Elements of Supplier Quality–Part 1

Screen Shot 2015-11-12 at 4.01.03 PMYou can find a great deal of information available on the topic of supplier quality.  I’ve previously written a short piece on the ownership of quality within an organization (“Who Owns Quality?”, August, 2014), but for this short post I’d like to focus specifically on supplier quality.  However, I will likely not cover the topic in the manner you’d expect for someone with twenty years of experience in Silicon Valley.  Why do the same old thing, right?

For example, I could discuss the need for metrics, for a systematic approach to measuring supplier quality through standards and regular performance reviews, scorecards and corrective actions, etc., but for me, as much as there is certainly a place for such discussion, I’d prefer to approach the topic from a different perspective:  simple, common characteristics.  I want to summarize those characteristics that I believe are often present in a great supplier relationship.  As you read through these, think about your own supply chain, your participants in that supply chain, and whether these on my list are consistently present with your current suppliers.

Let’s dive right in–

  1. Great suppliers have integrity.  You’d think this would be obvious, but it isn’t always the case, and you are foolish to assume it to be true.  Dishonesty still still surfaces from time to time in today’s business world, and it’s always been around, all the way back to when the first business deals were done (whenever that was).  Integrity is one of those necessary qualities if you truly want a high level of quality to be present in your supply chain.  We all need suppliers to not only do what they say they will do, but be careful not to over-commit as well.  And, in the rare instance something doesn’t happen as planned or committed, to take ownership for their part in both the problem and the solution.  True integrity means your supplier has given reasonably careful thought to what they can and cannot do for you and communicates exactly this information in a clear and honest fashion, which brings me to my second characteristic.
  2. Great suppliers are great communicators.  They communicate.  Period.  As a customer, you don’t need to spend time tracking down the story, or the status, because they have communicated exactly what is happening with your parts, your service or your shipments.  Not only is the information accurate, it is timely, it is clear and it is intelligent.  A great supplier goes out of their way to make sure you are informed and will do this generally in a proactive fashion.  This sounds like a basic concept, I know, but it’s still surprising to me that there are businesses out there that simply do not communicate well with their customers.
  3. Great suppliers know their limits and focus on what they do best.  My dad taught me this one firsthand.  He owned a small but extremely successful commercial printing business here in Silicon Valley that lasted more than 30 years (not bad for a kid from North Carolina with a young wife and four kids to raise, and nothing more than a high school education–but more on that story another time).  He was always very careful to only accept jobs that he knew his crew and his expertise could handle well.  If he didn’t have the resources, or the ability, he didn’t take the work.  He would always remind me (I worked for him through part of my college and early adult life) how important it was not to try to do something that you were most likely to fail at.  Having said that, he slowly grew the capabilities of his business proportionately to the growth of his customer base and their demands. But he was always very careful to focus on producing the highest quality printed goods possible, so much so that he took pride in delivering much of the work to the customers himself.  It gave him great satisfaction when his customers loved the work he did for them.  And, as he held a high standard of quality with his business, it flourished and did well financially.
  4. Great suppliers share in your vision.  They “get” what you’re trying to achieve.  To be fair, sometimes we do a lousy job of explaining exactly what we’re trying to do.  But assuming that you’re doing your part in the relationship (I hope so), a great supplier understands and shares in your quest.  They want you to succeed, not only for the business aspect of what it does for them financially, but because they believe in what you’re trying to do.  They become a partner, and take a genuine interest in helping you and your team to succeed.
  5. Great suppliers provide you with constructive feedback.  Let’s face it, we screw up sometimes as a customer.  We don’t always know exactly what we want (or more often, how many we need), but a great supplier learns enough about your business to provide feedback and often will grow your knowledge in a useful fashion by what they share with you.  I’ve had the benefit of this type of relationship for much of my own career, and some of the best supply chain relationships have involved working with experts in their respective fields, who took the time to teach and impart useful information so that I could do a better job both for my company as well as for myself professionally.

I’m going to stop with these five for now- there are no doubt many more elements of supplier quality that could be discussed and I’ll touch on a few more in one of my future posts.  Give some thought to your supply chain through the “lens” of these characteristics and ask yourself if your supply chain reflects these consistently.  If not, it may be time for a change.  If so, continue to cultivate your relationships with those suppliers, and for the longer term, you’ll be glad that you have them on your team.