By Kevin Meyer
Regular readers know I'm a big fan of visual communication – visual factory and visual leadership concepts. Coincidentally just last week I received a copy of Gwendolyn Galsworth's new Work That Makes Sense – Operator-Led Visuality and have been very impressed. Lots of ideas.
But sometimes the quest to go visual can go too far and actually reduce the amount of information being conveyed.
Lately the trend of simplifying supplier scorecards into just red/yellow/green boxes has been leading to a lot of head-banging. You know what I'm talking about – those single page sheets that customers use to rate suppliers on characteristics like on-time delivery, quality, and the like.
Typically green is for perfect or damn near perfect, yellow is 95% and higher, red is anything below 90%. Sounds great – easy to visualize, right? The problem is that they are also often used by a customer supply chain group to convey information to executives at the customer, who then offer all kinds of questions, advice, and counsel on "poor performing suppliers."
Simplicity misapplied can reduce information and especially nuance.
For example: my company processes a highly-variable raw material into high-precision tight-tolerance parts. There are really only two suppliers of the raw material, of which most end customers can only use one due to liability restrictions associated with the material in long-term implantable medical devices. Once the material is specified it is often easier to move a mountain than change thanks to FDA change notification requirements, therefore it is difficult for a new raw material supplier to enter the arena. It is what it is.
Processing a single-sourced highly-variable raw material into high-precision parts is very difficult – scrap is variable and can be very high, sometimes it won't run at all which then leads to all kinds of scheduling issues, and in-run variability can also be high. The material is virtually impossible to characterize prior to using it. Very high tech and very costly inspection equipment is not capable of repeatedly measuring some tight tolerance dimenions on opaque parts. But we've become very good at handling this type of material and these processes, continually narrowing highly-variable process windows – and that's why we're successful. We create significant customer value by doing the next to impossible every day.
The engineers and supply chain folks at our customers know that and understand why there might be the occasional shipping or quality issue. Their bosses, who oversee dozens and sometimes hundreds of suppliers, don't.
Therefore right after each supplier scorecard is published, usually with the occasional yellow box, the questions start raining down. A couple of times a customer sends "six sigma teams" to help. The interesting thing is that the customer engineers, supply chain, and QA folks usually intercept those messages and teams and have to explain the story of our unique situation and how they are very happy with our performance – and often very impressed with our lean transformation. One time a bunch of them hopped on a plane at the last minute to be here when the "fix the supplier" task force also arrived. That was fun to watch.
Yellow squares look nice and simple, but they don't convey the inherent difficulty of what we do and the value we create, let alone the huge investments in process improvements we are working on every day in collaboration with our customers.
Those yellow squares create near-monthly rushes of explanatory communication between us, our customer's engineers and supply chain folks, and the customer executives. Again and again. When we could have been working on improvements.
Visual is great. Just make sure it effectively conveys the full story and the right information.