Surviving an Audit

Do Such Evaluations Truly Reveal Organizational Competence?
Walter Heneghan
March 08, 2013
By Walter Heneghan
The email comes across your desk – XYZ Company wants to complete an audit at your Northern base next week. Can you facilitate the visit? This event happens every week in our industry, as our customer base is relying less on regulatory oversight and more on audits, inspections and base visits to assure safety in the operations of their service providers. Is it time to panic? Go on vacation? Or look for the junior pilot to host the auditor? There is no mystery to hosting a successful audit: honesty and openness are usually keys.

Many of you are aware of the quality improvement cycle: plan, do, check, act (PDCA), also know as the Deming (or Shewhart) Cycle. This construct is named after quality guru W. Edwards Deming who championed a framework that provides a methodical approach to problem solving and continuous improvement. He recommended that business processes be placed in a continuous feedback loop so that managers can identify and change the parts of the process that need improvements. Regular audits fulfil the “check” function of this cycle. Auditors are looking for confirmation that the company is actually “doing what they say they do.”

Audits take several forms: self-audit questionnaires, one-day head office visits or multi-day, team-oriented, multi-location comprehensive reviews.

The old standby, the Transport Canada audit, used to be a large, multi-week comprehensive inspection of a company’s management, maintenance and safety systems with a five-year cycle. These have now been replaced by the safety management system (SMS) related program validation inspection (PVI); an audit process by any other name.

In my experience, they are intrusive audits from which no operator can emerge unscathed and that usually start with a finding related to the Transport-Canada-approved company operations manual! The five-year cycle has now been replaced by a one – five-year cycle dependent on your organization’s risk profile, a profile that Transport does not share with the operator. With the staffing shortfalls at Transport and the removal of the “old” audit process, it’s an interesting exercise in validating safety management systems in operators who have not yet been regulated to enact such systems. While I am not arguing that helicopter companies do not need some form of SMS, validating a system that is not yet regulated seems a bit of a stretch.

Among the next hurdles many of us face are visits from the audit companies that churn audit reports on behalf of several clients. Some of us will be audited by the same auditing company or even the same auditors four or five times a year, and each time for a different client, and each generating a separate audit report. These quasi-due-diligence exercises do little to advance safety and serve mostly to fill a check box.

Bob Sheffield, the former CEO of Shell Aircraft International (SAI), used to refer to these as “…nugatory audits.” In a move to reduce the number of these cookie cutter audits, an operator can opt to undergo a comprehensive systems audit by an accredited entity. There are a number of these organizations such as Wyvern, the International Standard for Business Aircraft Operations (IS-BAO), the Flight Safety Foundation’s Basic Aviation Risk Standard (BARS), AR/GUS PROS and even Helicopter Association International (HAI) accreditation. In fact, HAI has tied its new accreditation program to the IS-BAO standard but some major companies – the oil and gas producers (OGP), for instance – have indicated they would still do their own audits.

So, I wonder, where is the value of following these other permeating processes when it is likely that major clients will want to complete a separate audit anyway?

I feel audits may present a false image of competence. Any operator can spruce up its facilities, tidy up things on the occupational health and safety side, send the hangar queens into the field for an audit – “lipstick on a pig” in other words. But if you have confidence in the way you do things, if you really believe in a proper safety management process, then these audits can serve as a check/balance on your ops and provide you with ongoing feedback on your safety and maintenance and operations processes.

Transport will always have findings and the big OGP companies will always have “their way.” But you can use these audits to augment your own internal quality assurance paradigm and provide opportunities for improvement. In taking these steps, you will ensure some payback for your time and energy expended during the external audit process.


Walter Heneghan is the VP of Safety and Quality at Canadian Helicopters. A passionate advocate for aviation safety and sound risk management, the veteran pilot presents his regular column for Helicopters magazine.










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