Most importers take the following measures in order to ensure the factory understands what to make:
- Approvals of pre-production samples;
- Some guidelines about the product and its packing, something gathered in a technical file;
- When appropriate, approvals of certain materials in the right color.
These steps are sufficient when the following conditions are met:
- The product is pretty standard for the factory (they have made it many times in the past);
- The factory is fairly “high level” in terms of manufacturing organization and quality systems, OR a trading company with strong engineering skills is involved and will spend much time on the factory floor.
In all other cases, the buyer needs to take extra steps and train the factory.
I listed 4 such steps that can make a world of difference.
1. Specifications sheet
This is very basic — writing a specification sheet that describes what you need in an organized manner. Among others, it should include potential defects and their respective severities — for example “a scratch mark of more than 2mm long on the top of the product is a major defect”.
The factory will pay attention to it if they know it will be used as an inspection checklist after production is completed.
For best results, get it translated and send someone in the factory to explain it to the right people — not necessarily the junior salesperson but the managers and the production & quality staff.
2. Defect board in the factory
So the factory has a list of defects to avoid, and they know what will be minor / major / critical. Do the production & quality operators know about it? Probably not.
If the factory runs a small pre-series before mass production, send an engineer there to find some defective products, explain what is wrong to the factory’s staff, and put them on a shelf. Alternatively, if the products are large and/or expensive, defects can be taken in photo, printed in large size, and shown on walls.
From experience, it catches the operators’ eyes. They look for defects — it is a bit like a game. And it is excellent training.
3. Work instructions (WIs) for production and quality operators
A well-organized manufacturer always prepares work instructions for operators before they start working on a product — at least if expected volumes are high enough to justify it.
Good WIs are simple and graphical. They generally gather the following elements on an A3 piece of paper:
- At least one photo that shows what to do and/or the expected result;
- Short text explaining what to do;
- Tips on how to do the job more easily and/or or critical elements to keep in mind;
- How to ensure quality is satisfactory.
It seems very simple… even unnecessary… Won’t the operators know what to do after their leader has shown them? Well, not always. We have found poor work instructions and poor training on the shop floor to be the root cause of many quality issues.
So, to get the best results, send an engineer to observe processes, prepare WIs (if possible, together with the workers), and train operators to apply them.
4. Control plan
If your supplier has a strong quality department, they should be able to prepare a control plan on their own. In many cases they don’t even know what it should look like!
Good WIs will include many elements of a control plan. But you want to have a view over all the control steps followed in the factory, including incoming quality control. This is usually done in relation with the factory’s quality department, rather than the production department. You want to see if the highest sources of risks are properly addressed.
Putting it all together…
These are not just “documents”. They are ways to plug big holes in the supplier’s quality assurance system. They will increase your odds of receiving good quality products, but there is no guarantee.
It helps immensely if the manufacturer agrees to do a pilot run in the production workshop, on the same equipment, with the same people, and at the same speed as mass production. That’s when most issues come to light and people see what obstacles are in the way of smooth production.
Similarly, following up during production is a big plus. Request the quality department to report on their findings based on the control plan. Send your own inspector to check production quality, and/or an auditor to check if the systems you have taught them are followed.