Supplier Hugger or Engineer?

Explaining the important dual role of a supplier quality engineer

by LaToya R. Griffin

An engineering manager recently said I was part of a "soft profession." I interpreted his comment as a roundabout way of expressing his belief that I wasn’t a real engineer, and people didn’t know what I was working on day to day.

I guess I could see his point. As a supplier quality engineer (SQE), I possess soft skills. SQEs work behind the scenes, ensuring suppliers are meeting requirements. I decided instead of being offended, I would capitalize on an opportunity to explain supplier quality engineering to the engineering team.

What is an SQE?

I had no idea what an SQE was when I perused job postings before leaving the military, but a job description that included travel, suppliers, investigations and quality assurance practices sounded intriguing. I applied based on that description alone and began my SQE career.

SQEs are those who monitor the supply base, ensuring suppliers are providing quality products. They monitor supplier performance, evaluate corrective and preventive action responses and perform audits. SQEs investigate recurring issues while providing suggestions and solutions for improvements. They also act as consultants for improving a supplier’s quality management system and as change agents within their own organizations.

Why is supplier quality important?

Think about your car, the food you eat or the products you put on your skin. Depending on their function, they must meet certain quality standards. Those standards have to be communicated to the supply base providing the raw materials.

SQEs ensure suppliers have the capability, tools, systems and people in place to provide materials that meet standards every time. This is important because quality raw materials equate to quality final products. For many organizations, their supply base provides a strategic advantage over competitors. Strong relationships with your suppliers can be the difference between a good organization and a great one, and SQEs strengthen and maintain those relationships.

Good cop, bad cop

Regarding the "soft profession" comment: Is it true? Well, yes! While SQEs can and should have strong engineering backgrounds, it’s important that they are technical and personable. Why both? Having a technical background will make it easier to understand the processes involved in manufacturing or fabricating products and materials.

Being personable makes it easier to relay information, especially when you must take action and definitely when that information isn’t positive. SQEs are relationship managers. When dealing with the supply base, an SQE can be the bad cop, a counselor, a defender (also called supplier hugger) or the business equivalent of a life coach (really, that’s how it feels sometimes). Add organizational and project management skills to the list, and it’s no wonder SQEs are sometimes considered soft.

Bringing it together

After hearing this manager’s comment, I decided to present a short briefing on supplier quality during our weekly engineering meeting. I worried the topic might be received as a waste of time, but I was mistaken.

As I covered the supply chain and the different types of suppliers, quotes, purchase orders, audits and risk management strategies, I discovered that not only were many of my colleagues unfamiliar with supplier quality, they also were actually interested.

They wanted to know how their roles affected our supply base and how supplier quality staff acted as liaisons and coordinators to guarantee the organization’s goals were met. My presentation stirred up wonderful conversations, and I found myself explaining how important our suppliers were to our competitive strategy, and how the quality department acted as a closed-loop system to ensure the organization received quality products. The meeting was a success.

I encourage my fellow SQEs to teach their organizations about supplier quality. You’d be surprised by how many people outside of the quality department (including management) don’t understand supplier quality and why it’s important. The more people who understand our role, the more support we’ll gain in dealing with our supply base.

Latoya R. Griffin is a physical scientist at the Environmental Protection Agency in Washington, D.C. She earned a master’s degree in systems engineering from Old Dominion University in Norfolk, VA. Griffin is an ASQ member and an ASQ-certified manager of quality/organizational excellence.

This is a really good article. I share all the exposed ideas. Supply chain quality is important in order to produce high-quality goods in our sites. Congrats!
--Jorge Miranda, 12-31-2015

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