Problems are Doorways to Opportunities

Since the start of 2021, semiconductor chips, which are used in cars, trucks, computers, and smart-phones, have been in short supply.  Supply has been so short that automotive companies have shut down assembly lines and consumer electronics corporations have delayed roll-outs of new products. 

Bloomberg reported in its September 22, 2021 Supply Lines newsletter that the gap between “ordering a semiconductor chip and delivery is still growing.” 

But four years before in 2017 (see chart above), it was already taking at least 10 weeks to deliver a semiconductor chip from time of order.  So, while businesses in 2021 anxiously wait up to 20 weeks for their chips to arrive, why were industries tolerating long order-to-delivery times of up to 10 weeks in the first place?

The dictionary defines a problem as an “unsatisfactory situation.”  It is a “state of difficulty that needs to be resolved.” 

Many of us equate problems with crises and disruptions, that is, we see a problem only when it hurts us such that it becomes urgent to address it. 

Hence, we tend to avoid them or try to resolve them as quickly as possible.  The fewer problems we have, the better, we usually say. 

The dictionary, however, also says it is a “a question proposed for solution or discussion.” 

Problems can be doorways to opportunities, in which if we think of them that way, we should seek them out and solve them for the ideas that would benefit us. 

Enterprises and even governments are scrambling hard in 2021 to fix the semiconductor chip shortage that has crippled factories and caused supply shortfalls of many products, from cell-phones to computers.  Most saw the problem when order-to-delivery lead times extended from 10 to 20 weeks.

If enterprises in 2017, however, proposed the “question” of shortening the supply lead time of 10 weeks, and found a solution, would industries be undergoing a crisis in 2021?  Wasn’t there a way to bring the number of weeks of lead time down to 4 weeks or even less? 

It was obvious that since 2017, company executives had accepted the 10-week order-to-delivery cycle and adjusted their inventories and production schedules to cover for the waiting time.  Executives managed the 10-week lead time into their financial forecasts.  The 10-week lead time was not considered a problem. 

If one enterprise in 2017 had seen the 10-week lead time as a problem rather than as an acceptable fate, and in the process of “discussion” found a “solution,” one wonders how much of a competitive advantage that enterprise would have in 2021. 

It’s never really worthwhile to ask “what-if” questions especially after the fact of a crisis.  But in the process of problem solving, as a question becomes clearer, it would have been likely that a solution would have addressed future adverse situations. 

As companies see their businesses compromised by the semiconductor shortage of 2021, it becomes more sensible to seek out the problems and pose the questions for “discussion” and “solution.”

For the pain many had been experiencing in 2021, it would have been worth it if they had only sought and solve problems then. 

It’s never really good to dwell in the past unless we learn something from it. 

About Overtimers Anonymous

Solving the Supply Chain Mystery

I once met a regional sales manager of a large consumer good company at Davao City, the biggest city on the island of Mindanao, 978 kilometres (608 miles) south of Manila, Philippines. 

As I was introduced, the RSM looked at me for a moment and smiled broadly.

“You’re a supply chain consultant?”

Before I could say “yes.”  He says: “I’ve seen marketing consultants, sales consultants, and organisational development consultants, but this is the first time I’ve ever met a supply chain consultant!”

“Welcome, welcome!”  He shook my hand vigorously.  “I hope you can help us.” 

“You see,” he continues, “the supply chain is a mystery to me.” 

“Every time I submit a customer order, I never know what happens after,” the RSM said. 

“I don’t know when stocks would arrive.  I don’t know what and which products would arrive. And I don’t know how many would arrive,” the RSM said. 

He pointed to a few shipping container vans just outside the warehouse office where we were meeting and shared: “container vans like those would just show up and I wouldn’t know what are in them.” 

“I wouldn’t know if the containers have the products I ordered.  At the end of the month, five or more containers would arrive at the same time and I wouldn’t know which container would have the products I need the most.” 

“I’d spend much of my time calling the logistics office in Manila to tell me what’s coming and when but I never get a clear answer.  I spend a lot of time following up the deliveries of products I need when I should be using the time selling to customers.”

“As this is the first time I’m meeting a supply chain consultant, maybe things can change.  Maybe you can solve the supply chain mystery!”  The RSM said.

On the surface, the problem had a straightforward answer.  The consumer goods company’s logistics office just had to share shipping schedules with the RSM to tell him what’s coming and when.  That would right there solve the problem.

The problem, however, goes deeper. 

Why isn’t logistics sharing the information in the first place? 

Why is logistics not communicating with their sales counterparts? 

And aside from logistics, are other departments even communicating with each other?  Do the consumer goods company’s executives communicate with vendors, customers, 3rd party providers, and stakeholders?  Or are they too preoccupied with other problems they consider urgent?

Communication has always been a problem with companies, especially big companies.  Departments hardly talk to each other as they pursue pre-set goals or put out fires within their work boundaries.  If there would be any communication, it would be in the form of phone calls, memos, reports, or hours-long meetings.

Communication in the management sense, however, does not consist of meetings, memos, or phone calls.  Communication in the management sense is about rapport, i.e., active two-way connection between boss and subordinate, between peers, and between people from differing departments and separate enterprises. 

Communication enhances the flow of information in which individuals and groups constantly share pertinent important information with the purpose of meeting communal objectives for the mutual benefit of all concerned. 

So why aren’t companies doing that?  What’s the problem?  Why does a consumer goods regional sales manager have trouble getting in touch with people he sends orders to and waits for deliveries from? 

Communications within and between enterprises require support structures and systems.  Many companies, however, don’t have adequate structures and systems.  This is because these companies have been brought up on a culture of silos, in which managers and employees work in places that have goals and targets of their own. 

In the consumer goods company where the RSM works, there are performance measures and strategies assigned for every department: 

  • Finance seeks higher profits, more cash-flow, and higher rates of returns;
  • Marketing wants brand leadership, strong geographic distribution, and positive consumer acceptance;
  • Sales wants higher turnover, record-breaking selling volumes, and a high level of retail presence;
  • Manufacturing wants continuous uninterrupted production;
  • Logistics wants fewer pending orders and lower freight costs;
  • Purchasing prefers bulk purchases with large discounts on prices.

The consumer goods company’s organisational chart shows a hierarchy of managers and employees working in different functions with different scopes of work each with specific roles and goals.  The chart in itself lays out a plan of silos where individuals and groups work separately.

Separation means differences in priorities and interests.  What’s mine is mine, what’s yours is yours.  Each to our own.  I mind my business; you mind yours.  These become the thoughts of people within the company. 

What more for those who are not from the company.  We’re inside; they’re outside.  Enterprises might as well be islands in an ocean and many are just like that. 

Organisational development trainers and executives have recommended and implemented many ideas to bring people within and even between enterprises together.  They’ve introduced radical solutions such as “flat” org structures that eliminate many layers of authority and they have encouraged “campus” work ethics where individuals from different disciplines work together in open-plan shared work spaces. 

The consumer goods company the RSM worked for had “brand teams” which had marketing managers lead groups consisting of representatives from sales, manufacturing, finance, and R&D.  The brand team would “own” a particular brand of the company and be accountable for its success.  It was a way to break down barriers between functions. 

Unfortunately, these OD and brand team initiatives have only shown limited success.   At the end of the day, the functional employees and their managers go back to their familiar places of work and focus on the priorities of their departments.  The gates of their workplaces close once again as they resume pursuing their own urgent individual targets.   

Supply chains offer a way out of silos.  Supply chains are grounded on relationships.  Relationships, in order for them to prosper, require communication. 

In supply chains, operating functions work with each other to transform and move materials and merchandise from one point to another, one process to the next, one step at a time.  Connections and communications are what makes a supply chain tick.  And for a supply chain to work, it must tick with every part in clockwork synchronicity. 

When the RSM doesn’t know what’s coming and when, the communications and connections aren’t working.  The supply chain link from the transportation of the product to the receiving warehouse is broken.  The supply chain in this sense is not working. 

Hence, the first thing I urged for the consumer goods company is communication.  Fix the link, establish the connection, make active the communication not only between logistics and the regional sales manager, but also between logistics and other RSMs, logistics and transportation providers, manufacturing and logistics, the inventory planners and logistics, manufacturing and inventory planners and logistics, purchasing to planners to manufacturing, purchasing to vendors. 

There has to be rapport.  Not memos.  Not meetings. Not once-a-month reports.  Not emails or text messages.  But active two-way communication of shared information, shared planning, shared direction, and shared implementation. 

It doesn’t take a world-class detective to solve the supply chain mystery.  Just taking the initiative to communicate would provide much of an answer.

About Overtimers Anonymous

The Path Towards Becoming a Supply Chain Expert Begins with Basic Competency

Sometimes identifying a problem is not in observing what’s going on; sometimes it’s noticing what’s not there.

In my blog, “Where are the Supply Chain Experts?”, written last March 2020, I wrote there were no supply chain experts seen working side by side with business and government leaders in solving supply issues at the height of the CoVID-19 pandemic. 

As media reported issues regarding shortages of medical supplies and consumer goods, we heard no real solutions to the problems.  And as government executives encountered obstacles deploying vaccines, there was no supply chain professional managing proper and efficient distribution. 

There may have been much talk about supply chain issues but there was little in the way of supply chain solutions coming from supply chain experts.

Not that there aren’t any supply chain experts.  There have been numerous podcasts, blogs, and testimonies on the subject but most if not all the supply chain professionals were really just broadcasting opinions.  There wasn’t much in the way of seeing them together with leaders or the leaders even mentioning any of them at all.* 

Simply put, despite the attention, nobody is putting weight in people with supply chain expertise.  Hardly any supply chain professional is in the limelight, even as the global CoVID-19 has brought on the most traumatic economic disruption in history.

There are several reasons which I believe why we don’t see supply chain experts taking the lead in solving major supply chain problems: 

Reason #1: Supply chain people are operations people and operations people are not expected to go out and interact with the outside world.   

The paradigm of operations people is to focus on what’s going within the workplace, that is, they focus inward.  Except to buy or deliver or hire a contractor, operations people don’t really interact with the outside world.

That essentially had been my upbringing in most of my supply chain jobs.  I concentrated on my department, my workplace, the processes within that were assigned to me.  Emphasis was always on what was going on within operations, not without.

Any interactions with the outside world were initiated mostly be people who were not in operations.  Operations people did not initiate such things and I don’t think many do so up to today.

In other words, operations people, especially supply chain professionals, are proactive in what happens within the four (4) walls of factories, warehouses, and offices.  We were not asked to improve the connections enterprises had with vendors, customers, and 3rd party providers.  Executives emphasised performance measures, not relationships.

Reason #2: There aren’t many supply chain experts in the first place. 

Many entrepreneurs are not supply chain professionals and many executives aren’t either.

That’s one reason maybe why we don’t see many chief supply chain officers.  There aren’t that many experienced supply chain managers in the first place. 

It’s not that the leaders don’t recognise the importance of supply chain management even to the extent of having it as an equal in the echelons of top management.  It’s just that there are very few managers with supply chain experience. 

When I say experience, I don’t just mean experience in logistics or manufacturing.  I mean experience as in synchronising operational functions and interacting with customers, vendors, and 3rd parties in procuring, transforming, and moving merchandise from sources to customers.  How many people do we know have this kind of expertise?  Chances are not a lot. 

Reason #3:  Supply Chain education is relatively new and not widespread. 

Many people aren’t schooled in supply chain management.  We can’t blame them for that; supply chain education is relatively new, as in it’s a course that only has been around for only 30 years or so, unlike finance and marketing which have been around for more than a century (longer perhaps).  And supply chain management as a concept and application is still evolving.

Coupled with that are the ones who teach supply chain management.  There aren’t that many supply chain teachers, at least one would call qualified to teach, one who has experience in various supply chain activities.  

Many supply chain courses teach specific subjects that tie in general operations management topics such as inventory management, production planning, transportation management, and operations research.  The trouble is many of these courses don’t tie in the topics together to teach how the supply chain functions as a whole.  They don’t offer the connectivity that illustrates how supply chain operations work together from end to end.

At the same time, supply chain education isn’t really uniform from place to place.  Some schools link supply chains more to logistics while others stress transportation and purchasing.  Some don’t even teach manufacturing’s connection to the supply chain, treating it separately even as it shouldn’t be.  There’s really no formally standard course for supply chains as one would see for law, engineering, or business administration. 

The people graduating from any supply chain management course from the 1990’s to the 2020’s aren’t therefore fully educated in supply chains.  They’re just graduates taught with a hodgepodge of individual courses related to the subject, which in itself isn’t the same from one school to the next, from one teacher to another. 

These make the diplomas and certificates some supply chain schools issue open to doubt.  A certificate or diploma in supply chain management thus testifies to a school’s brand of teaching, not necessarily one that is generally applicable in any industry. 

When it comes to bringing supply chain management to the forefront and developing it as a prominent field that addresses present-day issues via the three (3) aforementioned reasons, what should be done? 

I believe education should be the starting point and the very first step should be to establish basic competency among candidates for the field. 

I define basic competency in supply chain management as where one is familiar with operations, can at least see how to tie them in altogether towards overall optimal performance, and where one has the ability to plan, organise, direct, and control supply chains both in the day-to-day and strategic perspective. 

Basic competency would be the foundation.  Experiences afterward would be the building blocks that would develop the manager’s proficiency. 

Both the education in basic competency and the experience one gains should not be inward looking but focused on the relationships and connections between parties and links within and outside the enterprise. 

It would be a wholly new approach to some entering into the study of supply chains.  But I believe it would be worth it.  Many of the challenges we see in supply chains are precisely occurring in relationships and connections between functions and parties inside and outside enterprises. 

Where can we find the teachers or just even the mentors?  Because there are not many of them, many aspiring students would be left on their own to look for and put together the bits and pieces experiences would bring. 

But even as they may be few, there are those who can at least help new managers attain that basic competency.   I’d like to think I can be one of those teachers given the knowledge and insights I gained from close to 40 years’ experience in the field. 

*[President Joseph Biden of the United States led a “summit on semiconductor and supply chain resilience” in April 2021 in which the President discussed  with chief executive officers (CEOs) how to tackle supply issues particularly in semiconductor chips.  No prominent supply chain expert was seen stepping up to address the issue].     

About Overtimers Anonymous

Appreciating the Value of Veteran Employees

When I was a young industrial engineer at the food production division of a multinational company, the accounting department asked me to find out why there was a large reported loss of refined coconut oil.

They’re the ones we always look for when we need something. 

I went to the production manager and he told me to ask Mang Ben.

In the Philippines, calling someone “Mang” is an address of respect usually to an elder.  Mang Ben in my case was a fifty-plus year old veteran who had worked at the multinational’s foods processing department for more than 25 years.  Mang Ben had more experience than everyone else and he would know why there is a reported loss in the coconut oil.  (It turned out to be due to an unsubmitted form that failed to get to accounting). 

Mang Ben could tell how many weeks supply an oil storage tank has just by looking at a gauge and he knew how to “cook” the fats and oils that the multinational produced every day. He could unload a barge of coconut oil all by himself and even called shipping operators to schedule when the barges should arrive such that they’d be timed with the incoming tides.  

I’ve met many workers like Mang Ben in the enterprises I later engaged with.

  • There’s the veteran machine operator who worked for a printing press company.  He knew how to quickly troubleshoot critical equipment and was the one the owners went to if they wanted to know if deadlines could be met; 
  • There’s the storeroom clerk who knew where every spare part of every equipment of the enterprise.  Even if there would be hundreds of items, he’d know where they were kept.  He also had a box of index cards which he used to track the inventory of the items, from when and how many arrived from which vendors to when and how many were given out and to whom; 
  • There was the 30-year-old young lady who was the right-hand assistant of an owner of a trading enterprise which delivered to independent convenience stores.  She knew every inch of the warehouse she was in charge of and knew every step in the trader’s logistics operations, from order to delivery.  She would push people to deliver rush orders and knew the ins and outs of the trading enterprise’s accounting system;
  • There’s the purchasing clerk who was familiar with every vendor of the multinational company she worked for.  From the ones who delivered the expensive chemicals down to the office supplies, she knew who offered the best deals.  She was the go-to person when any of the enterprise’s managers needed something to be bought fast. 

Some executives in the past have cited operations managers’ dependency on people like Mang Ben as a sign of weakness in the system.  Relying on one person for so much may entail risk especially if that employee suddenly becomes absent or leaves the enterprise. 

On the other hand, having a very able veteran brings about opportunities.  Veteran employees like Mang Ben bring a wealth of experience that manuals or consultants can’t equal.  A manual does not quite teach how much to turn a valve in real life to get to just the right cooking temperature as well as how Mang Ben would show it in person.    

Veterans also are likely to know what improvements would be most helpful for an enterprise.  Many veteran labourers at warehouses had given me insights on how storage racks should be laid out and what kind of material handling equipment would help. I was surprised, for example, when the labourers at a toy importer said they’d settle for well-built ladders to climb than expensive forklifts to retrieve bulky boxes from the tallest rack shelves. 

And when it comes to big changes such as building a new warehouse or installing new technology, it also helps to have veterans participate.  Veterans know the products and services of an enterprise very well, if not more so than the owners themselves.  Whenever there is an introduction of something new like a new improved machine or new storage facilities, the veterans would likely have valuable input on what to watch out for especially on quality, efficiency, and service. 

Veterans would know how high a truck dock should be or where in a factory the floor would be strongest to place a new machine.  An architect or civil engineer may offer all the standards but a veteran would know via experience what and where would contribute best for something new. 

Many enterprises have veterans like Mang Ben, employees who have loyally stayed long with the business and know more about the operations than just about anyone else.  Veterans are not signs of weaknesses but people who offer opportunities for educating new employees and to consult with for improvements, whether minor or major. 

We should be grateful for the veterans in our workplace.  They contribute more than what we can appreciate them for. 

About Overtimers Anonymous

Just About Every Enterprise is a Supply Chain Enterprise

I and ten million people in Manila have the same problem every day.  Mobile phone reception—it’s lousy. 

It would take several tries to call someone on my mobile phone and when I do, chances are the conversation would stop in the middle. 

Poor cellular reception is a norm in the Philippines.  It’s just so hard to get a decent signal to have a continuous conversation or get a text out. 

I’m sure telecom companies are doing all they could to improve their services.  I see it with their unrelenting investment in the set-up and maintenance of cell-phone towers as they continue to expand coverage and upgrade reception. 

If we think about it, the operations of telecom companies have similarities to those enterprises who manufacture and deliver finished products.  The good quality mobile phone reception we yearn for is not much unlike the supermarket products in how both are made available to consumers.  In short, both have supply chains. 

The supply chain is a model for enterprises that buy raw materials and produce & deliver merchandise for their customers.  Supply chain management has become a standard when it comes to managing the inventories and logistics of items, from chemicals to consumer goods.

Supply chains, however, aren’t limited to just physically tangible products.  They’re very much applicable to intangible items, such as electricity, health care, and business process outsourcing (BPO) services. 

Supply chains follow the flow of products from their start as raw materials to their conversion to merchandise and subsequent delivery to users.  Service and utility enterprises also follow a path of conversion and delivery not altogether different from product supply chains. 

In manufacturing industries, factories convert raw materials into products. 

In non-manufacturing industries, enterprises convert specific problems and issues into finished services.   Hospitals treat sick patients.  Call centres handle problems and questions.  Telecom companies provide mobile phone receptions resulting in uninterrupted conversations and successful sent messages.  Power utility companies make available electricity from energy sources. 

But It’s not just relating manufacturing and services.  It’s also the logistics behind both.  Whereas manufacturers rely on procurement of materials and logistics for transport and delivery, service enterprises depend on infrastructure and systems to ensure the flow of their operations.

A hospital needs not only ambulances but also the system of managing the dispatch of the ambulances for the assurance of fast turnaround for the benefit to patients needing immediate transport. 

One mistake I observe with service companies is that they limit supply chain management to stuff like spare parts and supplies. 

A large energy corporation for instance has a supply chain executive whose job is to buy equipment and components.  The energy corporation had no structure or strategy when it comes to power conversion and delivery.  The energy corporation, hence, had big issues in unreliable power delivery due to poor planning in energy generation and power plant capacities. 

The success of a supply chain model starts with its scope.  Does the supply chain manager of the enterprise handle the total flow from start (procurement/purchasing), to its conversion (production/service operation), and the logistics operations (transport/delivery/orders processing)?  If it misses on any of the aforementioned, chances are the enterprise’s business has a lot of room for improvement.

We consumers want good quality from the things we buy.  Not only the merchandise from the store but also from services such as mobile phone reception, electricity at the flick of a switch, and the best health care. 

The supply chain model is just as much applicable for intangible services as much as it is for tangible items.  Most if not all enterprises have supply chains for what they offer and deliver.  We just need to recognise that managing the operations with supply chains in mind can go a long way to bringing excellence and win-win results. 

If only the telecom companies can think like this, then maybe we’d get better service with our cell-phones. 

About Overtimers Anonymous

Why Shifting from the Month-End Surge to Delivery by Demand is Common Sense

“We just have to live with it,” the General Manager replied. 

The GM was responding to my comment that month-end surges in sales orders were causing inefficiencies in the company’s logistics operations. 

I was presenting an operations assessment report to a company that distributed name-brand computer printers and accessories.  One of the key observations from my report was that the majority of sales orders (more than 50% of monthly sales) came at the end of every month.  Staff from sales, accounting, to logistics rushed deliveries to fulfil the orders and meet revenue targets.  Sales personnel counted on the deliveries to achieve if not beat their quotas and benefit from incentives. Not attaining the targets and quotas was simply not acceptable.  

The company is an exclusive distributor for a large name-brand supplier of printers.  The supplier dictated the monthly sales targets.  The supplier expected the company to meet those targets from month to month, no questions asked.  Hence, the company’s General Manager said that month-end surges were something they could do nothing about.  It was something they had to live with. 

Many executives do not want to shift from the practice of month-end selling and delivery.  “It’s not for discussion,” a consumer goods wholesale executive once told me when I said the monthly surge in deliveries was causing her firm’s transportation expenses to rise.  The executive did not want to change a practice which has become so ingrained in the company’s culture.

Executives don’t dispute that month-end surges bring about inefficiencies and high costs throughout the supply chain.  Surges cause stock run-outs as inventories deplete quicker than suppliers or manufacturing lines can replenish.  The surges also drive up inventories of customers which result in increased product returns especially for products with limited shelf lives.    

Logistics expenses increase as month-end surges strain storage and transport capacities.  Some firms rent additional storage to stockpile products in anticipation of sales surges.  Transport providers tend to sub-contract additional trucks to ensure there are enough vehicles to meet the demand.  Both the additional storage and transport capacities result in higher delivered costs for products.    

Month-end surges are sometimes coupled with periodic sales promotions and price changes which fuel more spikes in orders and delivery volumes.  Surges thus cause a “bullwhip” effect in which the up-and-down delivery volumes and resulting peaks and valleys in inventories amplify speculations throughout the supply chain. 

Executives are reluctant to move away from month-end surges because they fear lower sales will result.  They are afraid shifting from month-end sales would cause a decrease in revenue which they can ill afford in organizations that especially measure performance by monthly targets.

Moving from month-end sales to just deliveries driven by demand is common-sense logical.  It’s just not accepted given the anxiety it would cause among executives. In a demand-driven supply chain, one delivers only what and when it is needed.  The fear is the demand and the subsequent sales might not be up to par with immediate targets.

A downturn in sales would indeed be expected as customers would exhaust overstocked inventories from any previous surge.  In succeeding months, demand would pick up and sales would average closer to what would have been with month-end surges.  But executives would have to have faith that that will happen and executives don’t like to count on faith. 

Stakeholders in many companies measure executives via short-term targets.  Stakeholders want to see continuous growth in their company’s finances especially if they expect dividends and bonuses every year.  Creditors, such as banks who provide loans, also want to see continuous short-term gains to assure themselves that they will be paid the interest and principal of what they lent. 

The month-end surge is a manifestation of short-term thinking.  Shifting from the month-end surge requires changing one’s mindset from short-term to long-term management.    

When delivering only what is needed and when it is needed, all functions of the organization have to work closely together.  Sales needs to forecast future demand from the grass-roots level or from the end-user, whether that be the customer or the customer’s customers.  Marketing would support sales where it sees demand is lacking or where there is potential.  The supply chain from logistics, manufacturing, and procurement would have to build in a capable system and structure to anticipate the demand.  Sales, Marketing, and the Supply Chain, most of all, would need to communicate and come out with a consensus of action every time they review actual and forecasted demand. 

Attaining higher sales is not a product of individual sales persons or a result of incentives for just one group.  It is the product of teamwork.  Any challenge in fulfilling demand and achieving targets can be met if the organization works as a team. 

And isn’t that what organizations are supposed to be doing in the first place?

About Overtimers Anonymous

Originally published in LinkedIn May 06, 2019

Logistics Solutions Can Be Simple

A medium sized retailer of health food items imports products from abroad.  The retailer prides itself with a very well organised warehouse and a crew of workers that swiftly repack the imported products and send them to the retailer’s stores all over the country. 

The retailer’s sales department, however, has constantly complained about lack of enough fast-moving products to stock store shelves.  They frequently request for more items which the retailer’s purchasing department promptly orders.  Yet, the sales people still complain.  Why are store shelves empty despite the inbound volume of imports?

A consulting team the retailer engaged found that the retailer’s warehouse was indeed quickly repacking and delivering needed fast-moving imported items to stores.  Once they arrive at the stores, the fast-moving products were sold within days. 

But the warehouse inventories showed almost no stock available of the fast-moving items at the beginning of every work week.  How can this be since imports via container vans were arriving every week?  The stocks have been arriving but the warehouse says they are not on inventory.  Where were the items? 

It turned out that when container vans of imports arrived, it would take as long as ten (10) days to completely unload, put away, and enter items into the warehouse inventory records.  Every container van would have a mix of as many as a hundred products totalling to as much as a thousand cases or packages.  Some items like paper products were bulky, some like food supplements were tiny.  The warehouse’s personnel would unload products from the container van into pallets, but it would take several days to sort the items, inspect them, and scan them into inventory.

Hence, even as the imported items had arrived, they were still “in-transit” on the retailer’s inventory system.  The warehouse didn’t repack and deliver products until they were entered into the system. 

To complicate things further, sales people would ask the warehouse to put priority in receiving items that were running low on stock at stores.  That resulted in warehouse staff in receiving some items from inbound container vans and putting others in a holding area, in which these latter items would sometimes sit there for as long as one (1) month before anyone sorts and scans them.  This resulted in a vicious cycle where products were alternating in out-of-stock as warehouse staff switched priorities in receiving one item to another. 

The solution to the problem was simple.  Management just had to re-enforce the retailer’s policy of unloading every container van completely before receiving another one.  Management also had to shorten the time to receive inbound imports.  More than a week was too long.  It turned out that the employees assigned to receive inbound container vans sometimes were pulled to do other jobs in the warehouse.  Management only had to put a stop to that and have the assigned employees work full-time in receiving the vans. 

The consulting team also suggested the management review the retailer’s purchasing and inventory policies.  It wasn’t that the purchasing department was buying enough; it was that they weren’t buying frequently enough. 

The purchasing management preferred to buy items in bulk to take advantage of pricing discounts.  They would order only once a month or even less so.  As inventories ran down, the next scheduled arrival of vans would sometimes be weeks away.  Planners and purchasers ended up rushing the dispatch of container vans which sometimes delayed the delivery of other items and again brought on a vicious merry-go-round of items running out of stock. 

Purchasing just needed to balance buying in bulk and scheduling shipments to arrive more frequently, such as weekly versus monthly.  Purchasers could negotiate contracts with vendors to commit to buy in bulk at competitive prices but ask that deliveries arrive in smaller quantities more frequently. 

Logistics is about ensuring a smooth supply of materials and products from one point of the supply chain to the next.  It’s about planning, buying, and transporting enough.  Not too much to cause pile-ups of stock that tie up space and cash.  And not too few that risk run-outs that interrupt production and compromise services.

Logistics is broad.  It covers what comes in, what comes out, where it goes, and where it leads to.  One may say it covers all the things that sales, marketing, and manufacturing do not. 

Logistics is not the supply chain.  It’s a big part of it but not the whole of it.  Logistics is the life-blood that courses through the supply chain but it isn’t the supply chain.  It works with counterparts such as planning, procurement, and production to make sure merchandise moves through suppliers and manufacturers to meet the demands of customers. 

Improving logistics is about improving the flow between points in the supply chain.  That means minimising bottlenecks and focusing resources to move things where they are slowest.  It means making sure stuff are put away and at least cost and risk of damage, at the same time making sure they don’t over-stay in one place.  Scrap and out-of-stock are what logistics practitioners avoid as much as they could.  For when there is scrap or out-of-stock, it’s a failing mark for logistics. 

As the case of the health food retailer illustrated, logistics solutions usually come back to basics.   Inbound receipts were moving too slow and caused stocks to run out at stores.  What was needed was re-enforcing policy and focusing on finishing every job of unloading the container van and putting away the items.  With items flowing with fewer delays, the warehouse would be able to repack and deliver to stores the items they sorely needed week to week. 

Logistics can look complicated but the solutions can often be simple. 

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Six Elements to Find in a Digital Roadmap

A large producer of canned fruit items installed a brand-new radio-frequency identification (RFID) system at its manufacturing facility.  The RFID system aimed to streamline the producer’s inventory management system. 

The canned fruit producer’s workers stuck RFID tags on every case of canned fruit and on the pallets where the cases were stacked.  As forklift operators picked up the pallets and brought them to the warehouse, RFID scanners tagged each pallet and automatically added the cases into the finished goods inventory.  When a warehouse worker picked a case of canned fruit to be staged for shipment, an RFID scanner at the door tagged it and immediately deducted it from inventory. 

The point of the RFID system was to update inventories accurately and in real time.  It would improve inventory record accuracy and information timeliness compared to the traditional system in which workers entered data manually via pen and paper and accountants computed the inventories which took time to do.

The accountants of the canned fruit producer, however, distrusted the RFID system and insisted the workers continue doing the manual system.  Hence, even as the RFID system tagged incoming and outgoing pallets and cases, the workers continued to fill out forms to record what they produced and what cases they brought in and out of the warehouse.  The RFID system ended up not delivering any tangible benefits and gradually, it became useless. 

The canned fruit producer’s executives liked RFID technology for its features but didn’t take into account the complexity of building it into its business.  The executives thought that installation of an RFID system was easy.  They didn’t realise that putting in RFID was more than just buying tags and installing transmitters, receivers, and additional computer hardware.  It required adoption of a system that involved acceptance not just by production and logistics but also by accounting and other functions as well. 

RFID is a digital technology, one of many hyped by The Fourth Industrial Revolution, also known as Industry 4.0.  Unlike a new computer system or a new machine, digital technology taps data for visibility and productivity improvement.  It’s what McKinsey cites as “creating value in the processes that execute a vision of customer experiences.”

Building in digital technology like an RFID system applies principles from project management but at a much wider scale.  It’s not as simple as constructing a new warehouse or installing a new machine.  It requires fitting in with functions that will be affected. 

It’s like a human organ transplant.  One cannot just outright replace a heart, liver, or kidney with another.  A transplant entails a multitude of diagnostic tests, procedures, and regimens pre- and post-transplant to ensure success. 

The canned fruit producer brought in an RFID system that was liked by supply chain managers but was rejected by accountants.  Like a failed organ transplant, the enterprise’s “body”, its organisation, did not accept the RFID system.    

Bringing in digital technology requires what one would call a Digital Roadmap, a plan that considers the unique characteristics of new technologies. 

A Digital Roadmap emphasises the following elements:

  • Terms of Reference (TOR)

TOR is a narrative of what an enterprise’s organisation envisions a new technology will contribute.  It isn’t a scope of work or detailed specifications.  Rather, it’s a set of features, functions, and criteria that the organisation wants.  A TOR is the foundation for decision-making when it comes to choosing from technological options. 

  • Dedicated Team of Qualified Individuals

There should be a team of dedicated individuals to plan, decide, and carry out any new technology.  The team should not only have skilled members but also members who are recognised as authorities in their fields.  Note that members need not be employees of the enterprise; they can be contractors, consultants, or just plain advisors.  It’s important that each member has the devotion and expertise to participate. 

  • Consensus

Consensus is a necessity for the organisation to be enrolled into the introduction of new digital technology.  Consensus will likely be tough to attain because digital technologies are new and will entail significant changes in the workplace.  Debates and disagreements are inevitable.  Executives will be expected to lead and enrol everyone to adopt and accept new roles and responsibilities.   The Digital Roadmap cannot progress without consensus and commitment. 

  • Useful Content

The Digital Roadmap should define the needed content from any new digital technology.  Content is the information gleaned from data and software that would be useful to apply for productivity improvement.  With an RFID system, for instance, the data gathered from scanned tags provide the content for real-time inventory visibility which leads to the opportunity to turn over inventories faster. 

  • A Cash-Flow Schedule

New digital technologies often need much investment in capital.  Other than time and human resources, the enterprise will be spending money to pay for software, hardware, and the expenses that come with implementation, including education for everyone in the organisation.  The Digital Roadmap should therefore include a schedule of cash outlays that tells how much and when budgets will be needed and spent.

  • Competitive Timeline

A Digital Roadmap shouldn’t have too long a timeline lest newer technologies render obsolete the digital technology the roadmap was aiming to achieve.  Digital technologies don’t have long life cycles.  What seems state-of-the-art today may be obsolete tomorrow.  Artificial intelligence (AI), for example, has grown in popularity versus RFID systems.  A Digital Roadmap should therefore be swift in rolling out a new digital technology that will ensure its applicability and competitive edge. 

Digital technologies marry data and operations for productivity improvement and have become popular thanks to Industry 4.0.  Yet, enterprises hesitate to delve into digital technologies and when they do, often encounter difficulties. 

A Digital Roadmap resolves this by providing a pathway that stresses a TOR, formation of a dedicated team, encourages consensus, clarifying useful content, a cash-flow schedule, and a competitive timeline. 

New technologies are always exciting but just like anything new, it requires acceptance by all. 

Ten (10) Examples Towards Building Better Supply Chains

For years, experts have cited the urgent need for supply chains to adapt and get better.  In 2005, Paul Michelman via the Harvard Business Review wrote:

“Threats to your supply chain, and therefore to your company, abound—natural disasters, accidents, and intentional disruptions—their likelihood and consequences heightened by long, global supply chains, ever-shrinking product lifecycles, and volatile and unpredictable markets.”

Fifteen (15) years later, amid a pandemic that has wreaked economic havoc, executives are hearing the need even louder.  Supply chains must become resilient and robust in a new normal of constant disruption.  Supply chains must change

Experts have urged enterprises to map their supply chains, identify risks, review their networks, and innovate via technologies such as robotics and automation.  But what does an enterprise do when it’s got the maps, identified the risks, and has the network review results? How does an enterprise innovate via technologies? 

We cannot just manage supply chains to make them better.  We need to build them. 

It’s like a house.  When we manage our houses, we do things like fix a leaky roof, replace lightbulbs, and unclog drain pipes.  But we can only do things ourselves up to a certain extent. 

When the job gets too big to handle, we seek experts.  Civil engineers help us replace the roofs and retrofit the foundations.  Electrical engineers help re-wire our electrical circuits. 

The analogy applies for supply chains as well.  We can manage supply chains only so much.  When we need to make significant improvements, when we can no longer just manage them, when we need to rebuild them, we’d seek engineering help.  The most qualified to do so are Industrial Engineers (IEs), or more specifically, Supply Chain Engineers (SCEs). 

How can SCEs help rebuild our supply chains? 

The following are examples:

  • Developing the Digital Supply Chain.   

With the advent of Industry 4.0, enterprises, more than ever, are investing in new technologies that marry data and process productivity.  SCE’s can help enterprises implement state-of-the-art technologies into their supply chains which will provide the means towards real-time operations visibility and automated process improvement. 

  • Setting Up Flexible Manufacturing Systems (FMS)

SCE’s can help integrate flexible manufacturing systems (FMS) into supply chains.  FMS is an alternative to traditional production systems in that it focuses on short-run small-lot-size manufacturing versus long continuous mass production.  SCE’s can build in flexible systems into supply chains via integration with logistics, production planning, and procurement. 

  • Improving Inbound & Outbound Logistics

Supply chain engineers can streamline the flow of goods coming into and out of storage facilities.  They can identify and ubblock bottlenecks, and recommend how manpower and facilities should be laid out such that merchandise can flow continuously and smoothly.  SCE’s can also study the economics of procurement and delivery practices that underlie their impacts on logistics flow. 

  • Simplifying Storage & Handling

Storage and handling are very high on the list of many supply chain managers’ preoccupations.  Enterprise executives don’t like them because they connote cost and they’re seen as not adding value.  But with the SCE’s help, enterprises can turn them into the assets they really are. 

  • Tuning Up Transportation’s Last-Mile Productivity

SCE’s can offer options that would boost the productivity of last-mile freight deliveries and services.  These include recommending changes in transportation structure, improving route planning & scheduling, and balancing loads maximisation with delivery turnarounds.

  • Perfecting Order Fulfilment

SCE’s can come up with order fulfilment systems that seamlessly connect anticipated customer demand with available-to-promise (ATP) inventories.  The goal is perfect orders: deliveries that meet 100% of customers’ service requirements 100% of the time.  

  • Factoring the Worker in the Workplace

Enterprises want efficiency but need to be mindful of the welfare of their workers.  Popularly known as ergonomics, SCE’s apply human factors engineering to improve labour productivity by adopting the workplace to the person, rather than adopting the person to the workplace. 

  • Re-Implementing Total Quality

It’s an old buzzword from a bygone era, but Total Quality still serves as an applicable approach to ensuring supply chains deliver what they’re supposed to.  SCE’s provide the in-depth tools and means to make sure processes work right the first time. 

  • Re-Defining Cost Engineering

To many enterprises, it’s a glorified clerical function that estimates job expenses and checks the billings from vendors and contractors.  But it’s more than that and SCE’s can show how cost engineering can not only tame the expenses but also provide competitive value for supply chains.

  • Pruning the Value Stream

Value-Stream Mapping (VSM) is the basic tool of Lean, and it tells us where the non-value added and value-added activities are.  SCE’s show how to optimise the value stream after we know the results of VSM. 

Enterprise executives have heard the need to reform their supply chains.  But they can do only so much managing them.  Enterprises would need the assistance of Supply Chain Engineers to build in better structures and systems. 

The ten (10) examples described above illustrate how SCE’s can help enterprises change their supply chains for the better.  And given the ever increasing clamour for change in these challenging times, we could use all the help we can get. 

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DRP, Deployment and the Role of the Supply Chain Engineer

Distribution Resource Planning (DRP) was my first assignment as supply chain planner for a large consumer goods firm.              

It was the late 1980’s and Manufacturing Resource Planning (MRP 2) was at the height of popularity in the corporate world.  The company I was working for was embarking on integrating MRP 2 in an information technology upgrade of its operations and DRP was one module offered. 

DRP is a planning tool in which one schedules the deployment of items, usually finished products, to distribution centres or depots at different geographical locations.  It manifests itself in matrices such as the following for a depot and a central storage facility:

The matrices serve as templates in which the planner can see how much a depot needs at a point in time in the future.  In the following example, it’s week three (3) in the future:

To anticipate the out-of-stock on Week 3, the planner simply schedules the shipment of product to the depot.  Assuming a lot size of 800 and a two-week transit time, the planner schedules a shipment from the central facility at Week 1:

It’s simple enough for one item and for one depot.  The work adds up when it includes several depots:

For multiple items and multiple depots, the work adds up even more:

As much as the planning is simple per item per depot, the work becomes more cumbersome and complicated with multiple depots and multiple items.  Hence, DRP works best with the help of MRP 2 software that would automatically compute the schedules for all items for all depots. 

It’s no wonder then that organizations look forward to artificial intelligence (AI) in planning the deployment of products.  It’s just a lot of simple work that a machine can do instead. 

If only it was that easy. 

DRP deployments don’t take into account uncertainty and sudden disruptions.  It assumes things will go as planned when in reality, they do not.  Such as when a planned arrival is delayed: 

Customer orders as a result are not served.  And the disruption may even cause customers to speculate: 

In such scenarios, automated planning is no longer useful.  Human intervention is needed as the central facility would either rush stocks to the depot or the sales force served by the depot negotiate with customers to smoothen demand. 

When it comes to uncertainties, planners tend to build up inventories to avoid situations like in the aforementioned example.  It defeats what DRP is trying to do which is to keep inventories manageable and at the same time serve customers only when they would be needing their items. 

Information technology (IT) software does not provide a fool-proof automated solution for planning inventories and deployment.  Yet, many managers make the mistake expecting that computer programs will do so.  DRP is no exception.

Deployment is a critical step in the supply chain, especially for enterprises that have markets in far-off places.  It isn’t something that can easily be automated.  It requires a framework founded on an overall strategy. 

An overall strategy answers how the enterprise shall distribute its products: 

  • Do we set up depots or distribution centers at different geographical regions?
  • Do we deliver directly to markets from a single central distribution facility?
  • Do we build manufacturing and distribution facilities at different locations?
  • Do we just rely on a 3rd party logistics (3PL) provider to do all the sales and distribution of products? 

The distribution strategy will need to align with how the enterprise wants to sell and deliver its products. 

  • Will selling be via retail channels?
  • Do we negotiate contracts with distributors, wholesalers, and/or licensed dealers to sell at different markets?
  • Does the enterprise utilize e-commerce for customers to order and couriers to deliver? 

The framework for deployment consists of both policy and structure derived from a distribution strategy.   

Policy would cover such areas as:

  • Inventory: how much to keep, when to replenish, how items are handled (e.g. first-in first-out);
  • Service:  how items are dispatched (e.g. minimum quantities, lot sizes, less-than-truckload [LTL] limits);
  • Quality:  how merchandise is inspected, how damages are prevented;
  • Risk: how products are secured and accounted for. 

Structure would involve the assets and people directly involved with deployment.  These would consist of:

  • Facilities such as depots, warehouses, storage equipment (e.g. racks, tanks, vessels), & materials handling (e.g. forklifts, conveyors);
  • Transportation assets from trucks, vans, to shipping containers and air-freight;
  • Organizational structure and management set-up.    

The effectiveness of a deployment framework depends on how well the enterprise develops its policies and structures.  This is where supply chain engineers (SCE’s) can help. 

SCE’s can assist executives in studying various scenarios for an enterprise’s deployment framework.  These range from assessing the capacities and financial effects of product flows via different network options to determining optimal inventory levels taking into account the risks of stock-outs and overstocks. 

SCE’s can also fine-tune options on how an enterprise can deploy its products efficiently and effectively.  For example, SCE’s can help executives decide whether cross-docks would be a better option to rapidly move products from centralized locations to customers. 

DRP is a good tool for supply chain planners.  But like all good tools, it is most effective when it fits in with a framework founded on a well-developed distribution strategy. 

Supply chain engineers have the expertise to help enterprises optimally spread their inventories to the markets they want to sell to, with the tools and software they are familiar with and can muster. 

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