by Christopher Paris
It’s been a tough week to be an internet representative of the Americas Aerospace Quality Group.
Criticism had already been building from AS9100 end users at the botched rollout of various supporting rules, like AS9101 and AS9104, which are supposed to govern certification of AS9100 clients, but were released years after the 9100 standard itself. More and more people from certified companies are reporting that their AS9100C audits are much more confusing, conflicting and value-less than under Rev B. Clients are also frustrated with inconsistent auditor interpretations of “new” audit tools and techniques, such as the PEAR form, turtle diagrams, and process-based auditing.
Prior to the internet explosion, big organizations could minimize the publicity of critics and the gripes of customers. Trade journals and magazines filtered content to meet editorial guidelines which are notoriously non-reflective, and instead towed the line of advertisers and reporters seeking access. Negative customer feedback could be squashed through complicated paperwork requirements. It was easy to dodge blame when stuff went wrong, because you could claim customer delight — but only because customer dissatisfaction was never recorded.
In the modern age of social networking, Twitter, Facebook and pocket-sized connected devices, there are many new doors available to discontented customers, and many more forums available to air that discontent.
LinkedIn.com has been featured in recent articles here at Oxebridge only because it’s the popular business social network of the day. It is typically a good spot, because it is not beholden to any single corporate influence, and groups can be established by moderators who don’t have an agenda. Tomorrow, some other forum or tech outlet might prevail, but for the moment, LinkedIn is the place of focus.
The AAQG LinkedIn group rolled along for (presumably) years, typically populated by self-promotional press pieces posted by group representatives like Sidney Vianna of registrar DNV. The model was typical old-school: the site was just an extension of a print-based press release machine, not one which anticipated true discussion or end user feedback.
That misunderstanding of modern technology (ironically, by a group of aerospace engineers) proved fatal. When I began posting there a while back, people were already discussing the confusing results they were getting from AS9100 rev C interpretations and audits. There was some great back-and-forth between users and the more progressive AAQG/IAQG members like Jack Fletcher and Jim Addy, and soon the conversations were overtaking the PR links. Even Mr. Vianna was contributing good commentary, and not merely posting releases. It seemed like a truly robust discussion was being had.
But when you have a forum that is run by the AAQG, AAQG should expect that it will be the subject of its forum, in the same way that if Coca-Cola opens a forum, it’s likely people are going to ask questions about Coke, not about Honda or IBM.
It’s Your Brand, Stupid
AAQG didn’t see that coming, and things started to derail. People would post criticisms of the new AS9101 auditing rules, and others would chime in and agree, making it clear this wasn’t a series of one-off gripes. Some other users disagreed with the complaints, and multiple sides of the issues were represented.
While some thought AAQG might respond more strongly on the issues, all they usually did was point people to the OASIS feedback database. But OASIS is extremely limited: it only allows one to log a complaint which has already been filed with a CB, and only issues against single CB’s. It doesn’t provide for feedback on AAQG itself, on certification auditing problems across a number of CBs or auditors, or even feedback from other industry stakeholders like suppliers, trainers or consultants.
If anything, the AAQG public forum seemed like a great place for users to provide the feedback that OASIS wasn’t built to handle, and even for AAQG to live up to its stated objectives to:
- Establish and implement a process of continual improvement to bring initiatives to life
- Establish methods to share best practices in the aviation, space and defense industry
- Coordinate initiatives and activities with regulatory/government agencies and other industry Stakeholders
With its LinkedIn, the AAQG could augment OASIS, and truly solicit the feedback of those “industry stakeholders” and pursue “continual improvement”, as well as provide a great place to “share best practices.”
The problem with soliciting feedback and promoting sharing is that you don’t always get what you want. And it started to unravel when it became clear the AAQG was only looking for praise, not for criticism. It thought LinkedIn was an old-time storefront, where you controlled what went into the window, and shoppers only saw what you want. They missed the whole 21st century thing.
Paris is Burning
There will certainly be some AAQG or CB reps who grumble that I, personally, “torched the joint” — but it will be a gross falsehood. There were many people posting public concerns over the standards, or their audit experiences, or their registrars. But I did draw more attention.
The reason is simple: where individual users could only post single anecdotes, as someone exposed to 20 or more new clients a year, when I posted information, it included enough evidence to begin crossing from anecdote to statistical relevance. I am not saying my experiences are statistics, but they simply are more numerous than the average single user, by simple nature of my role in the industry as the rep for multiple users, simultaneously. Believe me, I am not bragging, because it’s a headache in this environment, and I wouldn’t wish it on anyone.
You could sense the irritation building, especially when I would post and provide evidence, and then others would add on with their own experiences. Rather than assign someone, even informally, to reply to questions about auditor practices, the AAQG reps started going silent. This created a new problem, in that the majority of voices were now just the users themselves, exchanging their own “horror stories” about AS9100C. No doubt to AAQG management, that made things look worse.
But let’s cut them some slack. These are not social networking experts. Mr. Vianna is a sales rep for DNV, an AS9100 registrar, and as such has a limited field of view and shouldn’t be expected to be the next Mark Zuckerberg. He’s never had to actually use the product he sells (AS9100), and never had to deal with a barrage of online gripes about it. Moderators like Cessna’s William Blake, whose previous experience was apparently in fence manufacturing, also wasn’t equipped to deal with this.
Two issues that I posted struck chords with users. The first was the PEAR controversy, which got so much feedback that it enabled me to approach the IAQG itself, armed with even more evidence, and ask for a formal clarification. The second was the practice of auditors re-engineering client processes during the AS9100 audit, rather than auditing to the processes as established. We had just begun talking about this, and people were already responding in a manner similar to the PEAR controversy, acknowledging that, yes, this was going on.
The straw that broke the proverbial camel-spine was when I posted actual audit reports, with client information and auditor names redacted (albeit with the registrar company names intact), that showed auditors had completely ignored the processes defined by client’s Quality Manuals, and audited instead to arbitrary “processes” determined by the assessor on the very day of the audit. My intent was to build support for a new initiative, which would ask accreditation bodies like ANAB to, when overseeing CBs, begin comparing end user documentation against CB audit reports to ensure auditors actually abided by client processes, per AS9101D.
Moderator Blake first deleted my post, citing it as (for some reason) “inappropriate” and directed me to use OASIS, which of course is impossible for a consultant addressing an industry-wide problem. In his words, and they present an almost sad and embarrassing example of someone completely out of touch with today’s media, posting on a social networking site “WILL NOT drive change” (emphasis his.)
Having seen this before, I knew I was just hours away from being banned by Mr. Blake, so I began wiping my own posts, and moving them to another AS9100 group not run by AAQG. There I mentioned the censorship, and 24 hours later, the entire AAQG LinkedIn group disappeared. Mr. Vianna confirmed to me that yes, “it has been shut down.” No explanation is likely, so I won’t waste my time to ask.
Apparently, Mr. Blake, posting does drive change.
Misunderstanding Your Customers
AAQG could have been progressive, and put someone on the site who could answer questions and at least take in the feedback, if not respond to it. There was an opportunity to turn LinkedIn into a feedback portal that would have enhanced their alleged “objectives” and created a new, customer-focused pipeline that really drove improvements in the spirit of the standards they produce and manage. They could have shown they were walking the walk.
The problem, though, is that AAQG literally doesn’t recognize the people and organizations that buy AS9100 and then pay all that money for training, consulting, implementation and certification auditing as the customer. In the words of Mr. Vianna himself, “OEMs are the real users of AS9100.” (I’d link to that quote, but it was on the now-deleted LinkedIn page!)
With that skewed understanding of its customer base, no wonder the AAQG exists only to support Boeing and Lockheed and Cessna. It is no wonder they simply don’t care about the opinions of the thousands of companies who actually use – and pay for! – their product. It explains why, despite Oxebridge having so many clients using AS9100, Mr. Vianna only approached me to invite SpaceX onto the IAQG. My other clients are too small-time, not “OEM-y enough.” And, of course, my other clients didn’t get cameos in Iron Man movies; SpaceX represents a great marketing avenue for the IAQG/AAQG, even if it isn’t one of the “big boy” OEMs.
It’s a fascinatingly twisted comprehension: in the mind of the AAQG, the producer of the product is also the only customer. It may be a jarring, if honest, admission, but it is nevertheless naked elitism.
And it’s doomed.
So rather than adopt a position – even a half-hearted one, at that – to listen to actual consumers of their product, the AAQG shut down discussion entirely, took its ball and went back up the ivory tower. They violated their own objectives, effectively shit on their customers, and shut off all discussion. They will return to heavily moderated “safe havens” or print media to resume posting glowing reports of customer satisfaction from unverified sources, and publish unchallenged press releases that tell us all how great everything is. But the jig is up. They can’t fool anyone now.
The truth: the Americas Aerospace Quality Group is not interested in your opinion because they (a) don’t view you as the customer anyway, and (b) are allergic to any feedback that isn’t praise.
History tells us organizations like this can never survive, so worry not. This may be the beginning of the end of AS9100’s reputation as a valid certification standard, but something else will come along that is more robust, flexible, and better accepted by the market.
CMMI for aerospace, anyone?