I saw red the other day during a disagreement with a supplier we are working with on a product development project. It happened during a discussion about a design issue for a medical device product. Without going into too much depth, the supplier has been tasked with fixing a design flaw in the device. A couple months ago, the supplier had quite a few more tasks assigned to them as well. But as the project manager, I observed the supplier not being able to manage the volume of tasks. I decided to take most of the tasks away from the supplier and added them to our plate instead. Not a big deal. In fact in probably made the most sense for the client any way. Doing so allowed the supplier to have a single major task: fix the design flaw.
It’s been nearly six weeks. The design flaw remains. Each week seems to be a replay from the week before. From my perspective and the perspective of the client, the supplier has made marginal progress at best. Confidence in this supplier declined more and more with each passing day. Last week, the client and I discussed a strategy. One tactic was to have an “all hands on deck” brainstorming session with the supplier. Another tactic was to find alternative suppliers just in case.
We held the all hands discussion. Some good ideas came out of the discussion. The supplier provided a schedule as to when prototypes would be in hand to evaluate whether the concept had merit. As this date approached, the supplier backpedaled and pushed the date out. My patience has been wearing thin for a while. With each delay and day that pass, the depth of discussions I have been engaging with alternative resources has increased. Finally, the supplier set a time for the client and I to visit to review the prototypes.
When I arrived for the meeting, the lead engineer at the supplier was still tinkering with the prototype. It wasn’t right. I sat there patiently. The client was aggravated. The engineer assured us he could make tweaks here and there. He just needed five more minutes. Ten minutes after this statement, it was very clear that the prototype would be ready another day. We left.
The results of this meeting made it clear to me that I was going to have to engage another resource to fix this design flaw. I requested CAD source files from the supplier. They said no. I called the supplier to understand why not. I was told that the client does not own the source files and has not paid for these. CAD would not be provided. Keep in mind I did share with the supplier last week that we had to consider looking for other resources due to the project delays encountered. The request for the CAD data was a clear signal to the supplier.
He got defensive. He said the classic line that “. . . this is how product development goes . . . ” That line is total bull shit and a cop out. Especially since I have been doing my best to give the supplier a single task focus and not burden them with other tasks. The supplier also then chastised me for working with a couple resources he connected me to for the project, stating I was stealing resources he brought to the project. His tone was condescending. I did my best to keep my cool. The supplier then told me to “hang in there”. Are you kidding me?!
If you know me, you know I’m very much a “silver lining” kind of guy. I’m trying to find the silver linings from this experience. I have a few:
- When working on a product development project, ensure that resources are compensated for their time. Do not work with suppliers who choose to not charge for the time for their resources and instead roll the costs into tooling and eventual manufacturing.
- I’ve yet to find a contract manufacturer who can handle product design. I’m sure there are exceptions but so far in my experience product design and contract manufacturing are conflicting skill sets. And for that matter conflicting areas of interest.
- Micr0-managing resources on product development projects is necessary until the resource proves otherwise.
- All project resources lie about when they will have stuff done–myself included. Okay, maybe “lie” is a little harsh. Yes, I know when a resource provides a date when something will be done that more times then not, this is the intent. But I also know it’s wrong.
- A project manager needs to have direct lines of communication with all resources working on a project. It does not work to communicate via a middle person.
- Despite what the client wants and how pushy they might be, I need to stick to my experience and convictions about how to navigate through a project. For example, if the project is a product development project, we must finalize the design first before even thinking about manufacturing.
- When resources screw up, they probably won’t admit it. Instead, they will probably make every attempt to cover their tracks to fix the mistake before you find out. If you find out before it’s fixed, they will probably blame someone and something else.