quality of the selection decision and supply chain quality. Leading-edge firms make their selection process, along with any supporting tools and templates, available through their company’s intranet for easy access and widespread availability. When a supplier passes a strict set of supplier evaluation benchmarks, they become certified, meaning that they are approved for any future business.
This is only the beginning of supply chain visibility, however, because certification must be followed up by periodic supplier audits. As with everyone else, it’s a process.