Change is hard and maintaining change can be even harder, especially when it involves operations along the supply chain. It doesn’t have to be overwhelming, though—by following a few key tenets, you can make lasting improvement. By starting with education and then taking a three R approach—one in which you report, require and repeat—you can instill a culture of continuous improvement, either within your own company or throughout your supply chain.
The goal is ultimately immaterial: You could be trying to improve the quality of your product, stamp out counterfeit components, better control the inclusion of restricted substances or eliminate mold from your packaging. It could be any one of hundreds or thousands of quality-related metrics. What’s common to each of these goals is the process of improving them, and it’s a process with a set of underlying principles that can be applied to departments or entities, internally or externally, along your supply chain.
The first step in any quality improvement initiative is education, making sure your stakeholders understand the issues involved. Internally, your employees need to understand your quality concern and what the proper way of operating is. If they don’t know to avoid a problem, they are likely to keep making the same mistakes. The need for education doesn’t stop at your company’s walls, though. It’s really important along the supply chain that your factories be educated on the challenges related to the quality concern you are trying to improve. Consider offering high-level seminars about the overall challenge, and don’t assume that the factory understands how to use, store or manufacture your product. Don’t rely solely on printed instruction manuals or vendor guides that may never get opened; supplement those with instructions or diagrams on packaging, on dispensers and in a separate email.
In the end, hands-on instruction is often the most effective method. If you can, travel directly to your largest factories, and make sure they are aware of the proper use of your product and the right procedures to follow for manufacturing, packaging or storage. Offer training for new users of your products, and consider offering refresher courses for your largest factories or the ones that are having the greatest challenges related to the quality measures you are trying to improve. Take any available opportunity to make sure factories are aware of the dos and don’ts related to your product, how to store it and how to use it. It doesn’t matter how simple your product is; unless the factories understand it thoroughly, quality issues arise. If you think your level of instruction borders on overkill, you are probably on the right track.
Your next step is to implement an auditing process in which you report, require a corrective action plan and repeat—the three Rs. Your audits should be targeted, thoughtful and methodical. They should focus on concrete items that are measurable, with concrete steps the stakeholder can take to make improvements. They need to include a scoring method and required corrective measures that encourage improvement, and they need to happen on a regular basis. Although the steps below describe upstream efforts centered on factories, the same principles apply to effecting lasting change within your own organization.
Your audit is only as good as the components you are trying to measure. You need to establish a scoring system that helps the factory understands the factors you consider important in ensuring quality. As you do, ensure that the audit tracks your product throughout the factory. Don’t focus on the packaging line to the exclusion of all else; have your audit go all the way to the raw materials coming in the back door that could be contributing to your overall quality.
Use a scoring system that is designed to help the factory improve, rather than merely punish it. Include a summary of opportunities for improvement to make it easy for the factory to digest your findings. The best auditing processes lead to a mindset in which the factory sees the auditor and looks forward to the opportunity to learn. Keep an executive summary record of all factories and all scores so that you can easily track progress through time and across your supply chain.
Require a Corrective Action Plan (CAP)
You also need to establish an organized corrective action plan or process based on what you learn. Focus on specific corrective actions that are assigned to the factory. If your product is a component in a larger brand’s product, encourage the brand to make those corrective actions mandatory. Follow-up audits are a good way to monitor or measure the corrective actions that are put into place.
These audits can also help you evaluate and decide on your supply base. An executive can look at an accumulation of audits and executive summaries, and identify the factories most likely to help the organization meet its goals. Which are the notoriously poor-performing factories? If your audits are sufficiently aligned with your priorities, these factories might be good candidates to consider removing from your supply chain. Conversely, if you have a factory that continues to show improvement, does it make sense to increase the share of your business there?
You’re not done yet. Once you go through the process, do it again, then again. Unless a factory knows an audit is going to be repeated, chances are it may soon revert to its old ways—the ones that are affecting the quality of your product. Without regularity, an audit does little more than provide a snapshot of conditions on a given day. It doesn’t measure process or improvements, and there is little incentive to make and sustain changes.
In an ideal world, each factory would be audited quarterly, but that’s not always feasible. To prioritize your auditing process, consider categorizing factories into A, B and C sites based on the volume of business they do for you. For C factories, which have the lowest volume, audits may be annual, with B factories audited twice a year and A factories quarterly. Even if you have the resources to audit a factory each month, it’s just not practical—the factory needs time to make systematic, sustainable change. Audits that are too frequent encourage the factory to slap a Band-Aid over the problem.
The power of the three Rs lies in their universal ability to help effect change that lasts. By educating your stakeholders about the need for change and setting in place a system that includes a scorecard reporting system, the requirement that people or groups make improvement toward a goal and regular follow-up assessments of their progress, you can make sustainable, significant change to propel your organization forward.
Sal Cesario brings more than 25 years of packaging industry experience. In his current role, he is the global sales and marketing director for Micro-Pak Ltd., a global supplier of anti-microbial products. Prior to joining Micro-Pak, Cesario was the global sales director for Paccess Packaging. He is a member of the American Apparel and Footwear Association, and serves on their Sustainability and Product Safety committees, and is a member of the Footwear Distributors and Retailers of America Product Safety Working Group.