I came across a rather inane article not long ago in which some self-proclaimed expert on supplier development argued that companies should focus on helping their suppliers become profitable, rather than helping them become lean. It begs the obvious question of whether it is possible to understand lean manufacturing any less than this ‘expert’ does. The bigger issue, however, is the whole notion of supplier development. When did establishing a relationship with a supplier become the business equivalent of having a dead-beat brother in law move into your spare bedroom?
Lean training courses are packed with folks from small and midsized manufacturers who are there solely because a major customer told them to attend. Left to their own devices, none of these folks would give lean a second thought. The likelihood of any real improvement arising from a lean transformation driven by customer coercion is pretty slim.
Several years ago I was taught a management technique that has served me well. The way it works is, when someone comes to you with a problem, you should imagine a good sized monkey perched on their back. What that person envisions is the monkey jumping from his or her back to yours. Your challenge as a manager is to take very good care of the monkey – to love it and feed it – but to be absolutely sure that when the person leaves your office, they take their monkey with them.
As a purchasing manager, I long believed the situation was about the same. A supplier’s inability to meet the terms necessary to support their customers and make a profit is their monkey. I would help in any reasonable way I could, but at the end of the day, managing their business is their responsibility and they have to make the right commitments and decisions.
There is nothing in this that minimizes the value of supplier partnerships. Partnerships, however, are formed between equals. According to Merriam-Webster, partnerships assume joint rights and responsibilities. Much of what passes for supplier development is a heavy handed, dominating customer telling a submissive supplier how to run their business. That is hardly a picture of joint rights and responsibilities.
The automotive suppliers are lining up to file for bankruptcy, crying that GM and Ford’s loss of market share trickles down to lower demand for them, ruining their businesses. I suspect that, if they were to define themselves as manufacturers, fully capable of making a lot of things for a lot of customers in a lot of industries, they might see things differently. Instead they have operated as subservient step children, managing their businesses as the GM and Ford supplier development folks have dictated.
Upstream manufacturers who pursue lean only how and if they are driven to do so by their customers are bound to fail. Suppliers must take responsibility for their own development and their own profitability. The performance monkey is theirs alone, and, while pushing the care and feeding of the monkey off on their customer may seem harmless in the short term, the customer will eventually starve that monkey.