The Last Word: True Partnerships Endure

June 2, 2008
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During a recent search through the Quality Magazine archives, I found a copy of a 20-year-old letter from a service provider to one of its customers. After a long-term relationship with the manufacturer, the provider severed relations because the manufacturer had reduced what was once a partnership to that of a “commodity supplier.” Hats off to the service provider for having the courage to lose 25 years of business with that manufacturer rather than reduce the full range of his expertise available in his offerings.

It is common today to hear manufacturers refer to their suppliers as “partners,” as those they count on to help them bring their products to market. But, are such relationships always a partnership?

The earliest use of the word “partner” has as the essence of its meaning, “one who shares.” In that definition there is a supposition of a relationship where the two work toward common goals together. They share the successes and setbacks-together. When a “better looking” supplier comes along, the partners don’t automatically disband. There is history and shared experience that can’t be replaced and shouldn’t be readily discarded. Too often though-because of price pressures, overstated claims, decentralization, nepotism or myriad reasons-what was once a partnership turns out to have been a “relationship of convenience.”

The manufacturer who ends a partnership often will fall back on such reasons as better pricing, better service, better “global reach,” etc., as cause to abandon his partner. No manufacturer can ignore such concerns if they are genuine. Manufacturers’ needs change, because of internal or external forces, and adjustments must be made. However, when new challenges and demands arise, does the manufacturer forsake his partner? In a relationship of convenience he does. In a genuine partnership there is always room for compromise and accommodation.

Real-life experience abounds with stories of manufacturers who form true partnerships with suppliers and successfully work together to meet challenges. At the recent Quality Measurement Conference, held April 28-May 1 in Clearwater Beach, FL, speaker Doug Fair of InfinityQS (Chantilly, VA, www.infinityqs.com) told what happened when Quickie Manufacturing Corp. (Cinnaminson, NJ, www.quickie.com), the world’s largest maker of brooms, mops and other cleaning tools, had problems with a Chinese supplier that was unable to meet rigid specs.

Did Quickie force the supplier to buy unaffordable new machines to manufacture the needed parts? Did they abandon them for someone who could meet the spec? According to Fair, Quickie valued the relationship enough that they worked with the Chinese supplier to bring the parts manufacturing process more under control. The Chinese supplier did everything they could to improve and when that still didn’t provide a part that met spec, Quickie saw the long-term benefits of keeping the partnership intact and altered the end product design so that the consistent, improved parts would correctly fit together.

Forming a true partnership with your supplier, rather than a relationship of convenience, has market benefits. Because Quickie is invested in ensuring its suppliers are producing quality parts, and helping them when they fall short, they have ensured their role as the leading manufacturer of cleaning tools in the United States and have expanded rapidly in the global market.

In the letter I mentioned at the beginning of this column, it’s more difficult to measure whether severing the relationship had negative effects. The manufacturer continued to do reasonably well during the interim 20 years; however, they did eventually lose market share and were acquired by a multi-national conglomerate. Is that a position of strength? One has to wonder if the partnership had not ended whether they would have been bought out. No one has purchased Quickie.

Do you have genuine partnerships or relationships of convenience with your suppliers? If a new provider of components, materials, equipment, software or services comes to you with lower prices than your current supplier, do you quickly jettison the old for the new? Is there value to be had in long-standing relationship with a supplier who may be more costly, but who understands your business? Share your thoughts with me at williamst@qualitymag.com.

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