When manufacturing problems occur: Just blame the supplier?

When a product is full of parts from distant operations or outsourced from suppliers, who’s to blame when a defect occurs? Too often blame is shifted along the supply chain without careful analysis.

  • A manufacturer with frequent supplier problems reflexively surmised a supplier fell short yet again. When the manufacturer tried to help the supplier address a recurring problem, root cause analysis (RCA) revealed that the supplier was not to blame and the defect had occurred during final manufacturing.
  • A new product had quality issues with a supplier’s part so the supplier scrambled to find what went wrong. Analysis of product specs revealed that the part was built to spec, but the manufacturer’s use was non-standard and bound to fail.
  • Problems integrating a component from a superb division within the supply chain casted doubts on the manufacturer’s own production capabilities. Only after creating resentment on their own production line, did the manufacturer use RCA, quickly discovering that the component was indeed defective.
  • A consumer product manufacturer suddenly had an issue with foreign material in one of their products. Having experienced this in the past they quickly started to check the raw material from one of their suppliers only to find the material was in spec. After several days a team was assembled to conduct an RCA discovering within the first 30 minutes that a maintenance activity had caused the introduction of the foreign material.

In our work helping organizations use KT Problem Analysis, (our approach to RCA) to address problems, the key is to use logic and data to find out what went wrong and to avoid finger-pointing, blame or jumping to cause. Companies who work together with suppliers or within vertically integrated divisions can find tremendous value by working in teams to use RCA to solve problems. Teams need not be restricted by their geography and do not have to work in real time. From distant locations, a team can work together as long as they share a common process and language for problem solving.

In the classic Kepner-Tregoe business book, The New Rational Manager, the founders of KT made the case for addressing major issues as a team. The more complex the activities of the organization, the more need there is for coordination if the organization is to flourish. No one person knows it all anymore. Teamwork is an increasingly critical element in organizational success. Fortunately, teamwork can be achieved by creating and nurturing the conditions that produce it.

When a team works together to resolve an issue without jumping to cause, the team can accurately identify, describe, analyze and resolve a situation in which something has gone wrong without explanation. Acting methodically, problem solvers can set aside irrelevant, confusing information and use data efficiently. The logic of RCA defends conclusions that support facts and sets aside those that do not.

RCA has the added effect of improving communication. By using a shared process for cause and effect thinking, team members of diverse expertise, experience and outlooks have a common language for problem solving.

A good process for RCA helps a team to set aside best guesses and work together, pooling information in a common format to determine the cause. However, there are limitations to the power of the process to produce the right answers. If the team does not have access to key facts, that problem will continue to defy solution. No approach or process, however systematically or meticulously applied, will unlock its secret. When customers and suppliers share information freely and honestly with a shared RCA approach, they build communication and confidence while strengthening critical relationships along the supply chain.

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