How much do you really know about your supplier's processes and practices? The best way to find out is to go inside

WATCH: 5 things to look for when visiting a supplier


1. Confirm their safety process

Safety is important all along the value chain, down to the end consumer, explains Christina Tarola, Account Manager, BASF. "If we're keeping our people safe, you can bet that we want to make sure that your people are safe when they're handling the products and using them. The people that encounter the product every step of the way need to know that they are touching something that's safe and that we deem it safe."

And a plant tour is the quickest way to assess whether or not a supplier complies 100 percent with its principles of the Responsible Care program.

"You get the sense of the adherence to responsible care, how well the plant is in terms of cleanliness, how well it is organized," explains Roger Haigh, Sales Manager, BASF Printing, Packaging and Adhesives. "You would see a clean, spacious plant where everything is hung up, everything is labeled." Any sign of an unkempt or cluttered plant is a red flag.

Look for how materials flow from railcar or truck, how they move through the plant and how they are stored along the way—all good indicators of safety, Haigh advises.

All hoses in these areas should be properly labeled and stored neatly to prevent tripping hazards. Ask about the safety measures to control or address leaks that might occur from the hoses or transfer pipes.

2. Efficiency

Moreover, how materials flow from railcar or truck—and how they move through the plant and are stored along the way—and not only good indicators of safety, but efficiency, Haigh adds.

Essentially, you'll get a solid grasp of "how good they are at doing what they're going to do." A plant that is run efficiently—and this probably goes without saying—translates to on-time deliveries, consistent product quality, and minimized time and financial waste.

Tip: Look for state-of-the-art control systems and tightly controlled processes that help ensure consistent product quality.

3. Build a stronger relationship to get a fast response to the next 'big ask'

Meeting face-to-face at a supplier's plant creates an opportunity to build a relationship that will result in quick and relevant action when a situation occurs that requires immediate attention.

"You get to know their plant people, you get to know more people in the organization. That gives you an opportunity to build a relationship," explains Haigh. "Bad things happen, and when they do, you can go to them and ask, 'Hey, could you schedule a bulk truck a day or two earlier, because I'm out of material?'"

"Hopefully they feel comfortable," says Tom Turnbull, BASF Production Manager. "If they have an issue or a concern, they can pick up the phone and give us a call. We're willing to talk to them and do what we can to satisfy their concerns. I think that's always easier to do after you've met and established a relationship."

It's a two-way street, however. Sharing the subtleties and nuances of business with a supplier truly makes hard questions easier to ask. If they understand your operations better, you don't have to waste time defining the problem when a solution is needed immediately.

It's a good idea to be prepared for a supplier's questions and be willing to share more than you might expect about your own operation. The more suppliers know about customers, the more they can shape solutions to the customers' benefit. Which brings us to...

4. Information exchange

"We can learn from each other," says Holly Johnson, Production Team Leader, Wyandotte Dispersions and Resins.

Talking openly with each other about what each party buys and sells can open up opportunities to suggest changes that will improve both business processes. Quite simply, the more detailed and informative the answers to those questions, the more you're going to get out of it in the long run.

"I like visiting other manufacturing facilities," says Turnbull. "If you're a manufacturing person, any time you visit somebody else's plant you can always get ideas that you can take back to your facility."

5. People, pride, and cultural alignment

The people you meet on a tour are a litmus test for those you don't meet. "Something I've observed fairly consistently is that the way a leader acts, the way that they conduct themselves—whether it be in business or personal life—tends to trickle down to their people," shares Gabriel McDonald, Continuous Improvement Specialist, Wyandotte Dispersions and Resins.

"If you're going on a plant tour and you have a very difficult time finding people or you can see that they're actively avoiding you, that would be a red flag to me—not necessarily in terms of what do they have to hide, but why would they feel like they can't speak with me? Is this reflection of their leadership? Is this the culture that's been created?"

Culture and how plant personnel behave can also signify product quality. "If I see operators yelling or not seeming very happy, it would seem to me that maybe they don't take pride in their work—is that going to impact quality downstream?" asks Johnson.

It's worth looking and listening for openness and a willingness to invest extra time. Those qualities can reveal a positive company culture that inspires confidence. And it will help assure that the supplier will deliver accurately and consistently—especially when challenges arise.

"When we really think about a company, a business is nothing but people," sums up McDonald. "It's just a group of people who have a common goal. All the capital in the world isn't going to produce anything without people."

4 pre-plant visit tips

1. Give plenty of notice. Being sensitive to supplier schedules is important, for example knowing dates for annual shutdowns before asking for a visit.

2. Draft a preferred timetable and agenda. Ensure expectations of both parties are aligned. Detailed objectives shared in advance make for more effective tours.

3. Share information. Check that the host supplier is up to date with latest developments in your business, especially if it's been more than three months since the last meeting with a sales person.

4. The NDA is your friend. Many large suppliers will ask for a Non-Disclosure Agreement (NDA) before a visit. The NDA can easily be treated as mutual, enabling the customer to provide information that will improve the supplier's learnings from the visit and the quality of service provided afterwards.

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