In March 2013, Lululemon, a billion-dollar Canadian athletic apparel company, made headlines after the media got wind of an unusual story. The Vancouver-based company recalled its popular black yoga pants after customers complained that the active wear was too sheer. The company pulled the pants from store shelves and online. 

When reports about Lululemon’s return policy stated that customers needed to wear the yoga pants and have them inspected by store employees to prove the athletic wear was indeed too sheer, the media got involved. People commented on social media sites, and journalists asked the company what went wrong. After clarifying store policy—which DID NOT include customers needing to prove the product’s sheerness—the company explained that the problem resided with their overseas supplier. When the supplier told press that they met Lululemon’s specifications, the Vancouver-based company went public again stating that the product met BASIC requirements and more investigation was needed to find the root cause.

Lululemon executives needed to reforecast first-quarter revenue. Company return policy needed to be addressed. And, most immediately, the company needed to work on supply-chain management.  The company issued a statement about the recall on its official blog, March 18, 2013. Relating to quality and supply chain management, the following was mentioned:

“We are working with our supplier to replace this fabric and other manufacturers to replenish the affected core items as fast as we can. What that means is there will be a shortage of these styles in our stores and online until our new stock arrives. We are also in conversation with our manufacturing partner to understand what happened during the period this fabric was made.”

While quality methods are put in place to prevent errors, no system is infallible. What should the quality professional do once the need for a recall is realized? Rely on the customer-supplier relationship.

Quality is usually thought of in terms of tools, data, and methods. In other words, quality is thought of in technical terms. Relationships depend on emotion. Data does not. However, perhaps ironically so, it’s the quality toolbox that can help improve the emotional fabric of a customer-supplier relationship.

For instance, there are auditing, change control and deviation templates available to use as guidelines in working with suppliers. Use these tools to keep an open line of communication. When problems arise, include suppliers in this process of determining the root cause. It is essential to have investigative practices in place to examine all possible causes in order to determine the root cause, and then make necessary improvements to strengthen the process. 

In a presentation at the 2009 ASQ Customer Supplier Division Symposium, John Blakinger offered this simple, yet potent statement:

“Although it takes two to have a relationship, it only takes one to change its quality.”

While we might want to view ourselves as customers of our suppliers and take a “just do as I say” attitude, it is important that we look to improve the quality of all of our supplier relationships. Conversely, as suppliers, we need to politely nudge our customers toward a healthy customer-supplier relationship. 

Lululemon missed a great opportunity to repair customer-supplier relations, both from its manufacturing and service businesses, and instead embarrassed supplier and customers through their public finger pointing.

It is upsetting when organizations—of which Lululemon is only one of many recent examples—try to bypass quality models and practices in the name of saving their brand equity. Quality isn’t something that is spoken about; it is displayed, through a product, a service, and an experience. Organizations with healthy supply-chain management systems in place realize this. Within these organizations are proactive quality professionals ensuring quality is an organization-wide precept.