Thursday, May 24, 2012

Are Certs REALLY that important?

Tired of your customer asking for a Cert?  How do you feel about buying a new document storage program to handle the 100,000+ Certs that you've accumulated for basically no reason at all?

I was recently handed the Spring edition of EDM Today.  Much to my delight, I found a very refreshing article (on page 22) under the Roger's Rant section, entitled "Certs and Self-Audits, The Triumph of Symbolism over Substance".  I enjoyed the article so much that I had to contact the author, Roger Kern, to see if I could post it for all you to enjoy.  Let me say that one of my early functions here at Atlas was to prepare the Certifications for our customer's.  So I am a tad bit biased in my assessment as to whether or not Certs are necessary. 

Without further adieu (compliments Roger's Rant @ EDM Today)

Certs and Self-Audits

The Triumph of Symbolism over Substance

In what may be a welcome respite for some readers, the Spring Rant redirects its focus from government excess to a disturbing trend that directly affects our industry.

One of my roles as a consultant is to serve as Quality Manager for one of our industry’s EDM supply companies. As more US industrial companies have adopted ISO 9000, AS 9000, NADCAP, and similar quality disciplines, I have seen an unmitigated proliferation of frivolous customer requests for Certs and Self-Audits.


In the “good old days”, customers would reasonably request certs for:
  • Chemical composition of materials
  • Special processes such as heat treating, welding, coating, or plating
  • Non-destructive testing
  • Inspection of critical dimensions
Requests for certifications such as those listed above are proper and necessary for aerospace, medical, and other critical applications.

However, with the advent of ISO and the like, many customers now routinely request certs for everything including toilet paper. A typical scenario goes something like this:

Customer “A” calls in an order to an inside sales person for a dielectric filter for a wire machine and says “Oh, by the way I’ll need a cert for that.” At this point I get involved. I first need to inform the customer that I can’t issue certs for telephone orders unaccompanied by written documentation of the order since it is impossible to certify anything that that is dependent on oral communications. If and when the documentation arrives, it usually contains the generic boilerplate “Certs Required”. This prompts another call to the customer asking what it is they want me to certify. The answer is invariably: “I don’t know and I don’t care, just make certain that a cert accompanies the shipment.

In response to the above scenario, I have developed what I call the “B.S.” cert. Basically the cert consists of a unique Certification Number, my client’s name, the customer’s name and address, the customer’s Purchase Order Number, my clients Packing Slip Number, and some boilerplate language that says that my client shipped them the item(s) stated on the order and that the items shipped meet industry standards.

My problem with this is that besides being a waste of time and paper, this worthless cert is then perfunctorily stapled to the packing slip by the customer’s receiving department without anyone even looking at it. The request and response are a sham. If the customer can’t take my client’s word that the packing slip accurately reflects the contents of the shipment, then why would they rely on a cert that basically attests that the packing slip is correct?

A good example of the “trust thing” is an experience I had when I owned my own shop and EDM supply company. A very large automotive customer issued an edict that we had to supply certification of billet traceability of all graphite rounds that we sold to them. Many small graphite rounds are made from cut-offs left over from making rectangles out of billets or rounds out of rectangles. No one in the industry can or will provide traceability to billet in small rounds due to the onerous costs such traceability would entail. I checked directly with the graphite manufacturer, and even if I bought the rounds directly from them they could not provide traceability. I communicated this to the customer and assured them that the rounds I sold were genuine and we would certify that fact, but this was not acceptable. I also offered to provide physical properties analysis certs on the shipped rods at an additional charge, but of course an increase in cost was not acceptable either. I later learned that they placed the business with a competitor who guaranteed billet traceability, which is a bald-faced lie. Yet, the customer was fat, dumb, and happy.

Another example of Cert Insanity is a client’s customer that has facilities in Mexico. They require a NAFTA cert in order to import the goods from the USA into Mexico duty-free under NAFTA. Under NAFTA (North American Free Trade Agreement) goods sold amongst the NAFTA member countries consisting of the USA, Canada, and Mexico cross their borders duty-free as long as the products were made in those countries. In this particular instance, the products in question were made in Korea and not eligible for the NAFTA duty exemption. I notified the customer of the situation and was informed that they still needed me to fill out the cert, specifying the goods were made in Korea even though they were ineligible. It states right on the form that submitting the form for ineligible products is a crime and subject to Federal prosecution. I presume they bought the products from someone else who was willing to comply. 


Along with the proliferation of B.S. cert requests has come a corresponding increase in requests for Self-Audits.

Again, in the “good old days”, if a customer wanted to audit your company, they would send an auditor to your facility and conduct an on-site audit. When I owned my own shop, we would dread these nit-picking and time consuming visits by auditors, but we invariably benefitted from the audit findings and improved our practices as a result of the audit. When the auditor left our facility, he was reasonably assured that what was documented in our quality manual was actually practiced on the shop floor.

One of those audits resulted in a finding that our inspectors should have annual vision exams. It was a simple, no-brainer thing that we had just overlooked, and we welcomed the suggestion.

Today, in many cases, the on-site audit has been replaced with the self-audit – presumably to reduce costs. The self-audit is a multipage document containing a series of multiple choice questions on all aspects of a company’s quality practices. Usually, each question can be answered with “Yes”, “No”, or “N/A”. At the end of the survey is usually a stern warning that any negative answers will likely result in the suspension of the business relationship. That certainly makes it tempting to answer all “Yes”!

Needless-to-say, I always complete these surveys truthfully, in some cases answering “No”. In the last ten years I have completed hundreds of these surveys and have never received any follow-up correspondence or visit. Why? Because no one bothers to look at the returned survey. Some clerk makes a check mark on their ISO form and stuffs the survey in a drawer. If customers really cared about my clients’ quality, they’d come and verify it. In fact, in years past, quality system guidelines mandated on-site visits. Unfortunately, for many companies what really matters is the paper trail and not the actual quality.

If the USA is to be competitive with other nations, we need to do a lot better than just shuffle useless paper around in place of real efforts to assure actual quality improvement.


1 comment:

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