As an importer, you have requirements that you expect your suppliers to meet.
Perhaps you’ve put together specifications to define your product’s materials, measurements, components, and other attributes. And hopefully, you’ve shared those specifications with suppliers so that they understand your expectations.
Of course, third-party inspections are a helpful tool for managing supplier quality. You can conduct them to check the products that have come off the production line and verify that your shipment is acceptable. But there’s another powerful tool that importers sometimes overlook — the factory audit.
First, let’s define supplier quality management (SQM). Then we can discuss factory audits and the role they play in helping to ensure that your products satisfy customer needs.
What is Supplier Quality Management (SQM)?
According to ASQ, “Supplier quality is a supplier’s ability to deliver goods or services that will satisfy customers’ needs. Supplier quality management is defined as the system in which supplier quality is managed by using a proactive and collaborative approach.”
In other words, it means setting up processes to determine if suppliers can meet your needs and then working with them to ensure that they continue to do so.
As we’ve said, inspections are helpful because they allow you to check individual shipments. And gathering inspection data over time lets you monitor performance and spot trends. But if a supplier is not meeting your expectations, the inspection data won’t be able to tell you the reason.
This is where factory audits often come in. Let’s talk about the role they play in supplier quality management.
The Crucial Role of Factory Audits in SQM
A factory audit is a visit to your supplier’s facility in which an auditor assesses them on a pre-set list of criteria. Factory audits help you accomplish two things.
First, factory audits help you improve supplier selection. When you’re considering a new supplier, an auditor can verify their capacity and capabilities. They can also assess their quality management system (QMS) by conducting a quality audit. If they pass the quality audit, you can have more confidence in your decision to work with them.
Second, factory audits help you manage existing supplier relationships. While inspections let you look at individual shipments, audits give you a snapshot of their entire quality management system. With a higher-level view, you have the potential to spot problems at the process level before they develop into shipment-level quality issues.
Auditing your existing suppliers at a predetermined frequency can be a good idea. If you have multiple suppliers, you’ll need some way to prioritize them.
How to Prioritize Suppliers for Auditing
Rather than auditing all your suppliers at the same time, you can classify them by risk level and then prioritize them for auditing.
If you have different manufacturers making different components, you might prioritize the ones that make the components with a higher risk of failure. Or, if a particular supplier makes a higher percentage of your products, you might prioritize that one.
You can audit high-risk suppliers more frequently to ensure they’re adhering to your quality standards and minimize the chance of shipment-level issues cropping up in the future. By prioritizing your suppliers well and conducting the appropriate audits, you’ll position yourself to excel at supplier quality management and get the best possible results for your business.