articleEducationLeadershipLeanManufacturingProductivitySix SigmaTips for Lean Managers

Engaging Partners and Suppliers on Your CI Journey

By John Knotts Updated on June 23rd, 2022

In my first blog on the subject of Continuous Improvement, I highlighted the proverb, “many hands, make light work.”  The concept of a culture of continuous improvement is to orient everyone in the organization toward one common goal — Operational Excellence.

You may have also heard of the psychology term, “The whole is greater than the sum of its parts.”  In essence, this means that together many things can be something greater than themselves apart.  You often hear about this in regards to teamwork and, as someone with 21 years of active service in the Air Force, I was repeatedly witness to teamwork in action.

However, if your company (like most) relies on business partners and suppliers to produce and deliver your product and/or service to your customers, their lack of focus on continuous improvement can significantly hamper your attempts.

You might be asking, what do I mean when I say, “business partners and suppliers?”  When I talk about strategic planning, I often draw attention to the four major groups important to an organization — stakeholders, customers, partners, and suppliers.  Note the Venn diagram and how these audiences interact.

Partners and suppliers are those you work with to produce and deliver your goods and services to the customer.  Sometimes they can be stakeholders and even customers, or in many cases neither.

Partners are those people and organizations that you work with to improve or deliver your product and/or service.  This could be a single management consultant that is working with your company to help improve your business, an outsourced human resources capability, or a vendor you work with to wholly provide something to your customer.  Each and every one of these entities is your partner, regardless of whether you label them consultant, contractor, vendor, or whatever.  If you do not think of and treat them like they are part of your team, they simply won’t be.

Suppliers are more detached than partners.  They provide you everything from office supplies to raw materials to finished products, which in turn impact the product and/or service you deliver to your customers.  Every little defect they pass on to you, you either spend time fixing or you pass it on to your customer.  Either way, it hampers your ability to deliver.

The problem is, neither partners of customers really work “for” you.  Yes, most partners are a little more focused on your needs versus most suppliers, but you do not write their evaluations and there is always someone else they can work with.

So, if you are really trying to build a continuous improvement culture, but your partners and suppliers are not part of the journey, then there is a good chance that, no matter how hard you work, you will only be partially successful.  You need to engage your partners and suppliers on your continuous improvement journey.

If you hope to nurture your improvement culture, your partners and suppliers must become “strategic.” This means you need to treat them like they are strategic.  If you establish one-year contractors with the lowest bidder and constantly switch from one to another with little loyalty, I am guessing you do not consider the ones you have today as “strategic.”

If you are serious about engaging your partners and suppliers in your journey, here are five steps to get you there:

1. Start with the right partners and suppliers. Jim Collins, in his book Good to Great, says first you start with who and then focus on what. Today, are the partners and suppliers that work with your company the right ones to go forward in this journey — do they have what it takes? You need to find those that have the same mindset — the ones that want to be better and are willing to grow with your company.  If you do not have the right partners and suppliers aligned with your team, then you should consider a plan to change that.

2. Make them part of the mission, vision, and strategy. Once you have what you believe to be the right partners and suppliers, then you can start to engage them in your journey.  Share with them your mission, vision, and continuous improvement strategy.  You do not have to reveal all the details of your strategic plan, just explain to them your mission and vision in enough detail that they understand and accept it.  Your strategy for continuous improvement; however, should be shared in detail as you want them to be a part of that.  Also, ask to better understand their mission and vision and see how together you fit and how you can help each other achieve your goals.

3. Teach them what you teach yourself. Not only do you need to educate your own leaders and employees, but you need to share your operating model with your partners and suppliers.  You need to give them access to the methodologies and common tools you plan to use in your journey.  If your strategic partners and suppliers are not aware of the methodologies and tools you are using, they will not be very aligned if they are actually improving things in their organization. For instance, if you are enrolling your people in Gemba Academy’s Lean and Six Sigma training and certification programs, you might want to send some of your partners and suppliers to the same programs.

4. Learn from them and leverage their strengths. These types of strategic relationships should be based on “give and take.”  Take a look at how they are improving their operations and see how you might adopt something effective that they are doing like you are sharing with them.  The most powerful aspect of a strategic relationship is in your ability to leverage what they know and you do not.  For example, let us say that you outsourced much of your human resources to a strategic partner.  Do not just tell them what you want them to do, ask them to tell you what they think you should be doing.  Ask them how together you can be better in regards to human resources and get their help getting there.  They probably have the benefit of multiple engagements, where you have only one — rely on their experience and wisdom to help take your operations to the next level and beyond.

5. Measure together — reward together — succeed together. Lastly, reinforcement of the combined culture is done by measuring the same things, recognizing each other’s successes, and communicating that openly.  Take your journey all the way together and you will be even stronger for it.

Often, we forget about the partners and suppliers that we work with when we embark on a journey of continuous improvement.  Later we wonder why things are not getting exponentially better.  You must engage those around you that support you in the production and delivery of your products and/or services — your partners and suppliers.  They must become part of your strategic efforts.  Fail to do this, and your effort will not be whole.

Building a Culture of Continuous Improvement is a multi-issue article that will span the next several months.  Next article, we will focus on why traditional measurement approaches do not change a culture.

  1. lydia

    May 11, 2022 - 2:25 am

    Hi there!

    I love your blog writing skills, love to read your article. it gives more descriptive details and information to your readers as I am also your reader.
    i just recently started to write blogs about women fitness and sports. You have given me
    more ideas to fine-tune what I’m doing. I appreciate it.

Have something to say?

Leave your comment and let's talk!

Start your Lean & Six Sigma training today.