Vendor Audits – Is There A Better Answer?

I was a chief inspector for more than 20 years and worked in Part 121 and Part 135 flight operations. During that time, I had the opportunity to see many things come from the FAA and the aviation industry in the way of regulations and need for compliance. One thing that I witnessed and still deal with today is the requirement for an operator to conduct vendor audits. In the beginning, before fancy ISO requirements and FAA inspectors, operators usually conducted business with vendors directly and knew them as well as what they did. From my perspective, I knew the local and out of state vendors, and had visited their facilities. I often requested and was granted access to their process of conducting maintenance on our parts, transmissions and engines. No big deal.

Then, one day, an FAA inspector came to my door and asked that we show him our vendor files. Of course I had no real format to follow or files per se to show. I knew where my parts were, who was working on them and the process expected to be conducted. For the most part, it was my thinking that it was the FAA’s job to conduct audits on Part 145 repair stations, and it was their process, not mine. Silly me. As with most things with the FAA, that was not the case. The inspector informed us that we needed to conduct audits by letter, phone and/or physical presence and document that we, not they, were doing the total quality job to ensure that our vendors were on the up and up.

I never really saw the need based on our operation. It seemed like they were just having us conduct additional inspections and audits and supply them with the documentation and findings we had. This was prior to ISO and its massive requirements and processes. As time went by, we found ourselves having to meet FAA and ISO requirements that may or may not mean anything to our operation, reveal any findings that were useful in context, and pretty much waste time.

The Vendor Side

Now I find myself on the other side of things and a vendor to thousands of customers. One of my biggest complaints is the use of poorly-designed forms. Forms that repeat the same information and forms that cannot be filled out on the computer as a Word document or PDF form (fill in the box). Chief inspectors, the inspection department, or the purchasing departments are conducting these audits by mail (old school) or e-mail (preferred). Again, just a check in the box and fill out the paper work, sign it and send it back to us. Many times these audits have the same information repeating itself, same phone number placed in several areas, same details in the same areas and — what is worse — they will send two forms, both different in context or requirement, but both having the same information!

The Money Spent on Labor

Now being on the vendor side, burning time and labor is a major concern. Taking the time to fill out an audit form (average 10 to 15 minutes), having to answer questions that are not relevant for the business they are supporting, printing out forms, signing forms, then mailing back the forms is costly. I estimate that we spend about 250 hours per year just filling out vendor forms! That is lost revenue in time and money spent. There has to be a better way.

I know there are larger services that offer Coordinating Agency for Supplier Evaluation (CASE) type audit capability and that some of the largest companies use that service. CASE is a formal service and system that airlines and very large operators might subscribe to as a service. You join and you get access to my work. If I need an audit in your area of the country and make a request, you conduct the audit and I get access to your work. This might seem to be over the top in some instances and useful in others, but none the less expensive and time consuming and not for the operator with less than 35 helicopters. I’m talking about the small Part 135 guy or the small Part 121 operators. There is no form format that makes sense, just poor forms and format and no Word or PDF document that is sent that you cannot just fill out and send back.If you are the chief inspector, an inspector in the department or just a purchasing agent, take your own form or forms and consider the time it takes for someone to fill them out. If you are using a form that has to be printed and filled out by hand, then scanned and sent back, you are costing both personnel involved time and money. 

Helicopter Maintenance:

We can do a better job. How about we get the FAA to work with us and design a generic form that the entire aviation community can accept? It will have an auto fill box and your e-mail return is your signature. Vendors that have already filled out the form can just keep it and return it to any of the customers requesting it, as it is the same information. Just think, as a community in helicopter maintenance, we can do a better job, save on labor, both as the inspection department and the vendor’s labor, thus reducing costs. Why not a universal audit form that captures the required information, is easy to use and can be retained for future use across the community? One idea is to post the form as a link on all the vendors web pages that can just be downloaded by the customers.

Perhaps with your help, and the help of HAI’s technical committee, we can offer a generic format that is accepted by most of the operators and vendors, has FAA approval and can be downloaded directly online by any one that needs to set up an audit program. 

There you have it, the gauntlet has been thrown down and the challenge is on. Who will accept this challenge and work with us?