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August 23, 2011

Scotch on the rocks: The importance of context in outsourced manufacturing

by mikediliberto
Scotch on The Rocks

In the movie Who Framed Roger Rabbit, we witness our protagonist, Eddie Valiant, order a “scotch on the rocks” from a cartoon waiter and we laugh when the waiter returns with a glass that contains scotch and, literally, rocks.

This humorous aside illustrates a very important lesson about conducting business in foreign lands: The context of the conversation matters just as much as, if not more than, the subject matter.

When making the move to outsourced manufacturing, context is easy to take for granted.

When placing an order with a supplier accustomed to doing business with US customers, there are countless contextual items that I know they understand without a long explanation being necessary.  These contextual items range from the complex, for example, understanding how to package our order into logical kits for multi-store rollouts, to more obscure, as in stipulating finishes that are LEED compliant, to simple things, like ensuring that all of our electronics and digital signage components have the requisite regulatory approvals.

The combination of our knowing what we need to deliver to our customer and my suppliers knowledge of all of the right questions to ask combine to provide a system of checks and balances that is often absent in supplier-client relationships that cross international boundaries.

In outsourcing some or all of our manufacturing activities, we must be cognizant of the need to provide context around what it is that we are designing and building, because more often than not, our manufacturing partners overseas lack the contextual understanding necessary to understand not just the parts that they are building, but how those parts fit into a larger ecosystem.

I’ve set out to create teachable context with our suppliers many times, and I’ve found that often it is the simplest lessons that have the most impact.

Keep it visual:

Whether you’re up against a language barrier, a culture barrier, or simply find some concepts difficult to articulate, using photos and videos is one of best ways to share your teachable point of view.  I’ve often found that what would take me hours to express in words can be understood quickly with just a few photos or a quick video store tour.

Keep it simple:

I find that the more technical the details are, the less I need to talk about it.  I rarely discuss critical dimensions in an initial presentation, because the drawings and solid models express that to a precise level.  What I have found much more valuable are simple overviews.  An explanation of how a particular store is laid out, an overview of the products we are displaying, even a brief description of the types of shoppers that we are targeting all come together to instill in our partners the context around what is it that we want to build.  Picture yourself as a tourguide moving through the experience of a store, a display, a product; leave out the technical details and focus on the highlights.

Focus on what, not how:

One of most important skills to hone when outsourcing is to detach yourself from your roots as a manufacturer, and reframe your projects in terms what you want to do, not how you want to do it.  Our instincts often tell us that the way to remove risk is to specify every part of our project with as much detail as possible, yet this is often counter productive.  By demanding an exact bill of materials and assembly methodology, we tie the hands of our partners, whereas they might be able to make the same product that we want better or at least, more efficiently.  Furthermore, by demanding a supplier use an unfamiliar process, we increase the likelihood of errors, adding needless rework costs to our bottom line.

Imparting a sense of context in your suppliers empowers them to create the experience that you want using methods with which they are familiar.  The small time investment that you make at the start of your project will pay countless dividends in current and future projects.

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