Within industries like electronics manufacturing, suppler self-surveys are very popular. At any given moment, we at Epec are processing five or so supplier surveys. We send them out ourselves. I have dealt with supplier surveys, one way or another, for the last twenty something years. But, what purpose do they serve, and more importantly, what value do they provide to your organization?
If you were like the manufacturing and quality folks that I surveyed, you would agree that supplier surveys are better than nothing. They mainly serve to help maintain ISO-9001 compliance. Many of us it seems, use supplier surveys to ensure that we comply with section 7.4.1 Purchasing Process of ISO-9001 and its close cousins.
The organization shall evaluate and select suppliers based on their ability to supply product in accordance with the organization's requirements. Criteria for selection, evaluation, and re-evaluation shall be established.
Passing Your Quality Audit
So other than passing the Quality audit, how has this effort helped your company to be competitive or provide value to your customers?
The tricky thing about this discussion point is that there is nothing wrong with the substance of most surveys. After a quick read, we can see how the questions in the survey could be used to understand a potential supplier. Our evaluation could lead us to disqualify the unfit suppliers or help pinpoint improvement actions for suppliers with an upside potential.
I have waited twenty years to see an example of supplier self-surveys become a useful quality tool. However, this has not happened yet. The evidence I see repeatedly is that most of the surveys get tucked away, never to see the light of day, except to serve as evidence during a quality audit.
Just recently, we were completing a suppler survey. The entire team found that several questions were difficult to answer. We submitted the survey by the deadline and told our contact that several questions were unanswered. “Don’t worry about that” she replied. “If it’s a problem, we’ll get back to you.”
Meeting ISO 9001 Requirements
So is this the industry’s dirty little secret? We are all filling out supplier surveys to meet an ISO 9001 requirement, but no one uses these surveys as a quality assurance tool.
To check my opinion, I reached out for a broader industry perspective. I posed my supplier self-survey question on LinkedIn.
The responses I garnered fell into two broad categories:
- Professionals who see surveys as a perfunctory task, necessary to maintain quality certification.
- People who could imagine how surveys could potentially help with supplier management, although they do not actually use them that way.
Let me put it this way - none of the respondents could report on a real life experience where the supplier self-survey system was a helpful, useful part of their quality management strategy.
I have already admitted that we do use supplier surveys at Epec. They are one minor tool in our QA toolset. Our supplier survey however is a small, two-page document. If you have a certified Qualit Management System (QMS), you can skip much of the document. When we plan to do an on-site supplier audit, we will request that the supplier complete the survey in advance of the audit, because the survey helps us to prepare for the audit. By the way, I will discuss this topic in further detail in my next blog post: Getting the Most from Supplier Audits.
Epec’s approach to supplier management relies on supplier performance, building relationships and a hands-on approach to product quality. For starters, Epec has a small supply base. We do not merely shop for best price. We deal with suppliers who have a proven record of accomplishment making product like yours. We compare the suppliers capabilities against our customers’ needs for product technology, production volume and, delivery schedule.
“Work closely with just a few suppliers, foster interdepartmental cooperation, work toward eliminating inspections, and build a relationship of trust with workers” - W. Edwards Deming
We put Epec inspectors in many of our supplier factories, as need dictates. Is this a trust issue? No, if a supplier shows us that they are not trustworthy we soon disqualify them. Our inspectors are in the supplier’s factory spot inspecting Epec product because our inspectors understand both our customer’s needs and Epec standards. The inspectors work to ensure a consistent approach to fulfilling our customers’ requirements.
Also, Epec personnel follow up on site for many of the Supplier Corrective Actions that we issue. While we do trust our suppliers, we also verify that their improvements are effective.
So, supplier surveys are a nuisance, or worse, a waste for most organizations. However when you need us to fill out a supplier self-survey, we gladly comply. We understand that you need up to date supplier records. At Epec we work to a higher standard. We ensure that our suppliers are capable of meeting, or exceeding our customer’s needs. We engage with our suppliers, their processes, their products, and their people. What is your approach?