6 Essential Attributes of Strategic Supplier Partnerships

Though the phrase partnership is often used, what really constitutes a strategic supplier partnership?

In a previous article about supplier management, I suggested that the more a supplier tells you that they are strategic, the less they really are. Strategic is a term that is often overused. Whether the phrase refers to sourcing, procurement, relationships, or other matters, its use is prevalent.

The notion of partnerships is equally ubiquitous and similarly both mis- and over-used. This article will identify a taxonomy for a strategic partnership between two parties.

What are the essential attributes of a true partnership between a supplier and their customer/partner? Let’s start with a simple framework for the stratification of a supply base and then explore the attributes of the partnership segment.

Based on my earlier post about supplier relationship management, I introduced a three-tiered model for segmenting and managing suppliers.

  1. Strategic Partner – strategic, long-term relationship
  2. Preferred Supplier – operational, on-going relationship
  3. Approved Supplier (aka, Vendor) – tactical, transactional relationship

Vendor is the most commonly used term to define the entire spectrum of suppliers. A vendor is the most tactical of suppliers. They supply goods and/or services that are readily available, are commodities, and price rules.

A preferred supplier has a longer-term, more intimate relationship with the customer. This category of supplier earns the right to sell through a disciplined evaluation and selection process (RFP or RFQ). The relationship between the preferred supplier and customer is deeper than that of the vendor level. Supplier performance measurements are tracked and are the cornerstone of the longer term relationship.

The strategic partner is the most far-reaching relationship of all three levels. Of course, not all strategic suppliers become partners. The strategic partner occupies the elite position at the top of the supply base hierarchy. Partnerships develop over time with conscientious effort on both sides of the relationship. There must be a multi-faceted commitment between the companies to establish the requisite foundation for the relationship to be mutually productive and valuable. Strategic partners may be the fewest in number but they are the most critical to the success of the buying organization. Ideally, both parties have this perspective.

The baseline metrics for performance of a partner are the same operational parameters used for other suppliers. The partnership relationship compels the need for additional attributes to be evaluated between the two companies, including the relationship itself. This enhanced scope is crucial because both companies have significant financial and strategic business ties. This commands a more holistic set of criteria to assess the total partnership.

 

Defining a Strategic Partnership

Let’s introduce the following traits to categorize the multiple facets of a strategic partnership: vision, strategy, investment, planning and management systems, communications, risk, and reward. This forms the expanded domain for developing and maintaining a strong and viable partnership. In fact, each facet must also be “shared” between the parties to truly reflect the nature of this more intimate relationship.

Let’s look at each component in more detail.

 

Shared Vision & Strategy

The most fundamental aspect of a relationship between two companies is the vision both have for their businesses. These visions of what it takes to be successful in their respective markets must align or overlap to ensure that the partnership can develop and remain strong. The relationship must embrace the strategic plans of each entity or it will suffer under the stress of everyday business.

One example is in the world of out-sourced software development. For a relationship between two partners to be viable and value-generating, there must be a clear understanding about intellectual property ownership, market exclusivity, and more. If the partner who performs the work on behalf of the customer attempts to parlay the work they are paid to do into their own market entry, it would undermine the relationship completely. The shared vision and strategy in this example is one where access to valuable intellectual skills is required by one party to be successful and offered by another. From the other vantage point, skills to complement the core investment by the buyer are essential for market success.

Shared Investment

There is money to be spent to bring new products or capabilities to market. Success will be contingent upon appropriate resource allocation and investment by all involved. This does not mean that the investment amounts are necessarily equal. The financial value received by both companies in this engagement may not be equal either. Regardless, it does require both parties to support the vision, strategy, and plans with the appropriate level of investment in human and financial resources and the commitment to stay the course.

Shared Planning & Management Systems

With both companies approaching their joint activities with alignment at the vision and strategy level, the detailed plans must also be congruent. Plans establish the resources involved, the milestones for the key activities, and responsibilities of both parties. Planning has to be mutual and both parties need to be actively involved and vested with the entire plan. Falling short here will set up misaligned expectations and when issues do surface, the ability to easily resolve them suffers. Regular business reviews are an integral part of a management system. Build them into the relationship plan to ensure alignment at all levels of the business.

Shared Communications

Since a partnership sits atop the supplier hierarchy, a high degree of collaboration is required for the supplier and customer to be successful. This implies a structured and managed approach to communications and engagement across all dimensions of the relationship. Communications will span the management hierarchy and the functional disciplines of both parties. Open, transparent, and strong cross-functional engagement between the partners is as important as the contractual and formal aspects of long-term performance and value contribution. If communications channels are not open and bi-directional, long-term success will be compromised.

Shared Risk

All business ventures have elements of risk. When two companies come together to do business, they are both taking on new and shared risks. Some of these are unique to their business or market and some are shared by the fact that they are collaborating to be successful. It is critical that both parties acknowledge these risks and be transparent with one another. An open, honest engagement will provide the clarity both parties need to deal with risks when they occur without jeopardizing the partnership.

Shared Reward.

Winners beget winners. At the end of the day, success in the marketplace needs to be shared all along the value chain. Supply chains with close, vested, and mutually-beneficial relationships at the highest levels of the supplier hierarchy will succeed the most. Successful partnerships will generate more mutual value than lesser relationships. When set up properly, there is reduced chance of arguing over who got what or not later on. Market share growth, access to technology, improved profits, and other measures are examples of what each party may accrue.

 

The strategic partnership is the pinnacle of supplier relationships and takes a more holistic management approach to be successful. When making decisions about very strategic engagements, consider each of the above elements to ensure that the partner selection is well-founded.

 

Michael Massetti is an Executive Partner with Gartner who really does enjoy being a supply chain professional! Seriously. All opinions are my own.

6 Bold and Creative Techniques for Supply Chains to Weather a Stormy Market

What would you have done with your supply chain in 2007 if you knew what was about to transpire in 2008/9?

The Institute of Supply Management (ISM) data shows that the US manufacturing index has been below the break-even level for three consecutive months after thirty nine months of growth. Will the trend continue? If so, how long and will it get worse? Is the slowdown in China going to have a significant impact on the rest of the world? It remains to be seen.

It’s déjà vu all over again and perhaps the third time since the turn of the century for the global economy to tread water and decline. How are companies dealing with this? The least mature organizations will wait and just react – it will be ugly. Leaders have begun to orchestrate their entire value chain and make changes now that will provide buffer during the downs and catapult them out when growth resumes. Existing Gartner clients can read: Gartner’s Demand-driven Value Network Maturity Model.

What role should the Chief Supply Chain Officer (CSCO) or head of supply chain undertake to stay ahead of the storm?

 

IBM

The Great Depression of the 1930s presented an “unprecedented economic challenge, and Thomas Watson, Chairman of IBM, met the challenge head on, continuing to invest in people, manufacturing, and technological innovation despite the difficult economic times. Rather than reduce staff, he hired additional employees … – not just salesmen … but engineers too.” (Wikipedia)

The trajectory that IBM had after World War II catapulted them ahead of the rest of the industry. It took many technology disruptions, including one that IBM created themselves, and nearly 50 years for IBM to relinquish its position as the world’s most dominant technology company.

What lesson does this provide for supply chain organizations today? Does the IBM approach to difficult economic times suggest an alternative universe of solutions? Was Thomas Watson the first Mode 2 Jedi?

At Gartner, we use the concept of a bimodal supply chain to distinguish between the daily operations of a business from the more strategic view of the future. “Mode 1” is defined as traditional state of supply chain and the everyday drill of cost reductions, delivery performance improvements, and the usual culprits of operational performance. “Mode 2” is an exploratory state, driven by innovative approaches, changes in the market, growth opportunities, and new models of business that impact supply chains. Watson was clearly in a Mode 2 conviction after the stock market crash. “Damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead!” (Admiral David Farragut). Existing Gartner clients can read: Gartner’s Disrupt or Be Disrupted – Defining the Bimodal Supply Chain.

 

Risk / Reward

Too often we’ve seen dramatically poor forecasts. While forecast accuracy is an interesting concept, when it comes to market dynamics, we have to consider whether we are inclined to bias ourselves more towards the positive and hit the gas pedal when it appears as the sky is the limit. And, do we tend to shrug off downward projections without understanding the real implications of such a laissez-faire attitude? In either case, betting wrong has impacts.

Usually, if we do not appropriately anticipate and prepare for a downward trend, the typical after-the-fact response is the venerable Mode 1 stereotype: cut people, stop all discretionary spending, and slam on the brakes. It’s a no holds-barred knee-jerk response. Who has not been there before?

How would we have dealt with the most recent market collapse in 2008-2009 if we knew in 2007 that it was coming? We only get one attempt at each challenge, what can we learn about the past that can be applied going forward?

 

Think Advanced Maturity and Mode 2! 6 Steps to Success

The typical supply chain response to a downturn is to shut down factories, layoff production workers, cut orders on all suppliers, shut down future-focused improvement activities, etc. This approach impacts the ability to grow in the future.

What if we approached this differently? Does the lesson of IBM in the 1930s offer us a window to view an alternative scheme? Proactive strategies fall into the realm of “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.”

  1. Let’s start with talent. Watson hired well ahead of the curve in the 1930s. While admirable in the 20-20 hindsight view it is not always possible. CSCO’s should approach a potential downturn as an opportunity to retool the organization and to acquire skills that the supply chain knows it will need in the future. Instead of purely reacting to the “cut 10% of the HC” directive from the CFO, have a plan in place to retool the organization.

Downturns usually unleash a wave of excellent talent available to the market. Be prepared to reduce your team by more than the 10% target and then begin the acquisition plan once the dust has settled. The CEO and CFO will applaud the forward-thinking. In their eyes, you will still achieve the cost reduction targets but be in a much better position to accelerate when the upward trajectory resumes.

  1. Do you know where your supply and demand is? If you are a mature organization with strong supply chain analytics capability, you clearly do. If not, you are driving somewhat blind, looking back at what has been accomplished but with no sense of what is coming. Don’t wait to start because it will be too late.

Why not partner up with the IT team immediately and seek out some critical target areas for better information and analytics to support your supply decisions. Regardless of your areas of strength or weakness, diving in now before you are asked to change will put the CSCO in the driver’s seat in advance of any challenges for the typical Mode 1 “cut headcount, shut down factories, etc.” request later on.

  1. Don’t wait until there is no choice and be forced to shut down factories and lay off employees. With a strong S&OP process in hand, CSCO’s can begin to evaluate how to reset manufacturing earlier as signals begin to drop. Instead of all-in reductions in work force after the fact, production shifts can be slowly reduced ahead of time without impacting key performance metrics, especially customer service and cost – as they lead to major exposures in revenue and margin. Existing Gartner clients can read: Gartner’s Hierarchy of Supply Chain Metrics.
  2. What downturn has not been met without asking your supply base to do something? The usual suspects come to mind: take back inventory, delay and cancel purchase orders, extend payment terms, cut prices, and compromise well-nurtured supplier relationships. These are all so typical in their Mode 1 demeanor. We can be much better than that. Key suppliers should be viewed as partners – this changes the entire dynamic when challenges arise.

The CSCO or CPO knows that the suppliers see the same avalanche coming their way. There is no better time to dust off the supplier relationship program and evaluate the entire supply base than beforehand. Who is performing very well (cost, quality, delivery, innovation)? Is it possible to shift more supply to these top-performers, especially in multi-sourced categories now? Have we lived with 3 or more suppliers in certain categories when, in reality, 2 is sufficient? It is very important to consider the myriad options ahead of time than to be stuck with a limited, mode 1 playbook later on.

  1. Risky Business! Yes, there is always the issue of risk with a more consolidated supply base, but what is more important now – cost optimization or overall risk? When we talk about risk-making and decisions, the CSCO must know what she is getting into. By understanding what data and intelligence exist about past downturns, the CSCO and CPO can make informed, low-risk decisions today instead executing a reactive response tomorrow.

Engaging top suppliers early demonstrates the trust and confidence the supply team has and creates enduring goodwill. Mutually advantageous strategies can be developed and called into action at the right time. We may be wrong about the projected situation but one might argue you’ll be better off by taking a Mode 2 approach. It’s only bad risk when you have no data or experience to judge with.

  1. You’re not alone in this – what opportunities are lurking? Take advantage of this and realize there are a number of ways for you to do so. First, you have colleagues in the same impending mess as you. Sharing experience and issues allows you to test ideas and find out from others what is or isn’t working for them. Gartner’s exclusive network of diverse and experienced supply chain executives provides an excellent opportunity to talk to someone who understands. Peer networking continues to be the most sought-after element of a CSCO’s repertoire with Gartner.

Next, look ahead of you in your value chain – you will see are customers in the same predicament. A truly orchestrated supply and value chain means that these upstream conversations already occur naturally and are an important facet of everyday supply chain engagement. Ask them about what they see, what they are considering and, you’ll find ideas to help key parts of your supply chain be ready in a holistic manner.

 

Check your mode, now.

Are you thinking ahead and considering innovative and unique ways to persevere through difficult times working out scenarios of what might be? How will you be prepared to respond? Will you wait before you plan on a response tactic? Or, will you lead the charge and start now – ready to pounce on the opportunities that will present themselves while the rest of the pack gets washed ashore? What knowledge assets do you have at your disposal to test ideas against?

 If you are interested in learning more, please go to Gartner’s Supply Chain page or contact me via LinkedIn.

 

If we don’t learn from our past, we are bound to repeat the same mistakes over again.

Michael Massetti is an Executive Partner with Gartner who really does enjoy being a supply chain professional! Seriously. All opinions are my own.