Published: 9 Aug 2021

The International Automotive Task Force is reviewing how problem-solving and nonconformity management are covered in the IATF 16949:2016, the global technical specification and quality standard for the automotive industry. What do the trends tell us?

Quality management is mission-critical to the international automotive industry, not least in the UK, where quality and innovation are key competitive advantages. Central to it is the IATF 16949:2016 standard (International Automotive Task Force, comprising automotive manufacturers and their respective national automotive industry associations), which replaced ISO/TS 16949 as the mandated global standard for the sector. Underpinned by ISO 9001:2015, it aims to ensure consistently high quality through a stringent and documented certification system.  

“A strong certification scheme is vital for the whole automotive industry,” says Niall Kealey, IATF Oversight Manager at the UK’s Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders (SMMT). “IATF 16949 certification is a bit like a passport into the sector. It’s a prerequisite for companies manufacturing products for the automotive sector. It is mandated by many vehicle manufacturers and tier one suppliers. It drives continuous improvement within organisations, drives standardisation by eliminating variation and waste and focuses on prevention. More and more, the IATF is focusing on the link between effective implementation of its standard requirements and performance of the certified organisations in terms of quality and delivery.”

Certification runs on a three-yearly cycle, which means that many certified organisations are currently navigating their way through their first re-certification process. Any wholesale transition to a new set of rules and requirements takes time to become properly embedded, so it is perhaps unsurprising that more than 96% of organisations are coming up against one or more nonconformity (four per audit is the average), although the vast majority of these are classed as ‘minor’.

Serious consequences

This is nevertheless serious because, as well as reflecting sub-optimum systems and practices, minor nonconformities result in, at best, additional auditing costs and delays, and, at worst, escalation to ‘major’ if they are not appropriately addressed.  

Major nonconformities mean automatic suspension of certification, reflecting the level of risk that such infringements present to automotive customers. In certain cases, suspended organisations are required to notify their customers, even though a suspended certificate is technically still valid. In any case, vehicle original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) regularly monitor the certification status of their suppliers. 

Once suspended, organisations must undergo a special audit incurring additional costs within a fixed time period defined in the IATF rules for achieving and maintaining certification. This special audit will either return the certificate to issued status or result in its withdrawal, effectively preventing companies from operating within many areas of the automotive supply chain. 

Of the UK’s 544 IATF-16949-certified manufacturers, approximately 6% are currently suspended because of major nonconformities being identified. That figure may well rise as more re-certification audits are completed.  

Problem-solving problem

SMMT’s Quality Management Division collects – and periodically releases – detailed data on IATF 16949 nonconformities to identify trends and help the industry to respond. The past 12 months saw a wide range of major and minor nonconformities occurring. They include, among others: contingency planning; total productive maintenance; customer satisfaction; manufacturing process design output; control planning; and monitoring and measurement of manufacturing processes.  

However, above all these, by a considerable margin, are failings relating either to nonconformity management and corrective action or to problem-solving. This includes those minor nonconformities that are judged to have been ineffectively addressed by the organisation, resulting in what is sometimes referred to as ‘two for one’. The original minor nonconformity is escalated to a major and an additional major nonconformity linked to the organisation’s problem-solving process is raised. As previously mentioned, this will result in the organisation’s certificate being suspended. 

Organisations need to take the time to really define, describe and understand the nature of a problem before attempting to solve it.

“This indicates that, while we’re seeing all sorts of different types of nonconformities coming up, failure to adequately address the underlying issues is an all-too-common problem,” says Kealey.  

Adam Woodward, Principal Engineer at SMMT Industry Forum and IATF Witness Auditor, agrees. “Where requirements aren’t satisfied, the IATF 16949 standard defines a series of structured steps for organisations to take around problem-solving. When certification body auditors return to close out those nonconformities, sometimes they’re finding that the organisation has not been effective in addressing the original nonconformity.” 

So why are some automotive manufacturers failing to rectify problems in a timely way, and how can they do better? 

“A lot of the time they lack a comprehensive approach to problem-solving that is applicable to different types of issues,” observes Woodward. “Problems raised by customers are usually prioritised – everyone, including senior management, engages in investigating and solving them as quickly as possible. The same effort is not always applied to concerns highlighted by internal – or even external – audits.  

“Having a common approach that can be applied to resolving all kinds of issues is very important. Inconsistencies are red flags in the IATF audit process. Organisations need to take the time to really define, describe and understand the nature of a problem before attempting to solve it. It’s tempting to jump to conclusions and implement quick fixes, but that really is counterproductive.” 

“You also need a really effective internal audit process,” adds Kealey. “Organisations shouldn’t be relying on external auditors to uncover problems. Successful organisations are good at identifying and solving their own problems. They have a culture of it, and they invest in the necessary skills. There are tried-and-tested approaches that you can learn and apply that will not just satisfy the requirements to get you through your IATF 16949 audits, but will actually help every part of your business perform better.” 

Keeping on top of changes to IATF 16949 requirements is another crucial aspect that both experts are keen to highlight. The IATF has added sanctioned interpretations (SIs) to a number of requirements since their original publication, to add more precision or clarity. These SIs become the auditable requirements and, as such, the basis for any nonconformities. “Updates can happen at any time,” says Woodward. “Organisations need to keep up to date with them and make sure everyone in the organisation knows about them. All the SIs are freely available on the IATF website, and you can sign up for update notifications by email.”  

The IATF is currently reviewing how problem-solving and nonconformity management are covered in IATF 16949, and it’s possible that the next edition will give additional guidance on these topics. SMMT Industry Forum is supporting this process by gathering views from across the automotive sector.  

Kealey and Woodward point to the aerospace industry, which has already developed its own industry-wide problem-solving standard in the form of AS13000: Problem Solving Requirements for Suppliers, as a possible example to follow. Says Woodward, “As the UK’s only IATF-certified training provider, we see the same themes come up again and again in our ‘Problem Solving for IATF 16949’ courses. We’d also love anyone who has experience of these issues to give us their feedback by taking part in our short survey. We plan to publish the findings to help us, as a sector, tackle them collectively.”