Tag Archives: quality

Fix the Problem XIII: What’s Different? What changed?

This is the latest of a series of case studies and examples from my career, where I attempt to summarize a problem solved, how I did it, all with an eye of passing along useful information… while still, of course, making a good faith effort to protect any confidential information. I hope this, and the others in the series – found HERE – will prove useful and education, illustrative of my abilities, and inspirational as to how I might fit into a new employer.  I am, after all, on a job search!

And a brief disclaimer: These cases are “a while ago” so it’s possible I am slightly off on some of the exact details – but the broad sweep of each case is correct.

Introduction

As a part of teaching at U Mass / Lowell’s Plastic Engineering Department, one of the tacks I’ve tried to stress is that the students’ program and thoughts need to be aimed – ultimately – at solving real-world problems.  I’ve told my students that when solving a problem in production, or returns from the field, two critical questions often assist in delving quickly to the root cause(s) of the issue.  Specifically, What’s different? and What changed?.

To that end, I’d like to put forth three examples where these two questions were instrumental in helping to find the issues involved.

Retaining Rings Wouldn’t Retain

In one position in my career I worked as a floor-level Manufacturing Process Engineer. I was constantly challenged (read: hammered) with issues ranging from fixtures to field returns to, well, you get the picture.  Lots of “opportunities”, as my then-boss used to say.

One of these was a long-standing issue predating my arrival in the department. On the smaller, hand-held units there were several pieces in a family of similar products.  Some would be sent out of our department and rarely come back from retaining ring issues (essentially, a female piece installed over a mating male piece and held on by that retaining ring).  Others would come back having “spontaneously disassembled”, sometimes even before having left our factory.  This was a constant sore spot in my area’s weekly quality issues, not to mention warrantee report.  Thus it became a priority to solve and get one high-profile issue off the list.

I sat down with a sample of each product: the male, the female, and the retaining ring, laid out to compare and contrast. Visually, on a first-pass look, there seemed to be no differences aside from subtle variations in overall lengths.  More to the point, arranging the pieces from small to large, and putting either an OK or a NOT OK post-it below the pieces, based on their problem frequency, there wasn’t an obvious pattern (e.g., if it had been the two largest ones, or the two smallest ones, that could have been a clue – but there wasn’t).  Since some worked, and some didn’t… “What’s different?”

Being a fan of the Value Engineering discipline, which drives me to think functionally, I asked “What holds these retaining rings on?”  Answer: The groove geometry.  The groove depth, the central diameter, the width… in point of fact, each assembly used the same retaining ring.  Clearly, the ring was not the issue.

So I pulled prints for everything. One possibility was that there was not enough clearance, or the tolerances were wrong, and somehow the retaining rings were being pushed off.  But looking at the nominal and “worst case” dimensions showed that was not the case.  Also note that the company had good machinists, and a strong SPC program; things were in control on that score… and each groove had the exact same dimensions and tolerances.

But doing the “sit and stare” at the drawings laid out side by side I realized that some of the drawings had a callout for the external corners of the groove: SHARP. Some didn’t.  And the ones that didn’t have that callout were the ones with the issue.  Aha, a clue.

The company had a default callout requiring that all corners be broken by – going from memory – a chamfer of .010-.015 inch unless otherwise specified. In looking at the retaining ring groove design recommendations from the supplier, they stated that the edge at the outer diameter of the groove needed to be called out SHARP and could not have a break, whether radius or chamfer.  And the parts showed it; parts without that callout did, indeed, have that edge broken.

I showed this to the Design Engineer who acknowledged the issue, concurred with doing an ECO, and I wrote it up to put through.

Result: The problem went away… because I laid the good and bad parts out, l considered multiple potential factors, but the thing that was different was a design detail missed on the problem assemblies.

It Was Good, Now It’s Not

At that same company, in the same position, another product had a significant percentage of leak test failures. A far more complex assembly than the one above, it had multiple potential leak path failure locations.  Again, an inherited sore spot.

My path was to systematically take failed torches and block off one possible leak path after another, attempting to isolate which of the multiple possible potential leak locations it could have been was the culprit. My goal was to systematically examine the leak location(s) once I’d identified them.

But in one meeting in discussing the larger area, of which mine was a part, one of the managers said “We used to have no leak failures. Let’s find out what changed and change it back.”  A detail I had not known at the time.

It turns out that a design change had been made, with the best of intentions, that resulted in moving several o-rings axially by – IIRC – about 20 thousandths of an inch, which created the potential for them to move under pressure and thus lose their sealing ability.

However, ECOs are not done for no reason.  As I recall, a more careful re-examination of the initial ECO and its reason for being done found that the change could be made with a reduction  in the positioning and seating of the seals – leaks not being considered the first time – and thus maintain the ECO but eliminate the ripple effect that created the leak test failure issue.

Result: The problem went away. And the key lesson learned is to identify the time frame when things change for the worse, and ask “What changed?”  Not just materials, personnel, processes, etc., but consider Design changes too.

Cracked Handles… Sometimes

In one company, the plastic we sold was injection molded into large trash cans – the kind that are used for homes and often picked up by an arm to be dumped into a truck. The company that made them was receiving complaints from customers that the handle used by the truck lifter was cracking.  This was creating quite a problem for them and we were asked to investigate.

My initial role was to do a stress analysis of the handle. I obtained load forces, etc., and built several finite element models of the handle simulating both centered and eccentric loadings.  None showed stresses high enough to create cracks although the stress hot spots were where the cracks were forming.  I also considered impacts, not just static loads – again, while the stresses were in the right places for the cracks they weren’t high enough to exceed the yield strength.  I increased the mesh density – refining the model as sometimes that can affect the stress levels, but the numbers held.  Based on the force and impact load cases I was given, there was no reason for the handles to be cracking.

Our initial thought was that some kind of chemical might be attacking the material, and we started to inquire about possible chemical contacts, but then a clue arrived through our sales group. Only one color of the several the company offered to the end users was having the issue.

Aha! “What’s different?”  We supplied the base resin; at the molding location the customer would blend in colorant masterbatches to create the color variations.  Pursuing this further, we learned that the base resin used by the masterback colorant provider was, for this one color, significantly lower in average molecular weight.  I.e., by blending in this color masterbatch the molder was introducing a weaker and less impact-resistant material to be blended into the base resin.  (Material note: plastic strength is directly related, as a general correlation, to molecular weight of the polymer chains.)

Looking back with more experience under my belt, I’d ask two questions: 1: “Can the failure be reproduced?” And 2: If the answer to the first question is YES, “What happens to products molded from uncolored resin?”  Assuming YES was the answer to the first question, and the failure didn’t happen with uncolored resin, that would at least have eliminated the base plastic as the sole cause of the problem.

When a different masterbatch blend with a material molecular weight like the other masterbatch colors was tried, the problem went away.

Again, the key clue was learning that one color didn’t work while the others did… “What’s different?”  (And in the back of your mind you can add the potential for different colors to be questioned.)

Adding to the Toolbox

Multiple tools exist to aid in systematically looking for the root causes of a problem, e.g., Ishikawa/fishbone diagrams, the Five Whys (and Two Hows) questioning, etc.  Adding “What’s different?” and “What changed?” as appropriate can add an important new tool to your problem-solving toolbox.

 

© 2016, David Hunt, PE

 

Fix the Problem X: Learning from Interview Problems

Interviews are where companies and candidates learn about each other to see if there is a fit between a candidate’s background and personality, and the company’s needs and culture.

One of the things candidates, in particular technical candidates, get asked on interviews is to solve problems.  Often these are company problems that have been already solved, in an attempt to see how the candidate approaches problems.  Sometimes these are questions about extant issues.

Plusses, Minuses, and Danger Zones

On the positive side, this is a chance for candidates to show their abilities – ideally referencing other accomplishments as well to build a case for their skills.  On the negative side, such questions are often about problems that took multiple people hundreds, if not thousands, of man hours to identify and resolve.  Thus they can be very difficult to actually solve, in particular as a candidate is not as familiar with the details of the product and the processes by which it is made.

And if the issue is one currently extant, there is a danger that the line of inquiry is being used to obtain free consulting.  I’m not accusing all companies of doing this, but the possibility does exist.  So in the process of answering a candidate does need to be on guard.

A Two-Way Street

These problems, however, are an opportunity for candidates to learn as well.  I will discuss three situations where I was presented with problems in interviews in the hopes that these experiences will be of use to my readers as well.

Fiber Optic Bubbles

Back in 2001 after being in a massive RIF from Visteon, I interviewed with a company that made fiber optic cables.  The process was fascinating!  They would take raw, uncoated optical fibers off reels and pass them through a coating bath, lining seven fibers next to each other; this bath material would coat the fibers and adhere them together side by side into a ribbon.  Then, two of these seven-fiber ribbons would be lined up edge to edge, passed through another coating bath, and stuck together.  These ribbons would then be stacked up, one upon another, to form a rectangular bundle, and run through a machine that extruded a multi-layer protective sheath around the whole thing.

The issue they were having was bubbles in the coating around the fiber; bubbles distorted the coating and exerted a force on the fiber which, apparently, would allow light leakage out of the fiber – degrading the signal.  They handed me one of the 14-fiber ribbons to look at.

I have discussed looking for patterns in prior essays, for example here and here; I immediately noticed two things.

First, the bubbles were only present at the centerline bond between the two smaller optic-fiber ribbons.  This was an important clue as to where in the process from raw fiber to end cable this defect was being introduced.

Second, in looking at the bubbles, the spacing between them was remarkably consistent.  These bubbles, then, were not randomly formed, but something in the process was doing something that created a periodic “hiccup” creating these bubbles.  Using a ruler I got the distance between the bubbles, IIRC an inch-and-change, and in asking for the speed of the ribbon I was able to calculate the time between bubble formation.

My guess was that something was oscillating in the system, but probably not smoothly; there was likely “something” sticking slightly, with the sticking creating jerking motions as that “something” stuck and unstuck.

Since the serpentine path the ribbons took was visible, my approach would have been to use a high-speed camera and/or strobe light to identify whatever parts of the system were oscillating at that identified frequency as the place to focus attention.  (E.g., if the frequency was 10 Hz, light the strobe off with a frequency of 20 Hz.  The “something” – my a priori guess was one of the slack take-up reels – would appear to be shifting back and forth between two positions after some experimentation to synchronize the strobe with the “something’s” cycle.)

They were excited by my idea.  Unfortunately, I never did hear anything further about whether the idea contributed to the solution of the problem (I asked a couple of times over the next year).  I suspect my idea contributed to improving someone’s performance review.

Lesson: Strobe lights and/or high speed photography can be enormously useful if a frequency-dependence of a problem can be identified.

Cavity Numbering

Another interview was with a company whose supplier – in China – was molding their components and shipping them to the US for assembly.  There were eight cavities in each of two molds; these two components would then be assembled to form the product.  Some of the pieces, A and B, would not fit together.  Measurements indicated that there were dimensional issues causing a problem with some cavities of part A not fitting into part B.

Here was the problem: they didn’t know which cavity was which – translating to an inability to determine which cavities worked interchangeably and which ones didn’t.  They already were pressuring their supplier to take the molds offline for a day or so to put in some kind of cavity marking.

Lesson: If you have multiple cavities in an injection mold, number them to aid in troubleshooting when confronted with situations like this.

Engineering Fundamentals Always Apply

In one very thorny problem presented to me, a glass-encased thermocouple was placed into a blind hole machined into an aluminum piece and potted in place with an elastomeric material.  These units were subject to thermal cycling as part of the unit’s operation.  Failure analysis showed the thermocouple’s glass casing was cracking.

This is where engineering fundamentals comes in.  What happens when things get hot?  They expand; each material has its own expansion coefficient.  Resins – from which the potting material was made – typically have a higher expansion rate than metals, in this case aluminum.  With the resin trying to expand faster than the material around it, its attempt to grow was constrained by the hole walls – introducing a compressive strain from the difference in expansion rates.

Stress – force per unit area – is strain times Young’s Modulus.  The expanding resin, being constrained from growing outward, squeezed inward on the glass and fractured it.  The solution was to change to a softer resin with a lower Young’s Modulus.  Even though the thermal expansion strains were the same, because the resin was softer, the forces were lowered and the glass didn’t crack.

Lesson: Sometimes you really need to get back to basics.  In this case, mechanics of materials.

Interview Problems: An Opportunity

Not all interviews work out (alas).  But the presentation of a problem to solve can be an opportunity – not just to prove your mettle, but to take advantage of the experiences of others to improve your own problem-solving toolbox by being walked through a real-life case study.

© 2014, David Hunt, PE

Fix the Problem XIII – The Problem Toggle

(Author’s note: The “L” key on my computer – old one, new one finally ordered – was not working, and I missed it while posting this.  Apologies for the multiple revisions getting all the Ls into place in the title and link…)

While at Ford Motor Company, our group’s manager found a book that he thought was so good he recommended it to everyone, and even paid for our individual copies.  This book, Manufacturing Solutions for Consistent Quality and Reliability, was excellent.  But the book made one fundamental point about problem solving – whether in performance of a product or a process – that has stuck with me ever since (paraphrased):

You can only claim to have truly solved the problem when you understand it well enough to turn it on and then back off again.

With this in mind I’m going to review two instances from my career where this happened.  (I will revisit this theme in future essays to discuss more case studies.)

Plasma Cutting Torch: Mysterious Leaks in the Field

This particular torch was part of a plasma cutting system; I was the Manufacturing Engineer in charge of the torch area, and working on identifying the root cause of field failures was one of my responsibilities.  This particular torch had a significant rate of return; these returns, responded to by sending a new torch, was a large part of my department’s total warrantee cost.

The issue was that the problem could not be duplicated. We would receive the torch which, according to the customers, would have coolant leaking out the front “business end” of the torch.  No matter what we did, we couldn’t get returned items to do it in our lab.

Lesson One: Unless you can duplicate the failure, in order to experiment with what does and does not trigger it, you are flailing in the dark.

So one day we get a torch back where we’ve been told the coolant is gushing out in a waterfall.  We go to our own test machine, connect everything up, turn the coolant flow on… and nothing (like always).  We exchange parts of the system for new ones.  Nothing.  Go back to the original, returned pieces.  Nothing.  Try as we might with permutations of new parts and returned parts, we cannot duplicate the reported failure.

Let me take a moment to say that I trust intuition.  Something was nagging at the back of my mind.  I couldn’t even quantify it, but something was bothering me.  Just as the technician was about to turn off the coolant flow, I said “Hold it, I want to try something.”  I reached over to the torch, grabbed the retaining cap that threaded on and which held everything inside, and started to turn and loosen it.  I had barely touched it when coolant started to jet out of the opening.

I tightened it.  Nothing.  I started to turn it, and again, coolant flowed copiously.  AHA!  I tightened it to its hard-stop and made a mark.  Then I slowly started to loosen it until, like a floodgate opening, the flow started again.  I marked that too.  It took, maybe, a 0.25” of distance, as measured on the outside diameter, to make this difference.

Armed with this information I went to the prints and calculated that – going from memory – the axial translation of the cap being unscrewed was on the order of 0.020”.  This information was passed to the Design group, which found that the issue was design-related (details omitted for confidentiality reasons).  Designs of a few, key components were tweaked and prototypes made.

The result: The redesigned torch wouldn’t leak despite backing the cap off double what I had done.  After the change, warrantee returns started to drop dramatically as the redesigned torch was propagated into the customer base.

Lesson two: Intuition and hunches are often based on a subconscious stew of disparate facts coming together.  While you shouldn’t just go with them – a systematic approach like an 8D Problem Solving Process is needed – don’t ignore those tickles at the back of your mind.

One other thing to note.  In retrospect these symptoms and the “no problem found” status made sense.  Plasma cutting is often a dirty environment with grit, metal chips, etc., around.  Likely what happened is that people took off the cap while changing the consumables – the “razor blades” – putting it down in such a way that grit got onto the surface that was supposed to be flush with the surface that provided the hard stop when installing the cap.  This created an inadvertent shim that coupled with the design issue to create the leak.  In the process of being shipped to us the grit would fall off, removing that inadvertent shim and resulting in a torch that would function as intended with no problem.

Lesson three: When troubleshooting, think about the environment where the failure is occurring.  Ideally, go and watch.  There’s nothing like seeing the precise situation for generating data, even if that data only goes into the aforementioned subconscious.

O-ring Rollout: Leak Failures in Manual Assembly Area

At the same plant where I first was given this book, one of the products was a carbon canister assembly that fitted into the fuel cell.  Functioning to absorb gasoline vapors coming off the fuel tank for emissions control, some of them had several hoses with male attachments that would be inserted into a female port.  The work time standard was strict and people pushed hard to meet it.  (Note that I have a portfolio page about this problem.)

At issue was the fact that the O-rings forming the seal at these ports would roll out of the groove they were in, creating a leak path.  This assembly defect was internal to the female port and so was not visible.  The first indication there was an O-ring rollout was that the unit would fail the leak test.  The unit would then be methodically disassembled until the rollout was found.  Then it was reassembled after reseating the O-ring, and retested.  As you might imagine, this was quite time-consuming (not to mention not value-added).

Having been asked to look into the problem, one of my first actions was to look at the Design Guidelines.  Since my Master’s Research was in Design for Manufacturing and Assembly, I had – stated immodestly! – a pretty good grasp of the dynamics of how things go together.  One thing I noticed was the design of the lead-in.  Although “perfect” from a molding standpoint, having a radius as a lead-in was not so great from an assembly standpoint.  The reason being is that the O-ring needed to slide along the surface without being “grabbed” by friction.  The governing equation is:

Arctangent(angle) < coefficient of static friction

With a visual:

angle image

Note that in no case will an angle greater than 45 work.

What I found, in a detailed examination, was that it was possible to misalign the male insert sufficiently so that the O-ring would hit on the part of the radius where static friction would dominate.  This would then “grab” the O-ring and, as the insertion progressed, it would roll out of the groove.

In a Design for Assembly analysis I’d written before on my blog I referenced Fitt’s Law.  I applied it in this case and found that it was a difficult task for a person to do reliably – which explained the high rework rate.  If I redesigned the lead-in to be a 30 degree chamfer, as shown in the portfolio page (referenced again for convenience), I essentially made it impossible to NOT get the O-ring on a sliding surface.  (NB: a 15 degree angle is my “perfect” recommendation for this situation.)

Lesson Four: Very often there is a Design issue at the root cause of a production problem.  Not always, of course – but in my experience the probability has been very high that Design is a contributor to the issue.  Note that Design is the foundation: Reliability, Functionality, and Quality all start with Design… one can have production issues even with a good design, but one cannot have good production with a bad design.

Based on my write-up we made an insert for the mold of the female port (fortunately the mold boss forming the core of the port was an insert that could be easily changed!) and tried it.  Leak failures from O-ring rollouts fell to nothing.  But there’s one more lesson… I got a call from the Design group asking me why I was proposing changing the design, including altering the Design Guidelines.  When I asked if he’d seen my write-up, he said yes.  When I asked if there was a problem with it, or with the results showing it worked, he snarled – literally snarled – through the phone: “You’re just a Manufacturing Engineer, what can you know?”.  Needless to say I was tempted to retort, but again returned to the successful results and appealed to his “We’re all one company, right?” spirit.

Lesson Five: People can get very protective of “their turf”; keep that in mind as you propose changes, especially if the changes are in someone else’s department.  (In retrospect I should have involved the Design group from the beginning to have them on the team and involved once I figured out this was a Design issue.  Thus I would have avoided turf battles, toe-stepping, and bruised egos.)

The Problem Toggle

In both instances changes were made that turned the problem off.  In both instances we understood the root cause well enough that if we had gone back to the old design, the problem would have returned… and why it would have returned.  In these two cases there was just one true “root cause”, Design, but in other cases I’ve experienced there were multiple factors that worked together to create the problem.

Only by systematically working through a formal process, often including tools like an Ishikawa Diagram which can be very useful, testing each identified possibility by duplicating the failure conditions to see if the change affected failure rates, can problems be declared solved.

Otherwise, solutions become a variant of “I’ve got everything just right; don’t touch anything!”  And that’s not a way to design and produce in today’s hypercompetitive world.

 

© 2014, David Hunt, PE

Visiting Suppliers – A Critical Part of a Business

As a Mechanical Engineer with a number of different companies, I’ve visited lots of suppliers – on trips to see prospective or new suppliers, visiting established suppliers, or to see someone who is “best in class” as a part of my ongoing education.  I’ve learned to keep my eyes open on these visits, and have found I can learn a lot more by seeing things with my own eyes than all the promotional literature they might send me.  Metrics and brochures are nice, but there is absolutely no substitute for seeing their production area firsthand.

Visits can reveal warts

One example of this is a visit I made to a supplier I found at a Design-2-Part trade show.  You probably know the routine – you go to a trade show, you do the “trade show dash”, handing over your business card, pre-printed sticker, or getting your badge swiped to have them send you information.  In a week or so you get a large package of information, followed by persistent sales calls.

After one show I got pursued by a local company who claimed their “sweet spot” in machining parts was right in the volumes and sizes we required.  I arranged to visit.

Overall, the layout of the place wasn’t bad.  I’d seen better racking of parts; I’d seen worse.  Cleanliness was OK – after all, it was a machine shop.  Metal chips and machine lubricants are part of the business.  But then I went into their quality area as a part of the tour.  Brace yourself: There, on the granite-slab inspection table, was their gauge pin set box, empty.  All the pins were in a pile, like the opening of a game of pick-up sticks.

pick-up-sticks

A while ago I wrote an essay that included the thought that you could learn something bad about a person that is so overwhelming, it tells you everything you need to know about them.  Companies can have the First Rule of Sewage apply to them too.  This was this company’s “sewage moment”.  I went back to my office shaking my head.  A few days later the sales guy called and asked whether or not I’d be interested in a quote.  No, and I told him why.  He huffed and couldn’t believe such a “little thing” could have affected me so, and again cited their ISO certification.  I told him, flat out, to not bother calling me again.

Had I not visited to see the place in person, that little detail would not have been seen; based on their metrics and other promotional information, they sounded like a decent supplier.

Suppliers Can Teach

While at Ford Motor Company, I was the Lean Manufacturing champion for a plant early in the process of taking steps to make manufacturing lean at the company.  I attended several courses and seminars, and visited any number of “case study” locations.  One was a company that molded, assembled, and painted instrument and console panels.

This place was a showcase for lean manufacturing, including minimized WIP, demand / pull manufacturing, a visual workplace, 5S, and SMED philosophy.

One of the big hurdles in making a manufacturing facility lean is when processes have vastly different cycle times.  In this case, the assembly and painting operations had a TAKT time of, perhaps, 15-20 seconds.  Injection molding the parts, however, had a cycle time of about 60 seconds.  The way they handled it was nothing short of beautiful.

blue-ribbon-001

Each molding machine operator was responsible for a group of 4-6 machines; each machine group was responsible for 8-10 different molded components of similar size and each group also had their own storage rack for the necessary molds (numbers from fallible memory).  Each mold had specific process set-up instructions for each machine in the group.  Parts were packed in bins, and loaded onto part-specific roller storage racks from which the downstream operation pulled.  The roller storage racks were painted with green, yellow, and red; as parts were pulled and the stock used up, colors painted on the rollers were exposed in progression:

Green: Adequate supply for the next downstream-operations’ shift.

Yellow: The part in question will be exhausted in the second half of the current shift.

Red: The part in question will be exhausted within the first half of the current shift.

This simple color-coded racking system for WIP visually told the mold machine operators what mold to put into the next machine in their group.  Mold changes were less than twenty (and closer to ten) minutes last-part-to-first-good-part, and operators ganged together into a team whenever a mold was changed to ensure this.

Were I ever to be working in a molding and assembly facility again, or a similar situation with mismatches in process time, this would be the way I would handle the interface between the areas.

Suppliers can save you

I am a firm believer in the idea that while businesses do business, people do favors.  A good supplier-customer relationship can result in benefits for both sides.

While working in climate control for Visteon I was working on a cost savings project that required a mold alteration.  Essentially, I was changing the design of a molded part to integrate a separate component into that molded piece.  This would eliminate a stamped metal shield from the assembly and the two screws which held it on; the operation took the majority of a person’s time at their station, and the elimination of the stamped metal piece, two screws, and labor was an estimated $180K savings per year.

I knew my design would work, but I didn’t know about the impact on the mold.  I was initially told by the supplier’s sales representative that my design would require a new mold.  This was still a viable cost-savings project, but the new mold was over $40K – cutting into my projected savings.  Since they’d keep the molding business, a new mold made sense for their bottom line as they had the capability to make the new mold.  Keep the molding business, make a new mold – all good from their point of view.

Instead my contact – with whom I’d developed a solid relationship – recommended a few, subtle changes in my design that eliminated the need for a new mold.  This saved Visteon a lot of money but cost him the sale of a new mold… but his decision to help me cemented our relationship..  From then on I knew I could trust him, and he knew I would do everything I could to steer business their way.  And I did – even after my being laid off a month or so later.

handshake_26657

A further thought about such relationships, added upon reflection… strong personal relationships with supplier representatives is an incredible networking resource should you be on a job hunt.  Companies that supply the employer you just left (however you left it) likely also supply other, similar companies in the area.  With personal recommendations being one of the most powerful things in job-search networking, this can be an invaluable resource for you!

Conclusion

You cannot not visit suppliers, and cannot not visit them regularly.  You never know what you might see that gives you unwitting and unintentional insights into how they do their business – for good or ill.  You can learn things that you can apply to your own continuous improvement program or glean lessons for future expansion plans.  And the relationship you build with the people there can create a partnership for long-term, mutual benefit… both in business and if you are in a job search.

Make a list of your suppliers, and get thee into a plane, train, or automobile.  You will be glad you did.

© 2014, David Hunt, PE