Over 30 years of working with demanding customers from around the world means that we have seen all sorts of situations where supplier quality problems can arise. The golden principle that we always tell our customers are: (1) Your quality problem begins at the source, in your outsourced factory and (2) When the cat’s away, the mice begin to play.  Unless you are there to constantly monitor your supplier, the unexpected is always waiting to happen. We went around to ask our inspectors and supplier quality engineers what were the most common causes of supplier quality problems. Here’s what they said:

 1. Management resistance

Raul Martinez Rodriguez, Supplier Quality Engineer, Mexico City, Mexico  

 I think supplier management is one of the biggest impediments to high quality product manufacturing. There’s a toy supplier in Mexico City that I’ve been working with for over 6 years but they’ve been continuously resistant to implementing my solutions for resolving their quality problems once and for all. They are also very poor in following through with any design or manufacturing changes that the customer requires, and usually I have to step in to monitor them. It’s extremely frustrating for the customer but it is too difficult and costly for them to look for another supplier. As my customer’s SQE in the USA told me, ‘better the devil you know than the devil you don’t.’

The main problem is that the supplier managers, even those who are right at the top, refuse to listen to me and have no commitment to quality. Successful quality management can only occur if the management is committed and provides leadership. Quality is not an ‘add-on’ or a program, it is an approach to business. The management has to be proactive in creating a quality culture and encouraging employees to make it a key consideration in their work. They also have to be able to accept mistakes and be willing to rectify them. Only then, can there be a successful quality management program

  1. Design and Product Changes

Ajay Bansal, Senior ISO/IATF/AS Auditor, Bangalore, India  

For me supplier quality problems usually arise whenever there are design and product changes from the customer. There are two main causes for the problems – failure in communication and document control.

In the former, the customer may have failed to notify the supplier, the supplier could have been confused over or may not have understood the changes, or the supplier’s customer liaison may not have informed the production team. Suppliers, especially the lower tier ones, have very limited resources and may not be able to invest in sophisticated enterprise management software. They have very simple IT systems and do a lot of things manually. They’re probably just relying on email so when multiple versions of a document get sent over the email, it is very easy for them to get mixed up and use the wrong one. Their production teams may also rely just on paper printouts and may not receive the new one from the supplier’s customer liaison.

During a supplier audit, I suggest that one of the key things you look at is their communication processes and how they handle customer changes, especially those done at the last minute.

  1. Manufacturing Processes and Techniques

Marisol Gutierrez, Supplier Quality Engineer and Welding Specialist, Queretaro, Mexico

I feel that quality problems arise because suppliers don’t train their staff properly in manufacturing techniques and process. I’m a SCWI certified welder as well as a quality engineering specialist, and I deal with a lot of automotive and aerospace suppliers. I can tell you that most of the production workers have only about 6 months to a years’ experience, and the management only provides them with very basic training. This is even when specialised manufacturing production techniques are involved. A lot of the welding defects I’ve seen, like cracks and distortion, are due to the operators using the wrong technique, operator error, or having a poor understanding of process conditions. These can easily be rectified by good training programmes. Such programmes are going to become even more essential as manufacturing becomes increasingly complex.

In Part 2, we continue our discussions with our team about what causes supplier quality problems.  

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