Should supplier development give a fish or teach to fish?

Everyone is familiar with the Chinese proverb, “Give a man a fish, and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish, and you feed him for a lifetime.” I have found that this proverb can apply to supplier development, sometimes within the same supplier development initiative. Let me explain. I was working with a large customer company that was trying to get its suppliers to adopt lean enterprise tools and practices. One of the supplier development managers was trying to push the effort along. So he created a lean tool board. This is typically a pegboard with outlines of the tools drawn on it to make it easier to figure out where to put the tool when done with it and reduces the time wasted misplacing and looking for tools. What’s my issue with this? This manager created it for the supplier instead of teaching the supplier about the importance of it and having supplier personnel create tool boards that specifically suited their needs. Not that tool boards are rocket science. One of my objections was the customer doing it for the supplier. The other objection is skipping the educational process that would result in the supplier figuring out that they needed tool boards and initiate them themselves.

This tool board story illustrates one of the challenges of supplier development. If a supplier is considered by its customer to need to improve performance, how should the customer go about intervening? When customers help suppliers with a tool here and a process there and even make the change for them, the change or improvement won’t stick. When you’re a passenger, you may forget how to get to a destination. When you’re the driver, you learn from experience.

Here’s another supplier development story. A manager at a large firm with a supplier in Puerto Rico told me about how their lean team went down to this plant, performed a week-long kaizen to rearrange the shop floor and create a more efficient manufacturing cell. Shortly after the kaizen event, a team from headquarters went down to see how the plant was faring with the new cell. When they got there, the cell was gone and the equipment was put back to the way it was. The supplier had no idea that its customer wanted them to keep the cell. They saw it as a temporary exercise to placate the customer. Apparently the customer hadn’t really developed the supplier or given them any meaningful training to help them understand what the kaizen was about and to understand the benefits of the new layout.

While this last example is extreme, it illustrates that supplier development requires thought and planning to ensure that a supplier both understands and has bought into the improvement process and tools and knows how make lasting improvements.

Sherry R. Gordon

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