Quality assurance (QA), or the maintenance of a desired level of quality in a service or product, goes beyond a company’s four walls. With today’s global supply chain extending across organizations, geographical boundaries, and technological networks, keeping tabs on suppliers has become more important—and harder—than ever.
“I often hear arguments that companies don’t have time to thoroughly scrutinize potential suppliers,” says Doug Hentschel, assistant professor and department chair of the Operations and Supply Chain Management program at Northwood University in Midland, Mich., “yet we’ve all seen the consequences of not having carefully selected suppliers and making sure that their quality systems are functional.”
Your 5-Point Checklist
Hentschel says the procurement professionals who handle sourcing are well positioned to manage the QA process for their companies—or delegate the task to a competent team member. The buyer who doesn’t necessarily grasp the fine details of QA, for example, can work with a quality systems expert (either an in-house professional or a competent third party) to visit supplier plants, review manufacturing and/or distribution processes, and conduct regular quality reviews.
“I often hear arguments that companies don’t have time to thoroughly scrutinize potential suppliers,” says Doug Hentschel, assistant professor and department chair of the Operations and Supply Chain Management program atNorthwood University in Midland, Mich.Once onsite, Hentschel says buyers should focus on the following five key points:
If a supplier is not willing to share this information with you, Hentschel says a red flag should go up immediately. In most cases, this non-disclosure means that the supplier doesn’t understand its quality system very well, or that it’s not very proud of the system that it does have in place. “Any supplier that is confident in its measurement systems, control plans, and set-up instructions,” said Hentschel, “will provide an environment in which quality problems can be quickly identified and resolved.”
For supplier quality assurance to be most effective it should be handled in conjunction with other company departments, not just purchasing, says Jim Harder, principal at Visual Data Group in Cleveland.For supplier quality assurance to be most effective, Jim Harder, principal at Visual Data Group in Cleveland, says it should be handled in conjunction with other company departments, not just purchasing. If, for example, the manufacturing division runs into an issue with a certain supplier’s parts during production, there should be a direct way for that information to be conveyed to the purchasing department. Similar conduits should exist with sales, customer service, and other critical departments.
Launching a QA Program
For buyers looking to either start a new supplier QA program or revamp an existing initiative, Harder says the first step is to look at areas where problems are obvious and/or prevalent. If your firm is getting a lot of returns on a specific product or component, for example, the issue may be traced back to a quality assurance problem at the supplier level. “The return measurement may just be the tip of the iceberg,” says Harder, “but it’s a good place to start because it may be a trailing indicator of other problems.”
To properly assess these problems, and along with regular visits to supplier locations, QA should also include “spot checks” to make sure vendors are meeting the specifications provided by buyers at the start of the relationship. To monitor the results of visits, spot checks, and any other QA activities, Harder suggests using a tracking mechanism that buyers can refer to for historical perspective. This will help buyers quickly pinpoint past issues and achievements, mitigate problems, and even make better procurement decisions. “We all like to think that our suppliers are honest and careful,” says Harder, “but trust and verify would be a good axiom to work with when it comes to QA.”