Avoid the Pitfalls in Supplier Development

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As manufacturing firms outsource more parts and services to focus on their own core competencies, they increasingly expect their suppliers to deliver innovative and quality products on time and at a competitive cost. When a supplier is incapable of meeting these needs, a buyer has three alternatives: (1) bring the outsourced item in-house and produce it internally, (2) change to a more capable supplier, or (3) help improve the existing supplier’s capabilities.

All three strategies can work. The choice often depends on price, volume, or the strategic nature of the procured item. For low-value-added, nonstrategic commodities, the cost of changing to a new supplier is low, and switching may be the best option. At the other extreme, when an underperforming supplier provides an innovative product or process technology (that may be of sustainable long-term advantage to the buyer), the buyer may wish to protect this potential advantage and bring the work in-house by acquiring the supplier. In those cases that lie between these two extremes — and even at times including these extremes — the best option may be “supplier development.”

We define supplier development as any activity that a buyer undertakes to improve a supplier’s performance and/or capabilities to meet the buyer’s short-term or long-term supply needs. Buying firms use a variety of activities to improve supplier performance, including assessing suppliers’ operations, providing incentives to improve performance, instigating competition among suppliers, and working directly with suppliers, either through training or other activities.1

Supplier development requires both firms to commit financial, capital, and personnel resources to the work; to share timely and sensitive information; and to create an effective means of measuring performance. Thus, this strategy is challenging for both parties. Buyer executives and employees must be convinced that investing company resources in a supplier is a worthwhile risk. Supplier executives must be convinced that their best interest lies in accepting direction and assistance from their customer. Even if the two companies mutually agree that supplier development is important, success is not a foregone conclusion.

Although difficult, supplier development can be an important “cornerstone” in the deployment of a truly integrated supply chain. The average manufacturing firm spends over 50 percent of its revenues on purchased inputs.2 With companies continuing to increase the volume of outsourced work across industries,3 this percentage is likely to rise.



1. D.R. Krause, R.B. Handfield, and T.V. Scannell, “An Empirical Investigation of Supplier Development: Reactive and Strategic Processes,” Journal of Operations Management (forthcoming);

D.R. Krause, “Supplier Development: Current Practices and Outcomes,” International Journal of Purchasing and Materials Management, volume 33, number 2, 1997, pp. 12–19; and

K. Bhote, Strategic Supply Management — A Blueprint for Revitalizing the Manufacturing-Supplier Partnership (New York: American Management Association, 1989).

2. B. Burnes and P. Whittle, “Supplier D.R.Development: Getting Started,” Logistics Focus, volume 3, number 1, 1995, pp. 10–14; and

S. Tully, “Purchasing’s New Muscle,” Fortune, volume 131, 1995, pp. 75–83.

3. T. Peters, Thriving on Chaos: Handbook of Management Revolution (New York: Knopf, 1988);

J. Quinn, P. Anderson, and S. Finkelstein, “Leveraging Intellect,” Academy of Management Executive, volume 10, number 3, 1996, pp. 7–27; and

A. Taylor, “The Auto Industry Meets the New Economy,” Fortune, volume 130, number 5, 1994, pp. 52–60.

4. M. Fisher, “What is the Right Supply Chain for Your Product?” Harvard Business Review, volume 75, March–April 1997, pp. 105–116.

5. For a detailed description of the methodology and validation of this process model, see:

Krause et al. (forthcoming).

6. For example, see:

J.P. MacDuffie and S. Helper, “Creating Lean Suppliers: Diffusing Lean Production through the Supply Chain,” California Management Review, volume 39, number 4, 1997, pp. 118–151; or

C. Watts and C. Hahn, “Supplier Development Programs: An Empirical Analysis,” International Journal of Purchasing and Materials Management, volume 29, number 2, 1993, pp. 11–17.

7. B. Burnes and P. Whittle, “Supplier Development: Getting Started,” Logistics Focus, volume 3, number 1, 1995, pp. 10–14; and

Watts and Hahn (1993).

8. K. Fitzgerald, “For Superb Supplier Development — Honda Wins!” Purchasing, volume 119, number 4, 1995, pp. 32–40.

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Comment (1)
Wybrand Ganzevoort
The article takes the stance that the vast majority of supplier development programmes are strategic in nature and are focused on the development of a supplier that is already an incumbent in the supply chain.  A valuable perspective that is missed in this article is supplier development that takes place in the developing world.  

There are a significant amount of supplier development taking place in African countries where the main intention more so on the diversity of the suppliers and the long term sustainability of the supplier entity than it is on the performance or capabilities of the supplying company.  

I would argue that the definition of supplier development is therefore too narrow and quite a myopic view of the developed world as opposed to the developing world.  See the site www.collectivevaluecreation.co.za for more information about supplier development in South Africa as an example of this.