The Suppliers' jungle: manage the rebels

Today I'm talking about a really recurring topic: how to manage your suppliers.

We are always exposed to the rebels and mavericks, in managing a project. If a project does not have its enemies, it is not so strategic. If a project is strategic and cardinal, by definition it displeases someone, who will act as a maverick.

The rebels can be both internal or external. In the second case, the most common situation is about your suppliers.

They can be very crucial and can determine the success or failure of your project. Especially when you count on them about some core activities. Someone could say "Hey, how is it possible that a supplier can act against your project? He is your partner!". Come on, everybody is partner when there are money and opportunities on the table; not so everybody is partner when you have to hit a milestone on-time, on-budget and with a first-class performance.

Let's try to take it to extremes:
A supplier can be against the project because he wants to finish his activities asap, grab the money and quit the scene. You want to reach your goal, make your stake holders and top managers happy, save money.

You are the pm, that means in you company you are the responsible one.

You are responsible only for things you actually rule (thanks to my mentor, Jack).

So, in order to reach a milestone, you need your supplier to:

  • Do something
  • In a specified time range

That said, you are responsible for things that external players have to do. How can you manage an external workforce?

Thanks to the Digital Agency Forma Mentis, I ask my suppliers to:

  • follow some shared conduct rules
  • respect a workflow able to ensure high performance about the project

We are partners, like in the marriage, only if we have a shared vision about the project. This means we have to agree on what and how achieve together.

Shared conduct rules

I'm talking about some generic rules:

  1. Certainty that planning is necessary to manage the chaos
  2. All the players need to be commited to the project
  3. And responsible for their actions
  4. If someone is not confident about an activity, raise his hand asap

The list is not complete but a good starting point.

The workflow

The project starts with a shared document about goals to be achieved, time and players to be involved, stakeholders, KPI (indicators that will say if the project is success or failure).
The project manager prepare then a draft planning. You do not plan anything without involving the players you are planning.
Ask your supplier to check the planning, do edits and then agree with it: we have to share a unique vision.
In the reality, the retro-planning exists: the finish date is very often given, so you have to decompose the main goal in some secondary goals.
Once a week (it depends on the complexity of the project), do a performance check with the supplier. You have to inspect delays and the blocked activities, finding out the reasons behind them. One year of delay is made by days of delay every week. So, timing is everything. Often, the problem is you and not the supplier: in these case, show transparency with all the players, they have to understand you have discovered something broken, and that you will manage and fix it.

Once you smell something broken, go fix it immediately.

Some tips to manage your suppliers

  1. Do planning, not plan. Planning has to be kept updated every day. Static GANTT in this stressed era is useless. And demand your supplier to approve the planning.
  2. Use project management tool, shareable with the supplier. There are a lot of solutions out there. Want to start simple? Go with Trello.
  3. Set-up a weekly check about the status of activities. Do not hesitate: ask more and more questions.
  4. Transfer the risks for delays to suppliers. Your customers wants to evaluate your performance: why don't you do the same with your supplier?
  5. Escalate when needed: do not wait weeks, if something is broken and your supplier do not fix it, escalate both to your boss/supervisor (they need to know) and to the supplier's management (with the help of Purchasing/Supply Chain Manager).
  6. Do a monthly recap of lessons learned the month before. It will help both you and your supplier.

Complete list:

Sometimes, the supplier is not committed to the cause, for reasons not related to you: maybe he's full of backlog activities and cannot plan well. This is a really huge problem. In this cases, a good project management should start by re-sharing a vision, in terms of goals and benefits. You are project manager of your side and cannot be the project manager by his side.

Otherwise, there's plenty of ready-to-be-committed suppliers out there.

Geran de Klerk