At my high-tech manufacturing company, the "daily production meeting" started at 8 a.m. sharp.
The meeting served as the handoff between the overnight and morning shifts, used to provide status updates on factory operations, come up to speed on material and labor problems and identify roadblocks.
But the meeting was so much more than that. For years in my role as manager of commercial purchasing, I attended the hour-long industrial ballet, watching cast members trip over themselves ditching responsibility, propagating misinformation, pointing fingers and drinking poor cafeteria coffee.
There was a special place in this steaming cauldron for suppliers — that's where I came in.
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Strong personalities, reinforced by functional authority, ruled the meeting, and tempers often ran short. It seemed meetings were only deemed successful when fault was fully assigned, not when problems were solved.
The meetings were also a chance to vilify those not in attendance. They were often acrimonious, pitting product line against product line, shift against shift, department against department, engineer against engineer and technician against technician. There was a special place in this steaming cauldron for suppliers — that’s where I came in.
I was the procurement department’s representative in this meeting. By extension, that meant I represented the voiceless supplier community. My job was simple: gain insight into upcoming issues that may impact procurement, such as schedule changes, special customer requests or quality issues still in their infancy. I also had to report on existing shortages impacting production, a task met with the collective cold eyes of sharks ready to pounce.
While it may be easy to blame the supplier, it is far more important to identify and fix the root cause issues, even if it makes us uncomfortable.
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Our seats were assigned out of habit and there was little small talk or even noise, save for the annoying three-sip coffee drinking process from the master scheduler sitting on my left. Self-important attendees would stand around the conference room walls surrounding the table, pencils and clipboards at the ready to note even the most mundane detail, threatening to report it to the higher-ups in an effort to show their importance.
It was during one of these marathon meetings I received a compliment that was not meant to be one, delivered with emotion by a standing room only hanger-on with an uncertain job future.
"You are nothing more than a vendor defender!" he screamed red faced, pointing at me all the while. The veteran attendees looked at me with smirks, wondering how I was going to respond.
And respond I did.
"Thank you…thank you very much," I said, looking him straight in the eye with a big smile.
And in that moment my career was properly defined.
While I do not subscribe to the idea that all suppliers are infallible, and I can be tough on non-performers, I do feel a professional obligation to represent their positions as best as I can within my company. And here’s why.
Many suppliers are held to impossible delivery standards. Planning and design issues often eat into established lead times. If the supplier once slashed a lead time as a favor to the buyer, the expedited lead time is not the new one. Maintaining realistic supplier lead times is critical for optimal ERP accuracy.
Suppliers are actually serious about quality. I have not worked with many suppliers who purposely make poor products, but I have worked with suppliers who have made poor products due to unclear or incorrect specifications, verbal engineering changes or elusive technical requirements. A poor supplier quality rating may not be the result of poor quality, but poor communication and follow-through from my own company. Our sometimes mantra: Give us what we need, not what we asked for.
ERPs drive suppliers crazy. Constant expediting, de-expediting and cancelations driven by system-generated automated schedule changes create havoc with suppliers’ production processes. They have other customers to satisfy, and that leads me to my next point...
Pay the bills. Suppliers will stop shipments when they don’t get paid. The same for their suppliers. Cash flow drives all businesses.
Now of course some suppliers flub deliveries, miss quality benchmarks, lack communication skills and run their business poorly. My job was to manage and improve that process and act as a vendor enforcer (or find a new supplier).
Being a vendor defender is more than routinely taking the supplier’s side. It is digging in and getting to the bottom of supplier issues, no matter where the problem lies. While it may be easy to blame the supplier, it is far more important to identify and fix the root cause issues, even if it makes us uncomfortable.
Even Timmy three-sips, my coffee drinking adversary, can agree with that approach.
This story was first published in our weekly newsletter, Supply Chain Dive: Procurement. Sign up here.