Weathering The Storm

How to sustain customer-supplier relationships during high-stakes problem solving

by Robert Perkin

Many of us work in industries in which a customer produces a product that uses highly engineered products produced by suppliers. Even though these relationships often are characterized in the glowing language of partnerships, when there is a major problem, the relationship can degrade quickly into something quite different. When it’s a technical problem or failure, it almost certainly will cost money to resolve, and the stresses induced by that cost will challenge even the closest customer-supplier relationships.

In my experience, the natural response of customers and suppliers during these situations is to withhold any information that can potentially imply their particular responsibility for the problem. This has disastrous consequences when it comes to problem resolution. Without all relevant technical information openly on the table, every step of the problem resolution process is deeply impaired. This invariably leads to delays in solving the problem, which directly increase the impact of the problem and further stress the customer-supplier relationship.

Start with common interest

No matter the origin of the problem or nature of the product, one fundamental truth is that the longer it takes to solve the problem, the bigger the problem will become. If it’s new product development, for example, the development process may be delayed, which could delay the start of production. If it’s product in series production, the warranty liability grows with each product shipped until a corrective action is implemented.

The customer and supplier must recognize that solving the problem quickly is in everyone’s interest. But typically that can only happen if all the relevant technical information is known to every problem resolution team member. It’s also important to understand that in these complex systems, it’s virtually certain that the problem has contributing factors from the customer and supplier, even if they aren’t in the same relative proportion.

Work together

Select a sound problem resolution process, such as 8D, and employ it as a team.1 The day will come when overall responsibility for the problem must be agreed on. But don’t let that future eventuality flavor the team’s technical work. Run the resolution process with full information sharing and integrity—it’s the path to fastest resolution. Together, drive the investigation through to permanent corrective actions and possible recurrence prevention actions. A funny thing happens along the way: trust and mutual respect develop among team members and, by extension, the customer and supplier—no matter the ultimate outcome.

Day of reckoning

When the problem is resolved, each party’s relative contribution to the problem and the consequent financial responsibility must be determined. This process goes best if the team makes recommendations based on the root causes and the state of any requirements or contractual documents. What story do the facts and documents tell about responsibility? One side may not like the outcome, but if the recommendation is data driven and communicated by experts, it will be highly credible and resilient to future dispute.

Even in the most contentious circumstances, this approach builds relationships and trust that actually enhance customer-supplier relationships.


  1. There are many references for problem resolution processes, such as Matthew Barsalou’s “Back to Basics: In the Loop,” Quality Progress, December 2016, p. 80.

Robert Perkin is a chief engineer in the automotive industry, responsible globally for problem resolution. Perkin has master’s degrees in technology management and engineering management from Washington University in St. Louis. He is a Smarter Solutions-certified lean Six Sigma Master Black Belt.

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