Supplier site visits -- especially those in global sourcing environments -- can be quite telling indeed. Whether to qualify a new supplier or to keep in touch and develop an existing one, there is nothing like a face-to-face meeting at a supplier's facility. Supply Excellence recently had two highly informative posts on the subject. You can read them at here and here. I think Supply Excellence presented a rather services-centric take on site visits. So from a manufacturing standpoint, I might add the following pieces of advice for an industrial setting:
First, it's critical to keep your eyes and ears open to what might be out of the ordinary for a given facility based on local conditions. As an example, consider the quality inspector at the end of a production line who greets you with a smile as you walk past. Maybe his clothes are just a bit too clean relative to all the other workers. This might suggest that he's a rent-an-inspector -- an actor, essentially -- who’s been hired for your visit. This sort of behavior is not out of the ordinary in developing markets and it's worth keeping an eye out for. The key is to visualize what the manufacturing environment would be like without an inspector / hired actor orchestrating things.
Second, I'd suggest reserving enough time to get to know suppliers outside of just the tour and site inspection itself. Above all, don't over schedule your day. The Chinese are especially prone to take what you thought would be a two hour visit and turn it into an all-afternoon banquet/get-together. It's not rude to say you are pushed for time, but there's often quite a lot to be gained in conversation away from the shop-floor. As a bonus, depending upon where you are, you might get the chance to taste silk worms, smoked sparrow or other local delicacies that I've dined on during just such visits.
Third, it's important to have your own people on the ground -- either hired contractors or employees -- to really spend time with suppliers outside of a single-day managerial/executive level meet and greet. Potential problems can be unearthed,discussed, and averted during these more tactical meetings and visits. This is also when your team will have a chance to see a facility operate under more normal circumstances (versus one that has been to the beauty salon just before your arrival).
- Jason Busch