What Is the Right Supply Chain Model for New Products?

A lot has to get done when it comes to launching a new product.  Aside from marketing and selling, enterprise executives need to know how much to make, how much to stock, and how they’ll spread that stock. 

If the new product is replacing an older one, the enterprise would need to figure out what to do with the older product’s inventories and its raw and packaging materials.  If the new product will involve purchase of new specialized manufacturing equipment, what will happen to the machines used for the older one? 

New products also would have new characteristics.  They may have more limited shelf lives.  They may use materials that require special handling. 

Many enterprise executives often plan very well the manufacturing and distribution of new products.  Many, however, don’t have immediate plans how to respond to the actual demand as soon as the new product is launched.  Higher than expected demand would wipe out inventories quickly and strain production and transportation capabilities.  Lower than expected demand would result in inventories occupying precious floor space and idle machines and workers costing the enterprise money. 

Every product has a life cycle.  A new product may start slow or move fast but would eventually reach a plateau and decline.  Some enterprises try to prolong the lives of their products especially if the products have profitable margins.  Enterprise executives, on the other hand, won’t hesitate replacing maturing products in exchange for potentially more beneficial ones. 


Joffrey Colignon & Joannes Vermorel, Product Life-Cyle (Supply Chain), April 2012, https://www.lokad.com/product-life-cycle-(inventory-planning)

Supply chain managers and engineers play a key role in the management of product life cycles.  And it starts not when a product is launched but before.  Many enterprise executives have the habit of telling supply chain managers to plan only when the product is just about to be introduced.  And when the demand becomes reality, more often than not it comes out much different than expected; the supply chain manager ends up scrambling for more materials, more storage space, more production capacity, or the opposite. 

Supply chain managers and engineers can contribute a great deal in the conception of a new product.  The supply chain engineer (SCE) in particular can compute estimated needed capacities for production, transportation and storage.  SCE’s can devise deployment plans and simulate various demand scenarios.  They can also work out the quality assurance protocols not only for manufacturing but also for procurement and logistics. 

In other words, SCE’s can develop a supply chain model for a new product.  It wouldn’t just be a production plan or a distribution plan.  It would be a comprehensive supply chain road-map that would synchronise the procurement of materials, production of goods, and inbound & outbound logistics.  Such a road-map would even cover after-sales services such as warranty responses and retrieval of damaged or rejected items. 

An enterprise would stand to benefit a great deal from a supply chain model for a new product.  It would offer the enterprise’s finance team a better forecast of cost and working capital and give enterprise executives a clear crystal ball of how a product would do once it is in the market. 

Making a supply chain model for a new product is not easy but it wouldn’t require re-invention. 

Hernán David Perez, supply chain professional and teacher, developed a “Supply Chain Roadmap” that would answer the question: “which supply chain strategy best fits my business?” (Hernán David Perez, “Supply Chain strategies: Which One Hits the Mark?”, CSSCMP’s Supply Chain Quarterly, https://www.supplychainquarterly.com/articles/720-supply-chain-strategies-which-one-hits-the-mark, 2013 March 06).

Mr. Perez outlined six (6) generic supply chain models enterprises can adopt depending on their industries and strategies.  The six (6) models consist of continuous-flow, efficient, fast, custom-configured, agile, and flexible.   Each has a different focus, from low-cost (efficient) to agile (responsive to uncertain demand).  An enterprise may adopt more than one model, i.e., it may use different models catering to different products or to specific areas of operations. 

The role of the SCE would be to find and propose the right model that would best fit an enterprise’s new product.  Mr. Perez’s six (6) models can be a reference for the SCE to tailor a model for the new product. 

Developing a supply chain model for a new product is similar to managing a project, such as construction of a building.  It starts with the design or what one wants the model to look like and function.  Next would be the detailed plans of the supporting structures such as materials requirements, transportation, storage & handling methods, work crews, procedures & standards, quality assurance methods, and equipment. 

Design and detailed plans are the end objectives, what we want the supply chain model to look like and how it will operate when the new product is launched.  To achieve the end objectives, the supply chain professionals would need to draft the road map, the series of activities to build the structures that make up the supply chain model.  It’s again similar to what project managers do:  a critical path schedule that includes a timeline and the timing of investments in resources.

Implementing a supply chain model involves a lot of uncertainty.  Demand, for starters, would be based on forecast and would no doubt come out much different than expected.  The model should take into account various scenarios.  To put it another way, the supply chain model should be ready to adapt.  It should be quick to react to fluctuating demand such as preparing a customer order & shipping system that quickly notifies supply chain planners to position inventories immediately where they’re needed. 

Costs, quality, and other issues would also likely crop up when a new product goes on line.  Some people would blame it on the “learning curve,” that period of getting accustomed to a new set of activities.  The longer the learning curve, however, the greater the expense and enterprises don’t want to spend too much time and capital for it.  The supply chain model, hence, should also be prepared for changing situations on the ground.  For example, the model should include training of machine operators and warehouse material handlers in regard to a new product’s characteristics and storage requirements.  The model may also include facility designs that allow swift change-overs between product variants (e.g. sizes, colours).

The ideal supply chain model is one that does not only cover for the introduction of a product but it’s future life cycle stages as well.  The supply chain model should incorporate monitoring systems that watch out for trends not only in demand but also in external factors such as commodity prices, freight rates, exchange rates, labour wages, taxes, and trade tariffs.  It should also watch out for disruptions and opportunities which it should be ready to respectively mitigate or take advantage of. 

It isn’t easy to launch a new product.  It’s not simply just having stock ready when it’s time to sell the product.  There are many things to consider if one wants to attain long-term success. 

Every product has its life-cycle.  One has to understand it and make a supply chain model for it in order to ensure its marketing success. 

The best kind of supply chain model is one that is ready to meet the challenges of inevitable change. 

About Overtimers Anonymous

How Control Charts Can Help Get Things Done Correctly and Consistently

How can enterprises better control their supply chains?  How does one know if the supply chain is under control in the first place?

A soy sauce manufacturer bragged about its wonderful customer service numbers.  The manufacturer showed charts that it was delivering 98% of orders on-time and complete.  There was no problem with quality as there was barely any rejections from customers.  

Customers, however, were telling a different story.  The manufacturer’s largest buyer, a supermarket chain, complained that orders were arriving at merely 65% of the time.  Fill-rates or order completeness was averaging 50%, i.e., the corporation was delivering only half of the supermarket’s orders.

It was even worse with product quality.  Soy sauce sachets were leaking at the supermarket’s shelves.  The supermarket chain was pulling out damaged sachets every day.

This is a true-to-life story and one that is repeated countless times not only at supermarkets but across industries.  An enterprise boasts outstanding sales numbers, excellent customer service, and second-to-none product quality.  Customers in the meantime grumble about poor service and unsatisfactory quality and frequent out-of-stock.  Who’s right and who’s wrong? Clearly there’s conflict and something should be done. 

Supply chains are product and service streams in which materials flow, transform, and advance in value from their origins (sources) to their final stage as finished goods.   A supply chain’s aim is to deliver products and services correctly and consistently.  Correctly means delivering the right products and services that match customer demand and expectations.  Consistently means delivering products and services correctly all the time

To do things correctly and consistently, there has to be control.  Control is the influencing and regulating of activities, the critical ones especially, to attain discipline in desired results. 

Many firms, particular those that do manufacturing, utilise statistical methods to keep operations under control.  One prominent method is the control chart. 

Control charts makes visible the actual behaviour of operations versus what we would normally expect of them.  The theory behind control charts is that results of most operations would follow a standard normal pattern, what statisticians call a normal distribution.  Products as they are made would have characteristics that tend toward an average result.  The variations between individual products would also follow an expected range, which statisticians measure as the standard deviation. 

The Normal Distribution

If items exhibit results that stray far from the average, that is, beyond the normal distribution curve, then chances are the operations making available the items have become erratic, or in other words, they are going out of control. 

In the case of the supermarket chain and the issue of leaking soy sauce sachets, control charts can track the number of leaky sachets: 

x̅ chart
R Chart

The control charts above are examples of what the leaky sachets can be like at the supermarket’s shelves every day of the week for sixteen (16) weeks.  The control charts track the weekly average percentage of damaged sachets as well as the range or widest difference between daily samples. 

The x̅ (average percentage) control chart shows close to an average 7.4% in leaking sachets while the R (range) chart shows an average variation of 0.4% between daily samples from each week. 

Right away, management of both the supermarket chain and the manufacturing enterprise can see that at least 7 out of every 100 sachets are leaking on the shelves every week.  For the soy sauce manufacturer’s executives, who pride themselves on their company’s reputation for zero defects, this is unacceptable. 

But the point of the control charts wasn’t just to indicate how many sachets are leaking.  The control charts showed that the percentage of leaking sachets was averaging 7.4% to 7.8%.  The range (R) chart illustrates this variation, as differences between items varied at an average of 0.4%.  This meant daily damaged sachets kept to a steady range between 7% to 8% of total.  

There was an instance where one week’s average dropped to 7.2% and fell outside the control chart’s limits.  Even as a drop in damaged sachets was a welcome sight, it was more of an exception.  It wasn’t normal and the damaged average was not in normal control. 

There were two (2) weeks in the R chart where variations spiked or narrowed outside the statistically set limits.  This indicates samples on those two (2) weeks may have been gathered and computed differently or that operations in each of those two weeks were being done differently. 

To put it as simply as possible, sachets are leaking daily at more than 7% average.  From the consistency of the damages, one may speculate that the source of the damaged sachets is an operation at the soy sauce manufacturer’s facility. 

It was later found that the manufacturer’s sachet packing machines weren’t sealing the soy sauce sachets 100% effectively.  The sachets’ seals were deteriorating and opening as soon as the products left the soy sauce manufacturer’s premises.  It was recommended the manufacturer refer the problem to their product research department to review packaging specifications and sachet production protocols.  It was also suggested that the manufacturer and supermarket chain come up with common quality and service measures. 

Control charts can be intimidating given the requirements to compute statistical numbers.  But as much as one needs familiarity and initiative to set up control charts, they are not that difficult to make.  The hard part usually is in identifying what specification or performance measure to chart.

But once they are established, control charts can be very useful as they provide instant feedback on how consistent and correct operational results are. 

The whole point of supply chains is to deliver products and services correctly (matching customer expectations) and consistently (all the time).  Being consistent and correct begins with being in control of the supply chain. 

About Overtimers Anonymous

How Do We Define Quality?

Quality is a strange subject.  It’s strange because people talk about it a lot especially when they have a complaint or an admiration about a product or service.  At the same time, people don’t seem to take it seriously especially when they settle for a cheaper product or service because they don’t have the budget to spend more for a better one. 

Over the years there has been so much said and written about quality.  A very long time ago, it seemed to mean something done well for a very reasonable price.

But as time passed and people produced a lot of all sorts of stuff, quality has seemed to become doing things just right.  The price might go up but that’s because stuff became scarcer and not because it was made better.

Things of luxury would equate themselves as things of quality.  Brands that price themselves higher than others would market themselves as brands of higher quality.  Things that were made via a precisely painstaking process would consider themselves better quality than those made on a cheap assembly line.  A Swiss hand-made timepiece would market itself as superior to a Japanese mass-produced watch, for example. 

Quality lately seems to be influenced by the level of technology involved.  A state-of-the-art mobile phone with a bigger, high-pixelated screen and a camera that can take breath-taking photos would be touted as the best in the market. 

What should quality be, therefore?  Some would say it should be about what customers want.  It should be what customers specified.  It should be what customers value.  It should be in how it performs versus what it’s supposed to do. 

The problem with these definitions is it would mean quality is about satisfying everything for every customer.  As in everyone who buys the product.  But can a product satisfy everyone?

In the first place, not all products are for everyone.  All customers do not necessarily mean everybody.  Products cater to a group.  It can be a big group or a select group, but a group nonetheless. 

Quality then means meeting specifications for that group.  It means tailoring a product to a target market group.

I bought a bag of instant coffee sachets from the supermarket a few weeks ago.  One morning, when I picked out a sachet from the bag to prepare a cup of coffee, I noticed that the notch where it says “Tear Here,” wasn’t there.  There was no notch.  I had to get a pair of scissors to make a notch of my own in order to tear the sachet open to pour the instant coffee to my cup.

Did the sachet fail in product quality?  The coffee tasted fine.  Would I still buy the coffee sachets next time?  Yes, I would.  The lack of a notch was a minor inconvenience.  But it won’t prevent me from picking out the sachets again from the supermarket shelf.  The price was within my budget and the coffee tastes better than the other coffee brands I tried before. 

Other customers may do mind, however.  They may find the experience of seeing no notch to tear as a major annoyance.  What if a customer bought the sachet at a roadside cafe and as he looked forward to having a nice cup of coffee, he couldn’t tear the sachet because the notch wasn’t there?  And because there wouldn’t be an available pair of scissors, he’d be stressed trying to tear the sachet open.  The annoyed customer may swear he’ll never buy that coffee brand again.  He’ll buy a competitor’s sachets next time to avoid a repeat of that stressful experience.  He’d tell his friends and family members that he thinks the multinational corporation that marketed the coffee isn’t worth the trouble of buying products from.  All because a tiny notch was missing where it should have been. 

The perfect quality product is perhaps one that satisfies all of the customers’ needs and wants.  But nothing is perfect.  And how does one define specifications based on wants and needs of many customers?  And how does an enterprise balance the attainment of the ideals of customers’ wants and needs with whatever capabilities it has at the moment?

The answers to these questions would be never-ending.  But if there are to be working answers, they’d may be:

  1. A product’s specifications are manifestations of the enterprise’s perceptions of what customers want.  Therefore, enterprises should always be listening to customers for what they value from the products the enterprises sell.  This is where market research is important.  How a product sells over time would indicate how it’s meeting what customers want and need;
  2. An enterprise should always maintain consistency of its product’s quality by keeping control of the operations that make and deliver the product.  Consistency not only indicates control but also capability.  How a product consistently meets its specs would naturally tell the enterprise what it’s capable of. 

For the enterprise, quality is about meeting specifications.  Specifications are the features that an enterprise translates from what it believes customers want.  How well an enterprise bridges that belief with what customers really want determines its products’ quality reputations.  The specifications should match customers’ values, the product should consistently meet the specs, and the customers prove both when they choose what to buy. 

About Overtimers Anonymous

What is the Right Way to Serve Customers?

A manufacturer of metal parts hires a management consultant to help stimulate sales.  The consultant at once suggests the manufacturer prioritise production of its top twenty (20) best-selling items. 

The manufacturer thus makes one month’s worth of stock of each of the twenty (20) top-selling items.  Three (3) months later, the stock is hardly selling.  Meanwhile, customers complain that they haven’t received their shipments of items that are not on the top twenty (20) best-seller list.  Pending orders is equivalent to one (1) month’s average sales and the manufacturer simply has no stock to serve the orders. 

What happened? 

The management consultant had analysed the manufacturer’s sales history and listed the manufacturer’s top selling items based on their average sales value over the previous year.  The top twenty (20) items constituted 80% of the manufacturer’s sales that year.  It therefore seemed logical to have on stock those twenty (20) items.  It was easy to see that the top twenty (20) items have a high demand history. 

The manufacturer hired a supply chain engineer (SCE) to do something about the pending orders and out-of-stock problems.  The SCE analysed the manufacturer’s operations and observed that the manufacturer produced 1,800 individual items or stock-keeping units (SKU’s) in that same period of twelve (12) months.  Most of the customer orders the manufacturer received, however, were delivered late and many others were cancelled due to out-of-stock. 

The SCE noticed that the management consultant based his recommendation to produce the top twenty (20) selling items on the following analysis:

The SCE broke down the daily histories of the top selling 20 items and saw that each item had an erratic demand behaviour, in which for one (1) item, it looked like this:

Not one of the top twenty (20) items was selling at close to the overall average quantity at any day or even any week throughout the twelve (12) months surveyed.  Each item would experience very high demand in one or few orders but hardly would any item be selling close to average every day or every week.  The variance between average demand and each day’s demand over a year was very large. 

The manufacturer sold more than 1,800 unique items over a one (1) year period and most of each item’s sales were limited to one or two orders sometime during that same period.  Some items did have frequent daily sales but they were in small quantities.  The management consultant’s list of top twenty (20) did sell up to 80% of annual revenue but the manufacturer was losing potential sales from unserved orders of other items.   

The management consultant thought that producing and having stock of the top twenty (20) best-selling items would bring higher sales as based on historical numbers.  The consultant, however, didn’t see that customers didn’t need the said items every day.  A few customers with big projects bought large quantities of the top twenty (20) items in one or few orders. Other smaller scale customers ordered much fewer pieces of metal products at any one time and for certain items, more frequently.  The consultant didn’t realize that the manufacturer’s items were not needed every day, or even every year. Customers only bought for projects or for maintenance needs; items were only needed periodically.

Further studies by the SCE showed that some customers ordered each of the top twenty (20) items only once.  It would be a different customer ordering for a large quantity.  There was no uniform demand pattern.   Customers buying plenty of an item were probably buying for one-time projects.  Customers buying smaller quantities were buying for fewer requirements. 

And because they were for projects, customers would have unique specifications for the items they needed.  A customer’s order of an item was often different from that of another.  Some customers would want better finish on an item; other customers would deem the item’s finish as is as all right.  Even if basic specifications were consistent, it was commonplace for the manufacturer to do additional work on an item as per a customer’s request. 

The manufacturer therefore was really customising items more than making the same items over and over.  Sales orders very often had instructions for how products would be finished, cut, and packed.  Some customers required very tight specs, others did not.  Some customers wanted their items cut to certain sizes.  Some customers wanted more stringent packaging; some were satisfied without any packaging at all. 

The manufacturer’s order fulfilment system did not take into account these frequent instructions.  The information system had on file more than 10,000 items and it was found that many of the items were similar to each other.  In other words, every time a customer order was received, it asked for an item that was made before but with slightly different specifications.  The accounting and IT groups were constantly entering “new” items into the information system. 

The SCE therefore suggested that the manufacturer re-develop its customer service strategy.  The SCE suggested the manufacturer refocus the order fulfilment system from one that sells based on a fixed inventory of items to one that is based on customisation.  Instead of having a system like a grocery store, the system should be like a machine shop—i.e., only make an item when there’s an order.  The SCE also recommended that the manufacturer only keep stock of needed raw materials, not finished items. 

A large metal manufacturer a few kilometres away was actually doing that kind of thing.  His inventories of finished goods were limited to stocks that are about to be shipped.  He only kept at most a month’s worth of raw materials (he thought that already was too much) and he had no backlog of pending orders.  Every item that was made had its own unique identity unless it was a repeat order to the same customer. 

The SCE proposed a system in which the manufacturer’s sales representative would prepare quotations for customer inquiries.  When a customer is interested in an item, the sales representative would quote not only price and quantity but also confirm specifications and schedule of deliveries.  The sales representative would coordinate with a joint sales and supply chain support team that would translate customer inquiries into a quoted proposal for the customer.  The quoted proposal becomes a sales order upon negotiation and agreement between customer and sales rep. 

The supply chain team would keep stock of raw materials which happen to only number to less than twenty-five (25) items or stock-keeping units (SKU’s).  The stocking strategy would be independent of actual demand but would take into account large spikes as in when a customer conveys interest for a very large order.  Again, the sales and supply chain support team would ask the sales representative to negotiate delivery schedules to take into account the manufacturer’s capabilities to buy raw materials and produce the needed item. 

How demand is fulfilled varies from industry to industry, enterprise to enterprise.  One should study demand based on customer behaviour, not on overall totals or averages. 

One should also tailor the supply and fulfilment of demand to the needs of customers.  At the same time, one should always be aware of the system’s capabilities.  Customers may be always right but the enterprise is not one with unlimited power.  There has to be communication and collaboration via negotiation and mutually beneficial agreements that would address price, terms, and supply. 

There has to be a right way to serve an order.  Not for management, not for consultants.  But for customers. 

About Overtimers Anonymous

We Need Better Monitoring Systems

Most executives like performance measures.  Otherwise known as metrics, key performance indicators (KPI’s), analytics, or scorecards, enterprises embrace performance measures as a means to assess how their businesses are doing.

The point of a performance measure is to check how an individual or team is doing against a target that is set by superiors.  (No matter what people may say, it’s always the superior who sets the targets).  Targets are set in line with strategic goals.  Individuals and teams strive to perform such that resulting measures would meet targets to attain the goals. 

But after more than twenty (20) long years since they’ve become popular, performance measures are no longer good enough, especially for supply chains. 

Supply chains are product and service streams.  Materials, merchandise, and information (printed and digital) flow through networks within and between enterprises.  From one operational step to the next, products and services transcend in value as they make their way to their final destinations: the end users.

Supply chains are sensitive to disruption.  When a disruption hits one process, every part of the supply chain feels it.  A delay in the loading of a truck, for instance, may entail a change in production schedules at a manufacturing facility it is supposed to deliver to, which in turn may cause a shortage of a product the facility is supposed to make. 

Performance measures are popular as many people could relate to them.  They are simple and easy to appreciate.  They show how a person’s work is doing versus a target that fits to that person’s tasks.  The performance target would be linked to higher levels of performance measures that would finally connect to a strategic goal. 

Unfortunately, performance measures do not work very well when there are disruptions.  Whereas they are designed such that different levels of an organisation can be made accountable for them, performance measures are not flexible to changing circumstances.  

For example, a production line supervisor is accountable for how many overtime hours his crew works in a week.  His target is that each crew member does not work more than 4 out of 40 hours of overtime per week.  He controls the overtime by rotating his crew members’ leaves such that not many of them have days off at the same time.  But if the supervisor receives a surprise rush order such that he has to make double his weekly volume, he would be forced to ask his crew to go on overtime to meet that order.  His boss, however, would ask him later to explain why he exceeded his weekly overtime target. 

Disruptions are nothing new for supply chains.  They can be big or small.  They are the results of both adversities and opportunities  And they can come periodically or frequently.  They are never identical in cause and they sometimes come in the most mundane manner, like a surprise doubling of a production order such as in the example mentioned above

Performance measures work when supply chains run routinely, much like in a game of sports.  Sports games operate under fixed sets of rules and conditions.  Players score and meet goals to win. But if it rains, the game stops.  In similar fashion, supply chain professionals perform to achieve objectives set by schedules under favourable and predictable working conditions.  But if someone changes the schedule or everyone has to go home because of a disruption like a virus-causing government-mandated lock-down, the performance measures become useless. 

Disruptions are normal.  They aren’t exceptions.  Disruptions occur often as a result of frequent adversities and opportunities that ripple through the fast-paced interconnected world we live in.

What supply chains need are monitoring systems that tell us not only what is going on but also notify us when there is a need to respond.  We need monitoring systems that will tell us about upcoming disruptions and give us time to take action.             

Two things comprise a monitoring system:   visibility and guidance.  Visibility in the form of real-time information and guidance in the form of alerts to events that merit a response. 

An example is a fuel gauge in a car.  The gauge provides visibility on how much fuel is there in a tank.  It also gives guidance via a flashing light that alerts the driver that the fuel tank is almost empty. 

Monitoring systems are not new to supply chains.  Manufacturing managers harness instruments and gauges to monitor production lines and facilitate process control.  A number of enterprises have adopted technologies such as radio-frequency identification (RFID) tags, block-chains, and artificially intelligent command-and-control systems to oversee supply chains even from long distances.   

Many enterprises, however, have had little success in mitigating disruption in their supply chains despite the growth of high-tech monitoring systems.  This is because many monitoring systems aren’t focused towards disruption.  Instead, they are geared towards performance for the sake of measuring results versus strategic goals, which as aforementioned don’t really contribute very much in a frequently disruptive environment. 

We, therefore, need to re-orient supply chains towards monitoring for disruption, not performance.  By watching out for disruption and responding to it, supply chains would be able to muster resources to mitigate it, even perhaps take advantage of it. 

One doesn’t have to start with an intricate, complicated or expensive system.  One can begin with simple reports from various operations along the chain.  For instance, vendors, brokerages firms, and shipping companies can email the status of orders for imported materials. 

Import status report

A status report such as the one above can tell stakeholders about impending issues such as a shipment that’s about to be considered abandoned and subject to penalties.

Supply chain engineers can make improvements step-by-step by tailoring feedback systems to fit different processes.  SMS texts summarising daily customer orders, entered orders in the database, communicated factory orders, MRP II real-time plans are examples.     

      

A supply chain monitoring system can also be like a tsunami warning system: 

Or it can be manifested like a dashboard for supply chain professionals to see:

Whatever the design, the purpose of the monitoring system is to allow stakeholders to watch out for disruption and respond when needed. 

Performance measures have not proven to be helpful in our disruptive-driven world.  We need monitoring systems that provide visibility and guidance especially for supply chains.  They don’t have to be complicated; they just have to be adequate enough to bring attention to disruptions.

Disruptions are a result of both adversity and opportunity.  In either case, it’s always best to be one step ahead whether it be to mitigate or to take advantage of whatever’s out there.  

The Basics of Supply Chain Mapping

A map is a visual representation.  In the context of supply chains, it describes the flow of operations and/or information pertaining to the procurement, transformation, and logistics of products and services. 

To put it another way, it’s a visual aid that shows what a supply chain looks like and how it functions. 

The simplest way to map a supply chain is via the flow chart:

Some supply chain professionals (consultants especially) use different shapes to distinguish the kinds of processes in their maps.  Rectangles, for instance, may represent a transformation process; a triangle is a checkpoint or a quality inspection; a circle is a starting point, endpoint, or a reference to another flow map. Lines can be solid for physical flow or dotted for information flow:

 Other mapmakers go further by organising steps by departments: 

Followers of the Lean concept use Value-Stream Maps (VSMs) to show the lengths of time steps take during a process.  The point is to show which process adds value (such as where there is transformation) and which does not (such as waiting, inspection, movement):

Maps are to Supply Chain Engineers as structural plans are to Civil Engineers and as circuit schematics are to Electrical Engineers.  Whether it be to build, repair, troubleshoot, improve, or optimise, Supply Chain Engineers need maps just as every other engineer needs a diagram.   

Typical civil engineering construction plan

         

Typical simple electrical layout

Unlike engineering drawings which focus a lot on structures and specifications, supply chain maps put more attention on flow.  But this does not mean supply chain mapping doesn’t consider structures.  One can have supply chain maps in the context of facility plans. 

Supply chain maps can become more detailed and thereby look more complicated.  The level of detail in a supply chain map depends on how small a step is to be made visible. 

Engineering drawings are arbitrarily detailed depending on the audiences they address.  Engineers draw their plans and diagrams on differing levels of details.  They usually start with an overall plan and then break down the plan into varying descriptive drawings.  For example, civil engineers would draw an overall structural plan which would be supported by plans showing sectional details and specifications.

In the same way, SCEs would draw an overall map and add more detailed maps showing specific details of processes or steps. 

Executives, managers, staff, and stakeholders should be able to easily understand supply chain maps such that they can make rational decisions. 

Supply chain maps should be treated the same way as engineering drawings when it comes to setting up new product and logistics streams.  Many times, enterprise executives would build facilities first and then hand them over to supply chain professionals to set up and run operations.  And in those many times, the operations would start in spectacular failure or experience immense and expensive difficulties.

This is what happened when a large multinational built a new factory.  Equipment was high-tech and the manufacturing process assured high quality coupled with high-capacity production.  The drawback was the facility was located far south of the city.  Logistics managers were just told to adapt the transportation flow to the new facility.  Deliveries at the start ran into problems as truckers complained to having to drive longer distances for the same contracted freight prices.  This was eventually resolved but only after the company shouldered significant expenses. 

Supply Chain Engineering must go hand-in-hand with any planning and implementation of a new or improved process.  It cannot be a discipline that takes care of what was neglected.  It should be an active and equal participant from the start to end of any product and service strategy. 

Mapping is a basic first-step tactic Supply Chain Engineers use to make visible the supply streams they study.  Maps come in form of flow charts, value-stream maps, or operational plans.  They differ depending on how they are applied.  Their purpose is not only for visibility but also for planning.  Maps are useful for building and improving supply chains. 

We build after all based on our visions. 

Twelve (12) Things Supply Chain Engineers Do for Enterprises

Supply Chain Engineers (SCE’s) are much like any other engineer.  Just as engineers design, build, and install structures and systems, SCE’s do the same specifically for supply chains. 

Supply chain engineers shape the networks, processes, and systems that underlie product and service streams.  Their projects are either big and small.  Project scopes can range from setting up a whole new distribution network to the simple improvement of inspecting inbound materials at a receiving dock. 

Most supply chain managers try to solve their operations’ problems by themselves.  If a customer order was undelivered because there was no room on a delivery truck, the manager would find another truck to load and ship the ordered items.  But if the manager observed that pending orders were accumulating and it’s because demand is outstripping trucking capacity, he’d ask truckers to just get more trucks.  He wouldn’t realize that an SCE can determine the best transport asset mix and routing system instead of having more trucks a freight provider will eventually charge to the enterprise.  Without SCE’s, supply chain managers often patch problems with band-aid solutions. 

SCE’s offer an engineering expertise that go beyond the scope of supply chain management.  They synchronise the interconnecting links of supply chains by designing, building, and implementing systems, facilities, devices and processes that would sustain the productive flow of goods, services, and data.  To put it another way, SCE’s bring about supply chains that run reliably at lowest cost and at best quality and service for enterprises and customers. 

SCE’s do a number of tasks that help enterprises with their supply chains.  The following are twelve (12) examples:

  1. Map Supply Chains. SCE’s can lay out the flows of supply chains and make visible the nitty-gritties of an enterprise’s operations, including the processes involving vendors and customers.  Supply chain maps are instrumental in identifying weak points along product and service streams;
  2. Set Up Monitoring Systems. SCE’s can set up systems that would show what’s going on in supply chains as well as alert managers of impending disruptions.  SCE’s can create dashboards that would show key data about supply chain operations, such as status of imports, inventories, pending orders, losses, and scheduled deliveries;
  3. Customise Order-to-Delivery. SCE’s can tailor order fulfilment systems for companies depending on their industries and customer service strategies;
  4. Propose Supply Chain Models for New Products.  SCE’s can design supply chain models for new or relaunched products and services;
  5. Balance Operations to Synchronise Flow. SCE’s can devise systems that synchronise the flow of merchandise from vendors to enterprise to customers.  It is an SCE’s aim to streamline flow to minimize waste in waiting times and work-in-process inventories;
  6. Implement Statistically Based Process Control Systems. SCE’s can implement systems that minimize variability, what some would call statistical control.   At the same time, SCE’s can tweak operational capabilities to churn products and services consistently for quality assurance;
  7. Study Feasibility of Projects. SCE’s can study the feasibility of capital expenditure projects via their expertise in engineering economics and evaluate options to determine which would provide the best rates of returns;
  8. Introduce Ideas to Spread Inventories.   SCE’s can develop inventory planning methods that would spread product stocks along various points of the supply chain which would lead to better customer service and minimal working capital;
  9. Design Operations That Adapt to Supply & Demand Variability. SCE’s can plan and lay out work-place operations that would be flexible to fluctuating merchandise volumes;
  10. Determine Supply Chain Capacities and Baseline Efficiencies.  SCE’s have the technical prowess to compute supply chain operational capacities and efficiencies, whether they be machine, labour, or logistics-related. 
  11. Find the Best Method to Maintain Fixed Assets. SCE’s can evaluate what would be the best maintenance program for the supply chain’s equipment, facilities, and logistical infrastructure.   
  12. Develop Frameworks to Support Collaboration.  SCE’s can help enterprises set up support structures to collaborate better with vendors and customers.  These range from simple communication protocols such as mobile messaging of purchase order status to shared networks and methods for vendor-managed inventories and customer inventory replenishment;

These tasks may sound familiar to industrial engineers.  That’s because they are from industrial engineering.  Supply Chain Engineering is an offshoot of Industrial Engineering in that both share the same purpose:  finding ways to continuously improve productivity.    

Whereas IE’s traditionally work within the confines of an enterprise, SCE’s look at the entirety of supply chains. SCE’s judge their work in the context of supply chains. SCE’s seek beneficial value for all stakeholders along the supply chain from vendors to customers, from in-house departments to 3rd party providers. SCE’s strengthen the interdependencies that exist in supply chains.

Supply Chain Engineers build supply chains.  They do what engineers do but more so for supply chains.  SCE’s have the abilities to do a number of things that would benefit enterprises. 

SCE’s are a new breed of industrial engineers and they have a lot to offer.  It is hoped enterprises will welcome their opportunity to contribute.    

About Overtimers Anonymous

Bad Things Happen to Everyone

Jpeg

Asian airlines such as Cathay Pacific, Singapore Airlines, and ANA are known for their excellence in customer service.  A lot of people love flying with these airlines. 

But thanks to the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, these same airlines are experiencing their worst business slump in recent memory.  No one wants to fly these airlines not because their service deteriorated but because nations have closed borders or people risk losing days in quarantine if they travel. 

Customer service excellence has made Asian Airlines the pride of their nations and has given them leadership in competitive air travel industry.  But it took just one adverse virus to bring down their business.    

Adversities such as the coronavirus can quickly kill an enterprise.  It doesn’t matter whether business has been bad or good, whether the enterprise has a very high reputation for service, or whether the enterprise has a very nice reputation.  Adversity has no bias. 

Customer service is very much defined as in we know it when we experience it.    Adversity is the opposite.  We know it when it’s there but we don’t know what shape, size, or form it would take and we don’t really know what the experience will be like.  Adversity comes unexpectedly, without any warning, and we can’t determine its degree until it’s there. 

One may manage service but one cannot manage adversity.  Service is controllable but adversity is not. 

We may mitigate adversity.  At least we can make our enterprises capable to ride them out. 

As much as we don’t know what, when, and how an adversity would arrive, we only have the weapon of our experiences to help us.

It is in experience that we design the drills and exercises to simulate how to deal with adversities like earthquakes and fires.  It is in experience that we formulate security protocols such as daily back-ups of files, updating our anti-malware software, and the simple locking of our doors at night.  It is in experience that we spend time and money to see our dentists and doctors on a regular basis.  And it is in experience that we set emergency response plans that automatically trigger without any delay or need of approval from executive management. 

Drills, exercises, protocols, and check-ups make us ready to meet the next adversity.  They may not address an incoming adversity directly but they help our enterprises become structurally fit to withstand the possibly damaging effects. 

Bad things happen to everyone.  It doesn’t matter if your enterprise is riding high as a reputable service provider or as a ruthless start-up.  Adversity hits without warning and without prejudice.  Only those who are fit with ready methods and structures have the best chances to overcome the impacts. 

About Overtimers Anonymous

Why We Need to Build Supply Chains

Enterprises are planning to rebuild their supply chains in the wake of the pandemic of 2020. 

Well, no, not really. 

Many enterprises are planning to resume production and boost inventories in the aftermath of the COVID19 pandemic.1 Some firms will narrow their product lines to those that are in high demand (e.g. toilet paper).  Others will stock up on raw materials and seek vendors that are nearer to their production sites as alternatives to risky international sources.

Not many firms, however, plan to build or rebuild supply chains.  I don’t blame them. 

Building a supply chain is not an attractive option, at least at first glance.  Most enterprises work within existing supply chains and would not outright see a good reason to build one that overlaps with other organisations. 

Enterprises would likely focus internally in their own operations if there’s any supply chain building that needs to be done.  And even then, enterprise executives would hesitate to do any major change if they perceive it would entail too much work and cost that wouldn’t reap much beneficial return.

Some companies in the past did try to rebuild their supply chains.  They called it “re-engineering” and it was popular in the 1990’s.  The idea was to redesign business operations from scratch and then apply sweeping changes to existing operations. 

It didn’t last long.2 Many companies ended up downsizing instead of changing.  A lot of people lost their jobs and companies didn’t realize much of any reward.  Re-engineering quickly lost its luster as fast as it was introduced. 

Some consultants, academics, and information technology (IT) vendors still push for re-engineering though they avoid the term.  Some pitch IT platforms such as Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) to drive operations improvements.3 Alas, ERP and other similar platforms have not been as successful as hoped.   Many projects have fallen to the wayside

Many enterprises took to managing supply chains than into re-engineering them.  They sought talented people who’d know how to regulate inventories, negotiate with vendors, process orders, and make sure operations would comply with the latest environmental sustainability rules and occupational safety & health guidelines.  Executives also placed hopes that supply chain managers can lead in implementing new technologies such as artificial intelligence.  Supply chain management had become the norm.  Re-engineering was forgotten. 

Then the pandemic came. 

Enterprise executives know that supply chains need to change in the aftermath of COVID19.  And it isn’t just because of COVID19.  Before that, it was the tariff war between the United States and China that turned global trade upside down, not to mention similar disputes such as the British exit (Brexit) from the European Union.  There were also the supply and price fluctuations in commodities from metals, rare earths, to crude oil.  There were also the natural disasters. There were also the cyber-security data breaches.  And there were also the numerous upstart entrepreneurs who were introducing technologies such as drones, ride-sharing, video-streaming, and ecommerce mobile apps that threatened traditional businesses. 

Enterprises had to accept: supply chains, especially the global ones, were vulnerable.  They don’t work well in a disruptive environment.  The pandemic proved it.  All one had to see were the idle factories, closed warehouses, shut stores, and empty shelves.  The present supply chain set-up no longer applies. 

Building supply chains isn’t really that hard and expensive.  Sure, it requires investment but just like supply chain management, the key is talent.  One just has to employ the right people with the right talent.  The good news is that the talent is there in front of us, ready to work and available.  They are the industrial engineers; they have the tools and the skills and whom I’d rather call supply chain engineers.   

It’s not management but engineering that would drive the building of supply chains.  Engineers build things.  That’s their role.  Managers don’t do building; that’s not their role. 

The process of building supply chains is not too far off from constructing a factory or warehouse.  One has to have a plan, a timeline, and a full list of resources and costs.  And one has to have a engineer with the expertise and leadership to design and oversee. 

The difference lies in the nature and scope.  Whereas a facility such as an office and warehouse lies within the bounds of an enterprise, a supply chain encompasses the stream of products and services that crosses organisations and borders. 

A supply chain is like a river.  Build a dam and that’s a facility at a point in the river, with the purpose of harnessing the river’s water.   Building the supply chain involves setting up systems and facilities along the river to ensure the continuous and sustainable flow of water from start to finish. 

The supply chain engineer works not only with stakeholders within the enterprise but with stakeholders from other enterprises, such as but not limited to vendors and customers.  The engineer identifies and designs what needs to be built along the supply chain river. 

Most of what would be built first would likely be the networks and systems that link along the supply chain stream*.  The engineer would seek the optimal design that would synchronise and sustain flow that would uphold competitive standards of reliability, quality, and versatility. 

The 2020 pandemic is the latest in the series of 21st century disruptions to supply chains. It was the worst and it won’t be the last.  Enterprises who realize that their supply chains are vulnerable and need to be built with engineering talent would be on the right track to reviving their competitive edge.  

*Note:  I wrote a similar blog in LinkedIn in July 2019 in which I stressed structures in supply chain building. 

About Overtimers Anonymous

I’ve been immersed in work since 1984.  My long-spanning career since graduation from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee include managerial assignments at P&G Philippines, a harrowing experience as an entrepreneur in freight logistics, participation in several successful consultancy projects, and finally as an administrator of a company that builds and leases warehouses and offices.

Overtimers Anonymous is a blog about the experiences many of us have in our professional lives and how we can become more productive. (A long time ago, OA was a newsletter about the social lives of young professionals; but that was really a long time ago). 

I write quite a bit about supply chains. Supply chains are product and service streams that run around the world.  They cover just about everything that has to do with getting, making, and delivering stuff from one place to the next. 

Because supply chains haven’t really been doing so well recently [circa 2020], I’m hoping that this blog, for all what it’s worth, would also offer some help for enterprises in finding ways to make things better. 

And why do I call it Overtimers Anonymous? Because many of us who work are in our jobs more than eight hour a day and are more often than not unseen. 

If you want to pick my brains for information and ideas, please feel free to contact me (ellery_l@yahoo.com) or drop me a text at +639178353546. [I’m also on Viber and Messenger]. 

E. S. Lim