Understanding Vendor Safety Assessments in Aviation SMS
Vendors and contractors play a large role in today's aviation industry. It is common for aviation service providers to employ the services of a dozen or more vendors to help the operator fulfill their mission. There are some companies with literally hundreds of suppliers.
These vendors or suppliers may include:
- Aviation fuel providers;
- Ground handling services;
- Aircraft maintenance; and
- Parts suppliers.
A typical Safety Assurance (SA) function for safety teams is to conduct safety assessments on their vendors'
- aviation safety management systems (SMS); and
- other contractual obligations.
Vendor auditing, inspections, and assessments can consume considerable amounts of time from aviation service providers' safety and quality departments.
Have You Read
- Why Include Vendors in Your Aviation SMS
- Real Difference between an Aviation Safety Audit vs. Inspection
- How to Create an Aviation SMS Audit Plan
Safety assessments have become a very important part of most aviation SMS. It is important for safety managers to remain conscious of the overall objectives of safety assessments in order to not miss out on opportunities to identify safety improvements.
"Assessment" is a broad term we use here when discussing the evaluation of vendor performance according to an accepted, predefined standard. The industry has multiple terms that cover much of the same ground to describe the process of using checklists to determine compliance. You may be accustomed to using any of these terms:
- Evaluations; or
There are subtle differences in these terms, but we won't dig into that here.
Challenges Managing Vendor Assessments
Both safety teams and quality assurance departments at the majority of companies are accustomed to performing safety assessments using spreadsheets. We see this not only with the smaller operators with 30 to 50 employees but also in larger airlines and aviation maintenance organizations with more than 1,000 employees. Spreadsheets have become ubiquitous in modern business processes. Yet there are challenges in using spreadsheets that auditors cannot deny.
Yet there are also benefits we cannot overlook. A benefit is that spreadsheets can be put onto a laptop and taken to a remote site to conduct the assessment/audit. Also, most aviation professionals know how to use a spreadsheet. Spreadsheet software is cheap enough that most of us have it on our laptops. However, there are serious productivity challenges when managing scores or hundreds of vendor assessments or audits using spreadsheets.
Many tasks could easily be automated, but spreadsheets just don't have the ability of such routine tasks, such as:
- Collaborative audit planning (scheduling audits and sharing the audit calendar);
- Notifying audit teams of assigned assessments (and reminding them) when assessments are due;
- Managing assessments checklists (different versions);
- Sharing the appropriate assessments checklist(s) with an audit team and responsible manager;
- Managing and tracking audit findings with vendors scattered across a wide region, like the U.S.;
- Allowing upper management visibility into the auditing processes, such as status, problem areas, and trends;
- Generating PDF audit summary reports to send to stakeholders;
- Easily detecting repeat findings across multiple audits;
- Identifying trends that are common to all vendors; and
- Automating recurring audits, assessments, and inspections.
I'm sure there are more challenges safety and quality teams face as they manage their vendor assessments using spreadsheets, but these are the ones that immediately to mind.
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Using Offline Auditing Tools to Conduct Vendor Assessments
Until recently, audit teams have not used Web-based auditing solutions because there was no easy way to manage the data from the spreadsheet to a central audit database. When auditors visited a vendor to perform an assessment, they were not assured of a reliable Internet connection that allowed an auditor to access checklists and document findings on a tablet or laptop. There are now offline auditing solutions that take away most of the spreadsheet worries.
Offline auditing works in this fashion.
- Audit administrator prepares audit checklists on the main Web server;
- Administrator schedules audit and selects appropriate checklist(s) to be used;
- Audit team is notified;
- As the audit date approaches, the audit team downloads selected checklists to their laptop, IPad, Surface, etc.;
- Audit team travels to the vendor site and conducts audits offline (or online mode if desired and if Internet is available);
- After the audit is accepted by the responsible manager, audit checklists are synced to the main database.
- Findings are managed using online auditing tools that track vendor's corrective actions' documentation.
Technology is changing rapidly in the auditing world. Databases that manage audit data have become very reasonable in price on a subscription basis.
Why Perform Vendor Safety Assessments?
Vendor safety assessments are required to ensure that any third-party supplier that is contracted by your company meets organizational safety requirements. By now, most vendors in the aviation service industry are aware of safety management systems. After all more than a dozen years have passed since the requirement (Annex 19 - Safety Management) came out in November 2006.
Safety assessments possess the potential to positively or negatively impact a vendor's safety culture. Therefore, safety managers should never take this task lightly as safety assessments help ensure that contractors remain aligned to SMS processes required by your company.
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Typical Activities of the Safety Assessment
Before jumping into this safety assurance activity, safety managers need to perform research and establish assessment objectives. Here are some steps you may follow:
- Which vendors?
- When will each vendor be assessed?
- Where will assessments be carried out?
- Who will perform the safety assessments?
- What are the criteria?
Vendor Assessment Checklist
Checklists are imperative for conducting vendor assessments. Safety assessment checklists help ensure consistency and completeness while conducting the vendor assessment.
- Do you have a template? or
- Do you use a third-party template, such as IOSA (IATA Operational Safety Audit)?
Conducting the Assessment
By now, you have scheduled the assessment with the vendor. He knows you are coming. The vendor may have even asked for your checklist so they can prepare.
When conducting the assessment, it is recommended that you conduct the assessment in a way that identifies successes as well as deficiencies. In your final report, you want to sprinkle in the good with the bad. This will reduce friction and encourage acceptance by the vendor to improve their aviation SMS.
After reviewing the contractor against your organizational safety requirements, you may
- Compile the assessment report;
- Evaluate the success of the assessment;
- Conduct a formal meeting to discuss the assessment; and
- Follow up to ensure that corrective actions planned to resolve deficiencies have been completed.
Managing Assessment Data
For operators using spreadsheets, communicating in a repeated back-and-forth, ping-pong manner with the "assessed vendor" can be painful to manage. Tasks such as:
- Prepare lists of assessment findings;
- Email the vendor the list with instructions to document corrective actions;
- Follow up with the vendor on a 1-n number of corrective actions;
These tasks require a highly-detailed audit manager. These tasks are done with each vendor, and depending on your audit schedule, the documentation requirements can be brutally mind-numbing. Have you ever noticed how auditors behave? They are usually very polite but stressed-looking. They've been beaten into submission by documentation!
When auditors are unable to sustainably manage vendor assessment data, this becomes a risk and concern for the accountable executive. Spreadsheets are an unnecessary risk for aviation service providers to use in more than just audits. Acquiring either a full-featured SMS database with auditing tools or a simple auditing software solution is well worth the investment for accountable executives to fulfill their SMS responsibilities.
Every accountable executive is responsible for ensuring the aviation SMS performing in all areas of the organization. To determine whether the SMS is performing, the accountable executive needs to regularly review organizational safety performance. Vendor assessments play an important part in determining organizational safety performance. When required vendor assessments cannot be efficiently managed, then the accountable executive cannot fulfill his obligation to the SMS.
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There are low-cost audit management systems that easily automate these tasks. These systems may be less expensive than full-featured SMS software suites. Small companies with fewer than 40 employees can get a full-featured SMS database with auditing tools at the same cost or less than a Web-based audit management system.
As I mentioned, more mature aviation SMS software suites include an audit management suite, such as SMS Pro. The benefit of having an audit suite in the aviation SMS data management tools is that there are also other vendors related information that can be tracked within the centralized SMS database, including:
- Vendor messages (sending and acknowledging receipt of important documentation);
- Tracking whether vendors have read messages;
- Vendor involvement in safety reporting system (they are reporting);
- Associate vendor with reported safety concerns (they may be causing a hazard, or an incident is reported concerning vendor);
- Assigning vendors corrective actions to complete related to reported safety events; or
- Using vendors to fix or correct one of your organizational corrective actions.
There are several use cases to involve vendors, tenants, and suppliers in aviation SMS. While you have these vendors involved in your SMS, you may as well use SMS auditing tools to conduct assessments on your vendors.
Whether you are tracking corrective actions related to an audit finding or an assessment, the risk management process remains the same. Since auditing processes are relatively standard in the aviation industry, using auditing tools from the SMS database makes perfect sense because the auditing tools are directly integrated into the SMS' risk management database, meaning that your team uses similar tools and processes to manage audit findings as you do to treat reported safety issues.
Another benefit of using auditing tools in the SMS to manage vendor assessments is that you can:
- receive email alerts for overdue assessment findings and corrective actions;
- easily generate managerial reports for assessment performance;
- use charting and graphing tools to detect trends; and
- keep all assessment and corrective action data in one system.
Keeping all vendor assessment data in a single database allows for more efficient report generation and risk analysis activities. There is also less risk of losing data due to stolen or damaged laptops.
Analyzing Assessment Data
Depending on how many vendors you may have audited, you may have some very useful data. The challenge most safety managers have is to find time to collect, sort, filter, and generate meaningful managerial reports.
Smart safety managers are always looking for opportunities to apply audit data to improve safety within their sphere of control.
Smart safety managers are also looking for opportunities to provide operations managers with useful decision-making data. When the SMS contributes to organizational decision-making, the SMS will become more accepted and the safety culture improves. Top management will become SMS champions when you can provide useful data to make their jobs easier.
Collating assessment data from multiple vendors to spot trends requires considerable effort. To make short work of this thankless task, I recommend using tools designed specifically for this purpose.
Look in your aviation SMS software to see if you already have auditing tools to manage vendor assessment data. Audit software is relatively inexpensive and is a morale booster for both the safety and quality departments. In larger companies, we commonly see both safety and quality departments use the same database to manage all SMS data. These operators benefit from having all data in one system to easily monitor SMS performance.
In aviation SMS, one component is called Safety Assurance (SA). Safety assurance is the area of the SMS that monitors SMS performance by acquiring data predominantly from:
- safety reporting systems; and
- auditing systems.
It is logical that the safety and quality departments use the same tools for vendor assessments and reported safety issues. What is even more powerful is that if you need an SMS database, you may as well get SMS software that handles all of the safety assurance activities and one that is also tied to the safety risk management (SRM) processes. This allows safety teams to continuously monitor risk controls when SRM and SA are tied together in one system.
Labor is expensive compared to the time required to conduct the audits, aggregate the data, and create charts to facilitate managerial decision-making processes.
Related Aviation SMS Software Articles
- How to Choose Aviation SMS Software - Educating SMS Professionals
- How to Choose the Best Aviation Safety Database Software
- Spreadsheets vs Software for Aviation Safety Management
Final Thoughts on Vendor Assessments
Safety assessments and their associated feedback to the SRM processes are essential to improving processes, procedures, and the SMS.
Safety managers may find that more of their time is consumed in areas relating to quality assurance rather than improving aviation safety. An SMS database reduces the workload considerably and reduces the risk that account executives are unable to monitor SMS performance.
Well-designed safety assessments have the ability to reap more benefits than simply testing whether contractors are adhering to organizational safety requirements. In the perfect world, you should seek an integrated approach to safety and quality, as both contribute to the operational success of your company. This attitude will serve you well as you maximize the benefits of the SMS.
If you are an auditor and don't need SMS tools, but auditing tools, we can help.
If you are a safety manager or the director of safety and you need an integrated SMS database that was designed for auditing and all the other SMS documentation requirements, we can help. SMS Pro has been helping aviation service providers since 2008. We work only in the aviation industry to provide our aviation SMS database tools. To see these tools in action, please watch these short demo videos.
Last updated August 2023.