Involve Suppliers in the Design Process

7 Ways to Involve Suppliers Early

From open communication to creating a culture of collaboration, these tips can strengthen synergy with suppliers.

Looking for an effective strategy to improve your company’s overall product design and development performance, including time to market? Consistently involving your suppliers early in the process could provide the edge you need. You’ll enhance organizational agility and competitive innovation as you increase the value of your products and services for customers. Here are seven ways to partner with suppliers effectively:

1. Identify and share customers’ requirements. What’s at the top of your customers’ wish lists, and what is your organization’s strategy for meeting those requirements through new product offerings? Your suppliers need accurate, current data about your design challenges and related development plans so they can provide the quality, cost and service you need to meet your customers’ expectations. Transparent, timely communications pave the way for supplier participation in your successful design and development process.

2. Link suppliers’ capabilities with customer requirements. Engage your development team in end-to-end thinking. Factor in ways to link suppliers’ capabilities with your company’s commitment to enhanced, sustainable customer service and satisfaction.

3. Share cost-saving strategies. If you help suppliers understand your continuous improvement or lean strategies, you will enable them to effectively align cost-cutting initiatives with yours. You may see quality and service improvements on their end as you work with them more closely.

4. Foster two-way coaching and learning. Invite key suppliers to spend time at your facilities, learning firsthand about your company’s design and development process. In turn, visits to suppliers’ facilities can net crucial information about their processes and value streams. Suppliers may provide useful suggestions you can incorporate in future product and process designs. For example, one Midwest manufacturer tasked with developing more planet-friendly products learned from a supplier about an alternative parts-washing process that complemented a prospective product-manufacturing process.

5. Get inspired by other industry examples. Many companies report significant advantages from early supplier involvement in design processes, and the practice is spreading. Estee Lauder Companies, for one, says this about its supplier relationships on its own website: “Working with strategic suppliers aligned with us on a values standpoint, we are looking to begin collaborating early in the development process, allowing us to learn and grow together while co-creating best-in-class prestige beauty.[1]

Culling bright ideas from suppliers is also a hallmark of the auto industry throughout the design and development process. GM Vice President of Global Purchasing and Supply Chain Steve Kiefer noted during a recent Supplier of the Year event, “Our priorities are focused on building positive supplier relationships, bringing new, customer-centric innovations to GM and being the [original equipment manufacturer] of choice among suppliers.[2]

6. Re-evaluate how you rate and predict supplier performance. You want to call on suppliers that are capable of supporting 21st-century product design and development requirements. Yet as you track measurable progress with traditional metrics, such as quality, reliability and lead-time performance, consider nontraditional metrics that can affect suppliers’ capabilities for supporting future design projects, such as leadership capabilities, a track record of innovation and an ability to invest in training.

7. Cultivate a we’re-in-this-together approach. As new prospects and contracts emerge, provide data up-front that will enable suppliers to share needed insights and support your customer-focused development process. Encourage and reward teamwork that does more than meet your company’s current challenges. Together, your innovative supplier relationships can help propel your organization to the next level of market leadership.

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