Supplier site visits – looking beyond audit checklists

Just as you might go beyond words and try to ready a person’s body language to understand what they mean, the same approach can apply to a customer firm on a supplier site visit. While a quality audit has its rules and rigors, there’s nothing like old-fashioned intuition to uncover what’s really going on. As Norman Black wrote in his article, Supplier Auditing (The 5-minute rule), attitude is everything. Nothing says more about the prospects for a good customer-supplier relationship than the attitude of the supplier, from the associates to the president or owner. It starts, of course, with the leadership. If the company’s leaders do not show a sincere respect for their associates, then the company’s long-term prospects for success are reduced and the chances of their being a good supplier partner are also lessened.

One supplier manager with whom I worked (not the person cited above) also said that he could tell how good a supplier was within the first five minutes of a visit. You can just sense it. We were visiting a supplier that is called, in the vernacular, a “lifestyle company”.  In other words, the company existed mainly to maintain and enhance the lifestyle of the owner. The owner had an obvious disrespect for his associates. The non-native English speakers “couldn’t be that bright” and “you could train monkeys to do their jobs”. He also claimed that his employees never had any ideas to contribute, so it was useless to ask for their input. The supplier visit reminded me of the old Radio Shack slogan, “you’ve got questions, we’ve got answers”. Only in their case it was “You’ve got questions, we’ve got no clue, so we’re going to try to bs you.” The company had tidied up and repainted some areas in honor of the customer’s arrival. But a fresh coat of paint couldn’t hide their reactive, not preventive quality system; their lack of any signs of lean manufacturing, even though they claimed a cell had been put in place by a local college a few years ago. The list goes on.

What really amazed me was their ‘tude — certainly not the attitude of a supplier who cared about being responsive to its customer. We felt particularly unwelcome and uncomfortable. The owner had a pompous attitude, and the associates, including the management team, simply acted reticent and fearful, as they were probably going to get into trouble if the customer found out was was really going on. For an experienced supplier site visit or audit team, this non-responsive attitude shone through like a beacon.

This is not to say that a supplier site visit should be based soley on gut feel. But when your antennae start buzzing and a bad feeling washes over you, you had better take it into account along with the standard questions you are asking at the site visit. They may not be a supplier you really want to deal with. They may end up causing you problems that will take more than a few bucks to correct.

Sherry R. Gordon

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