An Unexpected Competitive Edge

SDI Aerospace implements ISO 9001

by Douglas W. Anton

Two years after achieving ISO 9001 certification, an aerospace company continues to reap unforeseen benefits from the registration experience.

Special Devices, Inc. is a privately held corporation with both automotive and aerospace divisions. The aerospace division, SDI Aerospace, supplies proprietary safe-arm and fire devices for aerospace and military applications. These electromechanically actuated explosive devices are highly engineered and sophisticated products. The division's annual sales are about $40 million.

Bob Ritchie, the vice president in charge of SDI Aerospace, had known of the ISO 9000 series for several years and decided to seek company registration under ISO 9001. Going into the implementation, he was somewhat skeptical that this might just be another "quality system harangue." He now states that the No. 1 advantage of the ISO 9001 implementation was that it took a 35-year-old company and brought it into the 1990s.

Recognizing this as a major project and realizing employees were already engrossed in day-to-day operations, SDI Aerospace decided to utilize the help of an experienced outside resource. AEM Consulting Group was brought in to provide education, facilitation, and project management skills for the creation and implementation of the ISO 9001 system.

From the beginning the project's main objective was to document and improve processes in every area of the division. Obtaining ISO 9001 registration was secondary. This is certainly a proactive and visionary approach to ISO--improving the company vs. mere compliance.

This strategy was reinforced with the selection of Bureau Veritas Quality International (BVQI) as the ISO registrar. As the BVQI auditors told the company, certainly the initial goal is to reach compliance, but the far bigger picture is to help SDI Aerospace ensure that its quality system is effective in carrying out the primary mission of the company.

14-month completion target

sm_87figure1.jpg (5954 bytes)The project began in late March 1996 with a target date for completion of June 1997. It started with project planning, followed by development of a timeline (see Figure 1) and a monthlong series of educational sessions for the key managers, supervisors, and other contributors. A program plan was developed using Microsoft Project, and it was run like any company project.

Scripted Flowcharting, the documentation technique used by SDI Aerospace, had already been developed and used with success by AEM Consulting Group. Although somewhat contrary to classic quality system documentation, Scripted Flowcharting is shorter, more visual, and combines levels. A short policy statement is followed by a flowchart, then by a procedure writing format that is numerically keyed to the flowchart and identifies task and responsible party. Last, the applicable documents and forms are listed. This format is concise and easy for people to follow.

sm_87figure2.jpg (4850 bytes)A process to attack each one of the 20 ISO 9001 elements was standardized for use in the company. The process is shown in Figure 2.

In ISO 9001 element 4.1, Management Responsibility, an individual was assigned responsibility for each one of the 20 elements. This gave each element a team leader and assigned team members to participate in the development and documentation for that ISO 9001 element.

These element teams typically met once a week for a six- to eight-week period. They studied the actual ISO 9001 standard to better understand its requirements and then wrote a short policy statement. The policy statement was typically three or four sentences addressing responsibility, authority, and general intent of the element.

Erasable board for flowcharting

All pieces of paper used in a particular process were gathered together, and the process was flowcharted. An erasable board was used for flowcharting so changes could be made easily, and the paperwork could be taped to the appropriate flowchart step, making it easier to visualize the process.

Typically SDI Aerospace worked on three or four elements at a time. When one was completed, another one was started. The initial elements were 4.1, Management Responsibility; 4.5, Document and Data Control; and 4.6, Purchasing. After these, the priority of the elements was based on company need.

As the design and documentation for each element progressed, emphasis was placed not only on meeting the intent and complying with the standard, but more important, on what made sense for SDI. This approach was in keeping with the primary expectation for the project all along--to improve company performance.

The June 1997 target date was kept in mind as the months of 1996 rolled by and more and more elements were completed. Turning the corner into 1997, the first release of all 20 elements was in place, and many edits and revisions were occurring. The internal audit team under the leadership of the director of quality, Steve Demski, was very active, resulting in improvements to the system.

It was decided that a preassessment by the registrar, BVQI, would be beneficial. It was completed in February. Because the one-day preassessment was found to have tremendous value, a second one-day preassessment was scheduled. These two preassessments got people in synch with the registrar and helped fine-tune the system.

When the final registration audit took place, the employees were well prepared. After three and a half days of auditing by two auditors, there were no major nonconformities and 15 minor nonconformities. The fact that minor nonconformities were found during the registration audit was not perceived negatively, but rather as an opportunity to make improvements in areas that the auditors identified.

Seven of the nonconformities were cleared before the auditing party left the site. Within a month, the rest were remedied and cleared with BVQI. SDI was recommended for certification, and it now has the documentation and quality system it planned for.

Not the end of the journey

Although the road to ISO 9001 registration seemed difficult at times, registration has not been the end of the journey. SDI Aerospace continues to identify areas that can be strengthened, but the operating results of the company have stayed on plan consistently since registration.

SDI has gone through three surveillance audits, and each has proved to be a learning experience and an opportunity for improvement. Its most recent surveillance audit occurred shortly after the company moved to a new facility about 40 miles away. At that audit it received two minor nonconformities in element 4.5, Document and Data Control, that were easily corrected.

John Carroll, the director of production operations, believes having the ISO system in place helped in the transition to the new facility. Because of the solid foundation from which to grow, SDI Aerospace was able to smoothly transfer systems between sites and integrate an influx of new employees into its operation. The greatest benefit of the latest surveillance audit was that it helped in anchoring the relocated processes and systems.

DOUGLAS W. ANTON is president of AEM Consulting Group, Valencia, CA. He earned a bachelor's degree from California Polytechnic State University in San Luis Obispo. Anton is a member of ASQ.

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