What happens if your supplier keeps manufacturing products with various defects, even though you have a quality standard that outlines your expectations?
This tends to happen for the same reasons, so here are 6 tips to help you avoid recurring quality issues, and some suggestions on why they might be happening in the first place.
Prefer listening to reading?
When buyers complain of quality issues coming from their supplier in China it’s often the same issues that we keep seeing.
YOU need to make sure that the supplier understands your quality standard first.
If the supplier doesn’t know or understand your quality standard they will have a hard time producing products that reach your expectations. If buyers start getting quality problems it often means that they didn’t follow due diligence best practices, get the supplier audited in advance, didn’t make the quality standard clear enough, etc. (01:57)
Tip 1. Inform the supplier clearly how and why they went wrong.
The supplier needs to be shown evidence of why the products are not as agreed upon.
You need to investigate the issues directly with the supplier and not simply pass on your own customer’s feedback, because they may not have checked all products thoroughly before complaining, so their issues may actually be isolated to, say, just one box.
Do an inspection on a broad sample of the products so you have a solid idea of whether the issues are widespread throughout the batch. Provide photos and videos of the issues and guidance on how the defects were confirmed to the supplier while explaining what is not acceptable by reiterating your standard and showing how pieces must be measured and your tolerances. You can indicate why the problematic products are not the same as the approved sample by showing them side by side. You might also show them evidence of them agreeing to a certain quality standard, for example, from past emails (and they need to be informed of the quality standard in writing because it’s easy to ‘forget’ things that are said verbally). (03:46)
Tip 2. Give feedback on issues as early as possible during production.
The longer you wait to inform a supplier about quality issues, the more serious the problem for you it becomes. During pre-production, an issue can be fixed in a new prototype build easily enough, but if you wait until the products are mass-produced and ready for shipping it’s a huge job to unbox the products, reorder new materials, and rework all of them – most factories will be reluctant to do this and you can expect pushback, especially if you’ve already paid 100%. So make sure the supplier is clear on your quality standard and inspect quality early enough that it’s possible to make changes well before the order is ready to be shipped. (08:18)
Tip 3. NEVER accept quality outside of your standard, including making an exception.
Sometimes a batch of products is ready to ship and quality issues are found. Because the buyer doesn’t have time to make changes due to their deadlines they might be tempted to accept the shipment ‘just this once’ while telling the supplier not to make the mistakes again. That’s a mistake because your supplier knows that you’re willing to accept lower quality than your standard, so you’re setting a dangerous precedent.
If this situation occurs you might accept such a shipment if the supplier signs a letter of guarantee that t is a ‘one-time thing.’ You might also negotiate a discount on the next order, although you need to be careful that the supplier doesn’t cheapen the product to claw back some of the loss. (10:44)
Tip 4. Clearly define your quality standard including critical, major, minor, and non-defects.
Your quality standard needs to be in one clear master document in a shared drive. As issues occur, add the photos to the document in different categories for product, function, packaging, etc. On each image, you clearly indicate the defects in a way that would help an inspector do their job:
- A non-defect is an imperfection that can be accepted
- A critical defect will cause the rejection of an entire batch of products, it might be a safety or compliance issue
- A major defect is a defect that would cause a discerning consumer to reject or return a product
- A minor defect might be accepted by most consumers, but they may not notice it at all or if they do they will perhaps dislike it but not enough to return the product
If there are quality problems found later, all parties can refer to the defined defects and it may even be a part of your manufacturing agreement. It also makes sense to translate it into your supplier’s language, too, in order to further reduce risks that defects will be missed. (14:00)
Tip 5. Set AQL limits (i.e. tolerances for defects) that correspond to your quality standard.
If you have defined what defects are, you can set tolerances for them per batch using random AQL inspections. This provides inspectors with the limits of the different defects that you can accept per batch on samples randomly taken from a production run based on pre-defined percentages that can be found in the AQL tables, for example, the standard AQL of 2.5% (for major defects) and 4.0% (for minor defects).
If you can’t accept that number of defects, such as if you have particularly high quality or high-value products, you may choose tighter limits, but some factories will push back against it or try to increase your costs due to needing to ‘do more inspections etc’ in order to fulfill the stricter AQL. (22:01)
Tip 6. Switch to a newer better supplier.
If it is clear that the situation is not improving you may need to abandon the current supplier and move to a new one that can fulfill your quality standard. This can be difficult for some buyers because if you are distributing off-the-shelf products if you leave the supplier there may not be another with the same product for you to buy as the old supplier owns that product’s IP.
Even for your own products that you designed and developed, if a supplier holds your molds, for example, they may not be willing to release them if they think they’re going to lose your business; the same goes for your BOM, product IP, and other deliverables. It’s advisable to have a manufacturing agreement that clearly outlines your ownership of all deliverables, molds, etc, and that will make switching easier. (26:09)
Why product design issues could actually be the cause of your troubles.
The quality problems some importers face are actually due to design issues rather than the supplier making mistakes or doing shoddy work. Maybe the product is put together the wrong way or uses an unsuitable component. In this case, you may need to redesign the product and it’s actually not a manufacturing problem caused by the supplier.
Importers can often gauge why the problem is occurring from when the issues are being found. Manufacturing issues will often result in DOA products or issues that are caught during production or appear very soon in the field, whereas problems from design issues often only manifest themselves sometime later once the products have been used in the field for, say, 3-12 months. (31:46)
Why poor manufacturing might be the cause.
Manual processes, like soldering for electronics, can lead to inconsistent quality if not done really well. The soldering may work during testing but can fail later if a product is dropped. This is the essence of poor manufacturing.
Process controls in the supplier can reduce risks like this. So when sourcing a supplier you should investigate their manufacturing processes and capabilities by doing supplier audits to assess if risks like this are likely. Small assemblers are certainly riskier when it comes to you ending up with a supplier who just puts products together with no processes to maintain a quality standard.
If you end up working with a supplier like this the fault is shared. They should know how to do a good job, but you also chose them. (33:43)
Why your supplier’s sub-suppliers might be the cause.
Recurring quality issues might also come from sub-suppliers, such as those who produce components or do processes such as surface treatment, because your supplier may not actually have visibility over the supply chain and therefore nor will you.
Let’s say your supplier buys coated metal components from a sub-supplier and they’re defective. This sub-supplier gets the components plated by another sub-sub-supplier. Your supplier probably has no knowledge of the business that is doing the plating even though it could be that process that is causing the defects and probably no understanding of the plating process, so how can you or your supplier put it right? Add to this that the sub-supplier probably won’t disclose their own suppliers as they consider it to be a business secret.
In this case, you should be driving your supplier to be doing incoming quality inspections on components to stop any bad ones from reaching production. You may also provide assistance and drive them to find better sub-suppliers. (37:08)
When all is said and done, a root cause analysis can help you to assess where to improve and reduce recurring quality issues in future. You might ask yourself if you can improve on sourcing the right supplier and supply chain, documenting your quality standard better, confirming that the standard is a good fit for the supplier and more.
- 4 quality standard levels [Podcast]
- What is the AQL (Acceptance Quality Limit)?
- Different inspection levels
- Negotiating with suppliers, including quality standards [Podcast]
- Learn how to switch to a new supplier if you can’t accept the problems any longer
- Explore Sofeast’s different supplier Audit Solutions and due diligence checks