Customer-Supplier Relationships

During the design process, have you ever asked yourself who your customer was? If one is working on a building mechanical system, who is the customer? Is it the architect, who is paying to you to provide that design? Is it the owner/tenant of the building, who will occupy the space and pay the utility bills for it? Or, is it the mechanical contractor, who will install the system using the plans that are developed by the designer?

The initial answer is usually the architect, as the word “customer” is generally associated with the flow of money. It’s initially difficult to argue that point, and if one ceases to please that Architect, the identity of the customer is realized very quickly. However, it can be helpful to broaden the concept of a customer to others that one is really working for in some manner.

During the 1980’s, the United States found their leadership in the manufacturing sector severely challenged by the Japanese. Products that were once mimicked as “Made in Japan” were now found to be superior in fit, finish, and reliability – usually at a lower cost. What was it that made the difference? Much study and writing was devoted to Japanese methods and how they could be implemented in America. “Quality Leadership” was the popular buzzword and most companies of any size had programs to address it.

One of the principles of quality management was (and still is) to understand who the customer and supplier are with each step of the process. Not just the final product and purchaser, but within each task along production. The supplier could then streamline their contribution in a way that was efficient to the customer. Now, that meant that supplier would need to be proactive and search out the customer in order to fully understand the needs. Was the product (at that point in production) adequate? Was it too much in some areas while too little in others? Was there inefficiency along the way that could be improved? And oh, yes, how about the cost? Was it the supplier’s responsibility to be proactive? Or, was it the customer’s? In many cases, the customer cannot easily change suppliers, so it may be on them to visit their supplier.

For a mechanical designer, their customers would include the installers building their system. They would include the manufacturer’s representatives that sell components of the design. They include other disciplines: ironworkers, framers, electricians, others. Within the design team, they include supporting disciplines – electrical, structural, and finally – architectural. Remember them? They are the ones paying your fee! Finally, the building owner is the ultimate customer. The entire team should work toward delivering a quality product to the owner and tenant of the building

Constructing a building or even just a mechanical system is a complex production process that is full of dozens, hundreds, even thousands of sub-tasks, each of which can be looked at from the perspective of a customer and a supplier. As a supplier, a designer should be visiting the installer to ask about their documents. Were they accurate? Are they too much, or too little? Chances are, they are heavy in one place and light in another. They can be improved, often with equal or less cost. Installers, are you getting those visits? If not, then perhaps you can proactively communicate back to your suppliers. You probably can’t fire them, at least not very quickly! The time invested will ultimately be paid back.

As a supplier, are you asking about your customer’s needs? As a customer, are you communicating your needs? These questions are valid all the way from designing and constructing the foundation of a building to the owner’s operation of the finished building.