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Taking supplier collaboration to the next level

Closer relationships between buyers and suppliers could create significant value and help supply chains become more resilient. New research sheds light on the ingredients for success.

Companies with advanced procurement functions know that there are limits to the value they can generate by focusing purely on the price of the products and services they buy. These organizations understand that when buyers and suppliers are willing and able to cooperate, they can often find ways to unlock significant new sources of value that benefit them both.

Buyers and suppliers can work together to develop innovative new products, for example, boosting revenues and profits for both parties. They can take an integrated approach to supply-chain optimization, redesigning their processes together to reduce waste and redundant effort, or jointly purchasing raw materials. Or they can collaborate in forecasting, planning, and capacity management—thereby improving service levels, mitigating risks, and strengthening the combined supply chain.

Earlier work has shown that supplier collaboration really does move the needle for companies that do it well. In one McKinsey survey of more than 100 large organizations in multiple sectors, companies that regularly collaborated with suppliers demonstrated higher growth, lower operating costs, and greater profitability than their industry peers (Exhibit 1).

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Despite the value at stake, however, the benefits of supplier collaboration have proved difficult to access. While many companies can point to individual examples of successful collaborations with suppliers, executives often tell us that they have struggled to integrate the approach into their overall procurement and supply-chain strategies.

Barriers to collaboration

Several factors make supplier collaboration challenging. Projects may require significant time and management effort before they generate value, leading companies to prioritize simpler, faster initiatives, even if they are worth less. Collaboration requires a change in mind-sets among buyers and suppliers, who may be used to more transactional or even adversarial relationships. And most collaborative efforts need intensive, cross-functional involvement from both sides, a marked change to the normal working methods at many companies. This change from a cost-based to a value-based way of thinking requires a paradigm shift that is often difficult to come by.

The actual value generated by collaborating can also be difficult to quantify, especially when companies are also pursuing more conventional procurement and supply-chain improvement strategies with the same suppliers, or when they are simultaneously updating product designs and production processes. And even when companies have the will to pursue greater levels of supplier collaboration, leaders often admit that they don’t have the skill, lacking the structures they need to design great supplier-collaboration programs, and being short of staff with the capabilities to run them. After all, what great supplier collaboration necessitates is much more than the mere application of a process or framework—it requires the buy-in and long-term commitment of leaders and decision makers.

A shared perspective

To understand more about the factors that hamper or enable supplier-collaboration programs, we partnered with Michigan State University (MSU) to develop a new way of looking at companies’ use of supplier collaboration. The Supplier Collaboration Index (SCI) is a survey- and interview-based benchmarking tool that assesses supplier-collaboration programs over five major dimensions (Exhibit 2).

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During 2019, researchers from McKinsey and MSU rolled out the Index in a pilot project involving a dozen leading consumer-goods companies in North America, along with ten to 15 of each company’s strategic suppliers. We collected more than 300 written responses from more than 130 organizations, and conducted in-depth interviews with around 60 buyer and supplier executives. The work provides some important insights on the state of supplier collaboration today, revealing the elements of collaboration that companies and suppliers believe are working well, and the areas that present the greatest challenges.

The results of our consumer-industry benchmark are summarized in Exhibit 3, with average buyer and supplier perceptions of their own collaboration programs rated from one (low) to ten (high) in each of the five dimensions.

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Overall, the research reveals close alignment between buyers and suppliers on the relative strength of most dimensions. It also shows a clear drop in perceptions of strength as the discussion moves from theory (strategic alignment) to execution (value creation and sharing, organizational governance).

The in-depth interviews conducted with senior buyer and supplier personnel as part of the SCI data-collection process provide further insights into the challenges companies face in each of the five dimensions, while also revealing some examples of best practices that lower-performing companies can emulate.

Achieving strategic alignment

Benchmark participants understood who their strategic suppliers are, although they do not all use formal segmentation approaches to categorize their supply bases. Likewise, suppliers understood their strategic importance to their customers. Buyers and suppliers agreed that there was good alignment on the pursuit of sources of value beyond cost—but also agreed that their efforts to capture these value sources were not always successful.

The first step for an organization is to define what it wants to achieve from its collaboration efforts, and what it needs to do to realize those goals. Internal alignment and commitment by senior managers to ensure appropriate resources are available is also critical. For example, in a quest to develop more sustainable detergents, Unilever partnered with Novozyme—a major supplier of enzymes— to jointly develop new enzyme solutions. The collaboration leveraged each party’s strengths, merging Unilever’s understanding of which types of stains and materials were most relevant with Novozyme’s reagent-optimization capabilities. The partnership resulted in two enzyme innovations that improved product performance, increased market penetration, and allowed the company to target premium-branded competitors. Moreover, the new formulation performed well at lower temperatures, helping customers save energy and reduce CO2 emissions.

Sidebar

Other organizations participating in SCI have introduced formal methods to promote greater strategic alignment, such as by introducing a joint business-planning approach. The buyer and supplier align on short- and long-term business objectives, set out mutual targets, and jointly develop plans to achieve objectives. Areas of opportunity for collaboration include growth, innovation, productivity, quality, and margins (see sidebar, “Joint business planning”).

Communication and trust

Buyers and sellers both describe high levels of trust in relationships that they consider strategic. In most cases, that trust has been built up over time, based on longstanding business relationships. Companies involved in collaborations tend to appreciate each other’s capabilities, understand each other’s businesses, and believe that their partners will stick to the commitments they make.

Companies are less convinced, however, that their partners will be ready to put the interests of the collaboration above the interests of their own organization. Many interview participants noted that greater transparency over sensitive areas such as costs was key to attaining the highest level of collaboration, but said that this goal was often difficult to achieve.

Building trust takes time and effort. Often this means starting small, with simple collaboration efforts that deliver results quickly, building momentum. This way, companies can demonstrate a serious approach to collaboration and their willingness to share gains fairly. More importantly, companies should base their relationships on transparency and information sharing as a foundation, with the expectation that greater trust will follow.

Cosmetics company L’Oréal follows this approach to encourage collaborative innovation. Through open dialogs concerning company goals and long-term commitment, L’Oréal has been able to establish an effective codevelopment process. The company’s annual “Cherry Pack” exhibition, for example, offers suppliers a preview of the consumer trends that the company will be working on, and asks them to develop packaging solutions in harmony with these trends. During the exhibition, L’Oréal creates a trust-based forum for suppliers to present the ideas and products in development—including ideas that have yet to be patented. The forum thus gives suppliers access to practical short- and long-term ideas and projects that ultimately accelerate packaging innovation.

Cross-functional engagement

To generate value from changes in manufacturing methods, quality-assurance regimes, or supply-chain processes, representatives from the respective functions on both sides of the partnership will need to work together. Yet this type of cross-functional engagement is something most benchmark participants find extremely difficult. Executives reported that while traditional relationships—such as those between buyers and supplier sales teams, or suppliers and buyer R&D functions—were strong, wider cross-functional engagement was patchy and poorly managed at best.

Improving cross-functional engagement is a leadership issue. Organizations with the most successful collaboration programs use a formal approach to manage cross-functional teams, with clearly defined roles and responsibilities on both sides of the partnership, backed by changes to internal incentive systems to promote full participation in collaboration projects.

Some companies, such as P&G, have taken a step further in creating cross-functional teams solely focused on joint innovation with suppliers. By creating a practice of “open innovation,” P&G aimed to coordinate its efforts and leverage the skills and interests of people throughout the company to assess the competitive landscape, identify types of innovation that can help develop disruptive ideas, and identify appropriate external partners. For innovation to work, P&G has stressed the need to integrate cross-functional teams that, in turn, integrate business strategy with operations—which requires a broad network of interactions.

Value creation and sharing

The pursuit of shared value is the reason buyers and suppliers take part in collaboration projects, so unsurprisingly procurement executives consider it the most important dimension of their collaboration efforts. Yet few participants in our study track the impact of collaboration on sources of value beyond cost reductions. Where companies have tracked the impact of collaboration projects on revenues, margins, or other metrics, they have done so only for a handful of high-profile projects.

For buyers, additional volume remains the most common way that the extra value created by collaboration projects is shared. Some partnerships had made use of other types of value sharing, such as performance-based incentives for suppliers. Where these approaches were employed, both buyers and suppliers were happy with the results. That suggests significant opportunity for companies to expand their use of such approaches, provided they can reach agreement on cost baselines and incentive structures.

Sidebar

Cost transparency is a critical enabler here. Some companies have found cleansheet cost modeling to be a very effective way to conduct fact-based discussions on costs and improvement opportunities with their collaboration partners (see sidebar, “Cleansheet cost modeling”).

ASML, a lithography-equipment manufacturer for the semiconductor industry, operates a value-sharing mechanism for its suppliers. The company allows suppliers to maintain healthy margins (as a volatility buffer), provides financing for the infrastructure needed to make its products, and offers staggered purchase guarantees. In this way, ASML incentivizes and rewards its strategic suppliers for prioritizing its business, gains access to cutting-edge technology, and reduces costs and improves stability in an industry with short lifecycles affected by substantial swings in demand.

Throughout its long history of collaboration with suppliers, P&G has used a wide range of commercial models to partner with suppliers across the entire R&D chain. Its value-sharing models range from shared fund pools for codevelopment of products to licensing agreements for commercialization. The flexibility to employ different mechanisms has allowed P&G to tap into supplier innovation without the need to overinvest in the development of deep partnerships with every potential collaborator.

Organization and governance

Like cross-functional engagement, the organization and governance of supplier-collaboration programs suffers from a lack of formal structures and processes. Interviewees admitted that their companies, both buyers and suppliers, were relatively lax in tracking and valuing their supplier-collaboration efforts. Few organizations had done anything to align the incentives of project participants within their own organizations, and most relied on informal mechanisms to share feedback or review progress with partners.

Introducing a clearer governance structure for the overall supplier-collaboration program and for individual projects has the potential to significantly improve outcomes in most organizations. Two-way scorecards, for example, allow buyers and suppliers to let each other know if they are effectively supporting the goals of the program. Governance of collaboration projects should be cross-functional, with appropriate incentives introduced throughout the organization to encourage full participation and ensure both parties pursue long-term win-win opportunities, not just short-term savings.

Sidebar

Several leading organizations have created supplier advisory boards to provide high-level support and guidance for their supplier-management and supplier-collaboration programs. These boards act as a forum for the supplier base to advise on key issues and collaborate with the organization to further its business agenda. Companies use their supplier advisory boards to help manage risks and disruptive threats to the supplier ecosystem, and such boards also serve as a neutral space for the exchange of ideas between the host company and a group of strategic suppliers (see sidebar, “Supplier advisory boards”).

Toyota has been a prominent example of supplier collaboration, whose success can be explained in part by the use of clearly defined targets and supplier-performance metrics. These are built into contracts that hold suppliers accountable for continued improvements in quality, cost, and delivery performance. The company governs supplier relationships using a steering committee, staffed with relevant senior stakeholders from both organizations, to define the scope and objectives of the collaboration, review progress, and take action to remove roadblocks and resolve issues as they arise.


The Supplier Collaboration Index has already revealed several major opportunities for companies seeking to expand and improve their supplier-collaboration efforts. Some of those opportunities are quite straightforward, such as more proactive management of cross-functional teams involved in collaboration projects, or the introduction of formal governance systems to manage those projects. Others, such as greater cost transparency between buyers and suppliers, or the use of performance-based supplier-incentive mechanisms, may require more time and effort to achieve.

Excelling at supplier collaboration requires a more active and engaged working relationship with suppliers. It also calls for a change in mindset, encouraging both buyers and suppliers to commit to the long-term pursuit of value from their collaborative relationships. We end with eight steps that any organization can take to put its collaboration efforts on the right track.

  1. Start by identifying those suppliers that offer unique joint opportunities to create and retain significant value.
  2. Align strategically with these partners to define joint objectives and develop a compelling business case for both parties.
  3. Adopt a methodical and structured approach to define the scope, pace and targets for joint projects, including a clear methodology on how to measure value creation.
  4. Define simple, clear value-sharing mechanisms, and align incentives of the cross-functional team accordingly.
  5. Invest in allocating the appropriate resources and building the required infrastructure to support the program.
  6. Create a governance model focused on performance, implementation tracking, and hardwiring supplier collaboration into core operational processes.
  7. Foster a culture founded in proactive communication, transparency, consistency, and knowledge sharing, to strengthen long-term partnerships.
  8. Invest in building world-class organizational capabilities to ensure sustainability over time.

For any organization seeking to improve the performance of its procurement practices, supplier collaboration can no longer be considered a nice-to-have. As companies reach the limits of conventional purchasing practices, further progress will require a new approach based on close relationships, cross-functional engagement, and the shared pursuit of new value.

About the author(s)

Agustin Gutierrez is a partner in McKinsey’s Mexico City office; Ashish Kothari is a partner in the Denver office, Carolina Mazuera is a consultant in the Miami office, and Tobias Schoenherr is the Hoagland-Metzler Endowed Professor of Purchasing and Supply Management at Michigan State University.

The authors wish to thank Juby Cherian, Pat Mitchell, and Valeria Saborio for their contributions to this article.

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