The Fourth Thing

In some of the more integrated customer-supplier relationships, manufacturing suppliers start to look like employees. That is, the independent businesses become “interdependent,” with the well-connected supplier frequently engaging different parts of the customer’s operations, and getting an inside view of the customer’s business.

Columns From: 7/1/2007 Modern Machine Shop, ,

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Peter Zelinski

In some of the more integrated customer-supplier relationships, manufacturing suppliers start to look like employees. That is, the independent businesses become “interdependent,” with the well-connected supplier frequently engaging different parts of the customer’s operations, and getting an inside view of the customer’s business.

The supplier and customer may both favor this tight relationship. Perhaps the customer wishes to rely on the supplier to outsource more, while the supplier wants to deliver an expanded range of support and services beyond making parts. However, there comes a point where the supplier that starts to look like an employee ought to expect to be evaluated like an employee. That is, the supplier should be ready to provide the fourth thing.

For a supplier that is fully independent, there are just three things. Specifically, the supplier’s work can be evaluated by these measures: quantity, quality and timeliness. I am not talking about just machining here, but also plumbing, a meal in a restaurant, neurosurgery or any closed-end work. In each of these cases, the expected quantity, quality and timeliness of the work can be at least roughly defined in advance.

In the case of an employee, however—someone who is an integral and ongoing part of a business—the employer has a right to expect not just the three measures but a fourth measure as well. By definition, this expectation can’t be defined, because it consists of the extent to which the employee reaches out to address those needs that are not specifically spelled out.

Work is complicated. To varying degrees, businesses are too complex for everything that needs to be done to take the form of a predefined task with a quantity, quality and timeliness attached to it. Companies therefore rely on employees to fill the gaps. In any organization—perhaps this is universal—the best employees look up, down, sideways and into the future of the organization around them, and while they do not see every need (because they can’t address every need), they do find the gaps that they can fill confidently. If the need is small, they proceed to fill it, and if the need is large, then they begin to conceive of the way forward to filling it over time.

I don’t want to carry the analogy too far—a supplier is not an employee. However, for those manufacturing suppliers who do want the relative security of becoming more integrated with customers, the question is worth asking: What are the undefined expectations you can begin to fulfill? What is your fourth thing?

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