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Craig Cochran

Quality Insider

A Quality Lesson from Hopeulikit

Get your employees talking to customers

Published: Monday, August 14, 2006 - 22:00

Last year I had the good fortune of doing some consulting with B&C Specialty Products in Hopeulikit, Georgia. B&C does light manufacturing, primarily plastic molding and assembly, and they also distribute imported products produced by companies in the Far East. They have about 150 employees and are the biggest employer by far in Hopeulikit.

B&C was a perfect place to learn about managing and quality. Every day presented a new lesson. Usually the lessons were hard-learned, but those are the ones that really stick with you. B&C was gracious enough to allow me to interview their personnel about things that came up during my time there. Here is one of those lessons: Establish a dialogue between your employees and your customers. The scenario is described by the people who actually lived it.

—James Mellow, molding operator
"Frankly, I have no idea what these parts are used for. They could be flower pots or astronaut helmets. We call them B239, which is the part number. They are one of our biggest products, as we get about 30 orders a week for them. They are also one of our more challenging products to make.

“The specification for B239 describes the dimensional and appearance requirements. Probably, the hardest part about making these products is maintaining the diameter tolerance, 10 in. +/– 0.25 in., while meeting the appearance specification. You see, plus or minus 0.25 in, is no problem for us, but it requires that we decrease the molding temperature a bit. This, in turn, causes a minor surface blemish. We call it ‘baby lizard skin.’ This blemish is barely visible and usually not even an issue. For B239, though, it’s an issue. The specification from the customer says, ‘No surface defects. Must be smooth and free of all blemishes.’ Baby lizard skin is very minor, but it’s definitely a blemish.

“We’re faced with a choice: Maintain dimensional tolerances or have a defect-free surface. One variable is probably more important than the other, but darned if I know which. I wish I could see exactly what the parts are used for. I’d also love to talk to some of the production employees of our biggest customer, Corley Industries. That would help me sort out exactly what matters to the customer and his customers.

“After we get all that figured out, we need to revise the specification. Nothing is more frustrating than a specification that has contradictory information in it. It forces us to prioritize requirements, and that’s not something we’re qualified to do. We need to arrange a fact-finding mission to Corley Industries as soon as possible, and bring all of the production operators we can spare. This would be the most valuable training we’ve had yet.

"I may just go over and visit Corley Products on my own time and talk to the guys there. Or I might not. It seems like the company should set this up for us. After all, these are our products. We should do everything we can to make them the best they can be.”

—Guy Hockmeyer, director of sales and marketing
“Our meeting with Corley Industries went very well. We had a lot of productive discussions and everyone learned quite a bit. The meeting took place at Highland Country Club. Boy, they really know how to host an event. Mr. Corley, the President of Corley Industries, wanted to just have us come to his plant for the day, but it didn’t seem right to abuse his hospitality that way. After all, they’re our most important customer, so we need to entertain them a bit. We have a budget for that sort of thing, and it’s a use-it-or-lose-it situation.

“The best thing about the meeting was getting to know some of the people I’ve spoken with on the phone over the years, but never actual met. Connecting faces to voices is always good. I now have a personal relationship with the people I talk to every day on the phone. That bond has been cemented.

“The worst thing about the meeting was the presentation by Corley’s production employees. I hate to be critical, but they weren’t very good presenters. I’m sure they’re good at their jobs, but they’re not qualified to get up in front of an important supplier. The delivery was monotone and uninspiring. Even worse than the delivery, though, was the content. Their presentations covered all sorts of technical issues that nobody on my team had any first-hand understanding of. I guess we now know more than we did before, but the presentation should have been given to a different audience. I suppose we could have invited some of our production associates to the meeting, but that would have been expensive and impractical. Besides, most of them would have been uncomfortable at a country club. Our production folks aren’t exactly what you would call country club types. Maybe the pork barbecue types. Perhaps we could have just gotten our production people together with Corley’s production people, and they could have given horrible presentations to each other while gobbling barbecue.

“It may sound like I’m cynical but I’m really not. Our meeting with Corley Industries was everything a good meeting should be: dignified, friendly and well-catered. It helped build relationships better than anything else we’ve done. I just wish Mr. Corley had spared us the presentation by his production employees. It was embarrassing.”

—Leo Corley, president of Corley Industries, B&C’s largest customer
“Our country club meeting with B&C Specialty Products was a big waste of time. I’m flattered that they went to all that time and trouble to plan the event, but it would have been better spent on something that actually helped them become a better supplier. The only thing anybody got from this meeting was an extra pound or two around the waistline.

“When Guy Hockmeyer called me to suggest getting our staffs together, I was all for it. I figured it would be a great opportunity to forge a real understanding of our needs. The specifications B&C has for many of our products are old. They’re not necessarily wrong, but they could use some updating. I suggested to J.T. Ryan, the company’s president, that we invite as many production employees to our facility as they could send. The production folks could spend the day at our facility and see the whole life cycle of the parts as they travel through our process. Let them watch it get unpacked, inspected, prepped, assembled, measured, packaged and shipped. In other words, let them walk a mile in our shoes. A specification is abstract, but seeing the products being used is reality. At the same time, we could update our specifications.

“J.T. didn’t like the idea of paying all that overtime, though. He and his staff kept pushing for a big meeting at the country club. All right, I said, at least we can have one of our production teams give a presentation on supplier quality. I thought they understood that the intended audience for that presentation was B&C production people. There were no production people there, though, not even supervisors. The presentation was only an hour long, but they couldn’t spare the time. My folks gave a presentation to a bunch of paper pushers who were clueless. This was a huge lost opportunity. J.T. could have paid every production person a half day’s overtime, and it would have cost about the same as the meeting at Highland Country Club. Meanwhile, B&C Specialty Products still doesn’t understand what matters to us in terms of quality. The country club was nice, but understanding our needs would have been much better.”

When administering your customer relationships, remember:

  • Create opportunities for your employees to speak directly to their customers.
  • Establish an ongoing dialogue on critical aspects of your product or service.
  • Seize every opportunity to see your product or service being consumed. If possible, become a customer of your organization as well.
  • Keep specifications up to date, regardless of who own originally published them.
  • Challenge the logic of product requirements that don’t make sense or seem contradictory. If it’s not clear what the purpose of a particular requirement on a specification is, ask the customer.
  • Once you understand the truly important product characteristics, work relentlessly to improve them. Focus on the things that matter the most to your customers.
  • Spend money educating your employees before money is spent on executive retreats and offsite meetings.

Discuss

About The Author

Craig Cochran’s picture

Craig Cochran

Craig Cochran is a project manager with Georgia Tech’s Enterprise Innovation Institute. Cochran is the author of The Seven Lessons: Management Tools for Success; Problem Solving in Plain English; ISO 9001 in Plain English; Customer Satisfaction: Tools, Techniques, and Formulas for Success; The Continual Improvement Process: From Strategy to the Bottom Line; and Becoming a Customer-Focused Organization, all available from Paton Professional. His most recent book is ISO 9001:2015 in Plain English, also available from Paton Professional.