How Important Productivity is to the Value Chain

The fast-food restaurant drive-thru I go to every Sunday morning hasn’t been serving the liquid creamers that accompany the coffee I order with my meals.     

At first, they said the creamers were out of stock.  A week later, they said they can only serve one (1) creamer instead of the two (2) that should come with every coffee order.  Finally, they substituted the coffee creamer with a non-dairy powder cream in a sachet. 

The fast-food company saved money in all three (3) instances.  They saved when they served coffee without any creamer or with just one instead of the usual two.   They also saved when they started serving the powdered creamer in sachets as the liquid creamer is more expensive.   

The fast-food company can claim savings but did it deliver value? 

In his seminal book, Competitive Advantage,[1] Michael Porter introduced the value chain, a representation of a firm’s “collection of activities that are performed to design, produce, market, deliver, and support [the firm’s] product.”

Value is the “amount buyers are willing to pay for what a firm provides them.”  The typical strategy of the firm is to create value that “exceeds the cost of doing so.”  According to Porter, value is the key to competitive positioning.

The fast-food company normally served two (2) 10-ml cups of imported liquid creamer with every coffee order.  It was something I look forwarded to and expected whenever I went to the fast-food company’s drive-thru.  When the fast-food drive-thru stopped serving the creamer, I was not happy.  I felt I was no longer getting my money’s worth from my coffee order.

Bundling two (2) 10-ml creamers and two (2) packets of sugar was standard for every coffee order, according to the drive-thru attendant.  Unfortunately, the fast-food drive-thru no longer had the stock and substituted the creamer with a cheaper sachet of locally produced non-dairy powder. 

The fast-food company apparently thought substituting the imported creamer with a cheaper local product would be no big deal.  The management of the fast-food company probably didn’t believe its customers would buy less of its coffee, even with the downgrade. 

The cost of all the activities in the value chain must be less than the price of the product.  The difference between the price and the cost is the margin.    Enterprise executives tend to cut costs or differentiate their products to maximise margins. 

The problem arises when customers like me perceive a lower worth of the product as a result of the enterprise’s cost-cutting.  Perceived lower worth leads customers turning away from the enterprise and opting for alternatives from the competition, resulting in lower demand for the enterprise’s product.    

Many enterprises see-saw between cutting costs and differentiating their products as they struggle to maintain their products’ profit margins.  When they see costs going up, some enterprises buy cheaper materials and services.    When they see demand slowing, they spend more for product development and advertisement of their product’s features.  In either case, the enterprise ends up losing customers or spending more than it should.    

All functions in an enterprise make up its value chain.  Whether it be purchasing, marketing, logistics, sales, manufacturing, finance, accounting, human resources, information technology (IT) services, legal, public relations, research & development, etcetera–every department and individual play a part in delivering value for the enterprise.  Every one in an enterprise contributes.  There is no exemption.  If the value chain is to be competitive, everyone has to work and to work together toward the common cause of maximising the margins of the enterprise’s products. 

Every part of the value chain must be productive.  Productivity drives value. 

Productivity is output over input.  In the value chain, productivity is the output as delivered and accepted by customers versus how much was inputted in doing so. 

That means whatever function we work in, we must deliver output that would benefit the enterprise’s product margins.  Our performance, no matter how seemingly small or irrelevant, contributes to the value chain. 

Some of us equate value chains with supply chains.  This is wrong thinking and it is detrimental to an enterprise’s productivity.  Whereas the supply chain’s basic functions like purchasing, manufacturing, and logistics directly add value to a product, roles such as legal, human resources, marketing, sales, engineering, information technology, and research & development (R&D) are just as equally important. 

Human resources professionals hire talented people to staff the enterprise’s organisation.  In-house legal counsels ensure products are compliant to local laws and regulations and defend the enterprise’s products’ intellectual properties.  Finance executives ensure the capital needs for products.  Marketing cultivates ideas for R&D to develop into reality.   

A condiment such as a coffee creamer may seem trivial.  For value chains, nothing is trivial.  Every detail and process have a bearing on how a product’s value chain will bring worth to customers. 

The fast-food company may dismiss my disappointment if it turns out I’m alone in complaining about a downgraded coffee creamer.  If a vast majority of its customers continue to consume the fast-food company’s coffee, then well and good, the enterprise would have saved money without any dent to its coffee’s perceived value. 

But if my sentiments are shared with many coffee drinkers who decide to turn away and find alternatives, then the enterprise would no doubt be strongly encouraged to improve the productivity of its value chain.  Perhaps it will study how better to source its imported creamer to ensure it will always be bundled with the coffee it sells. 

In the meantime, I decided to get my Sunday morning coffee from the fast-food company’s competitor. 

About Overtimers Anonymous


[1] Michael E. Porter, Competitive Advantage,  (New York, N.Y. : The Free Press, 1985), pp. 36-38

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. 

About Overtimers Anonymous

Six (6) Principles to Successful Flexibility

Flexible manufacturing was popular in the 1990’s.  Twenty years into the 21st century, we don’t hear much about it anymore.  Instead, we hear a lot more about digital and connectivity.  Amid a raging pandemic, people also talk about resilience.

Whatever the buzzword, what matters in the end is how well enterprises deliver versus customer demand.  It’s nice to have a robot that does twice the job of an ordinary person, but it’s another thing when an enterprise didn’t make available items when the customer needed them, which happens more often than not. 

Flexibility is the capability to change quickly and adapt to fickle demand.  It is the ability to switch from one product to another or the means to swiftly tweak a service to meet a customer’s unique needs.    

Flexibility does not happen by itself.  It’s the result of a strategy or a policy.  An enterprise becomes flexible because it decides to do so.

Flexibility is not agility and it isn’t responsiveness, although all three work well together.   Versatility is the combination of flexibility, agility, and responsiveness and is an ideal an enterprise wouldn’t mind having.  But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. 

Flexible systems are applied popularly in manufacturing.  They come in different forms.  The following are some examples:

  • Cells.  Groups of machines run by one to three operators.  For instance, a machine shop that has several groups in which each consists of a lathe, drill, and milling machine run by a single operator.  Each group does its own product from start to finish. 
  • Parallel Lines. Several identical production lines in which each makes a variant of an item.  For instance, three to four soap lines in which each produces a different colour of soap. 
  • Fast Change-Overs.  A production line in which operators can quickly change from one item to another.  For instance, a steel pipe manufacturer which is equipped with jigs and fixtures that are easily adjustable that allows operators to change from one diameter of pipe to another within minutes;
  • Common Core. A product line that has a common base or module to build varieties of items on to.  For instance, an auto assembly line that uses the same chassis for different models of cars and vans;
  • Modular Manufacturing. Using pre-assembled or pre-fabricated modules and assembling them into varieties of products.  For instance, suppliers to an aircraft manufacturer deliver pre-assembled portions such as the fuselage and wing such that the aircraft manufacturer can not only quickly put together an airplane but also mingle the parts differently to produce a different variant (such as a longer fuselage for one aircraft and a shorter one for another). 

Successfully implementing flexibility relies on a few principles:

Think Small

The larger the manufacturing group, the more complicated and rigid the operation.  The smaller the group, the more flexible it becomes.  Having multiple small groups such as cells allows more leeway to customise items of different specifications, at smaller lot quantities, and in shorter time.    

Balance Integration with Autonomy

Integration means connection toward a common goal of delivering value for the finished product or service. It is not centralisation. An enterprise would do well to give individual managers some freedom and authority to design their operations without sacrificing coordination with others. 

Innovate to Invest

Enterprises sometimes have it the other way around.  They invest to innovate.  They pour resources to consultants and outsiders to design the flexibilities.  The enterprise’s stakeholders are supposed to be the experts, so shouldn’t the innovation come from within and not without?  Wouldn’t it better to first tap home-grown expertise and then invest in the innovations that are brought forth?

Cultivate Talent, Not Acquire It

Likewise, with talent.  Enterprises sometimes try to hire the best talent outright.  But those in the organisation know its workings better than anyone else.  We don’t have to limit an operator to one machine; we can train her with another and reward her for the skills she gained on top of the performance she will contribute.  The enterprise reaps productivity as a result.    

Use Multiple Measures

Flexibility has that quirk that it’s not measurable by one metric.  We can measure capacity and service because they are singular.  Flexibility is multi-dimensional.  It requires several metrics and analytics to see. 

Everyone is a Member of the Team

We hear it again and again.  Top management support.  Commitment by everyone.  At the same time, we form task forces that include only a few and leave out the others.  When it comes to flexibility, that one cell, production line, or module does not perform alone.  It needs coordination and synchronisation as much as it needs the space and design to work freely within itself.  The operators in a group are a team, yes, but the group is part of a larger team that puts the groups together toward one goal.  It may have been difficult then, but modern day technology has allowed everyone to stay in touch and be a member of the overall enterprise team. 

Flexibility may be a bygone buzzword.  But it still is very much applicable for enterprises seeking to stay in business amid the challenges and disruptions of the present-day.  They are ways to be flexible, such as via cells, parallel lines, fast change-overs, common cores, and modular manufacturing.   Following some principles, enterprises can progress in productivity and remain on top of the heap.

About Overtimers Anonymous

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. 

About Overtimers Anonymous

Improving the Customer Experience and Gaining Higher Productivity

This Photo by Unknown Author is licensed under CC BY-SA

An automotive service centre in Manila, Philippines advertises that it opens at 8:00am. The doors actually open, however, around 8:15am.  Employees time in before and after 8am but pass through the washroom before heading to their desks.  A waiting client who would have arrived at 8:00am would probably be served earliest at 8:30am. 

The automotive service centre is part of a dealership that sells Japanese cars, vans, and motorcycles.  The dealer represents the final point of a Japanese automotive company’s global supply chain.  The Japanese company is heralded as a market leader but that view is far from the mind of the customer waiting for a half hour for one of its dealers to open the doors of its service centre. 

The Japanese owners of the automotive company wouldn’t likely be aware of the experiences of their Manila dealer’s customers. 

They probably wouldn’t know how customers felt for having to wait for 30 minutes.  And they probably wouldn’t know some customers would have to wait even longer because the supervisor who would decide on specific service requests hasn’t arrived yet. 

Many executives don’t know first-hand what their customers are experiencing with their enterprise’s front-liners.  They would rely on feedback, surveys, and statistics but they would hardly see the actual experiences of customers. 

Improving the customer experience can catapult an enterprise’s competitive advantage.  But it’s not only because customers will flock for the better service but also because when one improves the structure and processes that improve that experience, it uplifts not only customer satisfaction but the enterprise’s productivity. 

The automotive service centre has a competitor down the street.  The competitor advertises that its service centre opens at 8:00am but at 7:30am, the service representatives are already checking in customers and inspecting cars.  At 8:00am sharp, the service representatives are already interviewing the customers for their specific complaints and requests.  Service representatives provide the first group of waiting customers diagnoses and estimates within a few minutes.  The service centre would immediately begin work on cars as soon as the customers sign on their approvals.  Customers who were at the service centre at 7:30am for routine service checks would be checking out as early as 9:30am. 

The automotive competitor serves more cars than the one who keeps customers waiting.  It’s not because the competitor has more poor-quality automobiles that need fixing, but it’s because the competitor sells more cars than its neighbour.  The competitor does not keep its customers waiting and makes sure all the cars that come in the morning are served as soon as possible. 

Customers at either service centre may not be very loyal to the automotive brand they buy but they will remember their experiences.  This would have an impact on what automobile they will decide to buy in the future.

But more than that, the competitor has a higher productivity than the neighbour who opens late.  The higher productivity assures no backlogs in service jobs that would not only drive up expenses but also make it difficult to keep the customer experience consistent.

The competitor didn’t just add staff to engage waiting customers right away.  The competitor also invested in multiple maintenance bays to service more cars simultaneously.  The competitor also laid out the facility to have two types of bays: one for quick routine service and the other for longer, more complicated jobs. 

The routine service bays were closest to the facility’s doors so service attendants can move cars quickly to customers who can leave immediately.  The other bays were located deeper which made them closer to parts storage and special equipment. 

The competitor has seen the challenge for consistent customer experience and productivity grow.  Sales has gone up and down in recent months.  But because the competitor has made sure he has enough staff and bays, customers haven’t been complaining. 

The automotive service centre that kept customers waiting for 30 minutes, however, had obviously not paid attention to how promptly its staff reports in the morning.  And one could see there was no system of assigned bays or facility plan when it comes to maintaining customers’ cars. 

Companies are fickle when it comes to customer experiences.  Every so often they harp on it, but when times get tough, they sometimes forget about it. 

When one connects a consistently good customer experience with higher productivity, one can see the immediate benefits.  The intangible advantages of satisfied customers result in the tangible paybacks of having a productive work-place. 

About Overtimers Anonymous

Why and How Banks Should Improve their Services

In the late 1990’s, Asiatrust Development Bank, a relatively newcomer to the Philippine banking industry, expanded its banking hours from 8:30am to 6:00pm.  It was a break from the traditional 10:00am to 3:00pm schedule that was the mainstay of other Philippine banks.   Many small businesses and individuals particularly those who worked until evenings, flocked and opened accounts with Asiatrust. 

Asiatrust also offered pick-ups of deposits from customers and post-dated check warehousing, in which post-dated checks can be safe with banks until their deposit dates.  These added conveniences helped the bank snare more clients, notably small & medium-sized businesses

Some banks took notice of Asiatrust’s meteoric capture of market share and also expanded their hours and services.  Asia United Bank (AUB) absorbed Asiatrust in 2012 but its legacy of services for small businesses and entrepreneurs lived on in the Philippine banking industry.

Almost thirty (30) years later, amid the pandemic of 2020, Philippine banks have reversed these services.  Citing the risks to public health, banks have shortened hours; some have even closed branches.  Banks have reduced staff, resulting in long queues of clients at branches and long waits when calling customer service hotlines. Bank internet services have slowed thanks to surges in online transactions. 

Banks serve an important function in ensuring enterprises and their supply chains keep running well.  Cash-flow transactions between vendors and customers transpire mostly via banks.  Foreign exchange dealings, such as letters of credit (LC’s) and wire transfers, happen in most cases through banks.  Philippine bank executives repeatedly extol their commitment to customer service but they balance that priority with that of managing present-day risks in order to maintain the health of their finances. 

When banks downgrade services, enterprises’ supply chain activities may suffer. When a bank is closed or the waiting line leading into it is too long, for instance, clients may find themselves unable to consistently do routine financial transactions.  This can result in delays in payments to vendors and depositing collections from customers.  Receipts of materials and deliveries of merchandise would be negatively affected. 

Cutting back services, especially those dealing with foreign exchange transactions, can hamper the timelines of enterprises to import materials or export products.  

Banks have a golden opportunity to grow if they would just focus on service. 

In the Philippines, more than 65% of adult Filipino households don’t have bank accounts.  That’s 65% in potential market growth for banks.  Many Filipinos don’t deal with banks because either it’s a hassle for them (branches are inconveniently far from their homes or places of work) or because it’s simply discouraging to open accounts (e.g. too many forms to fill, minimum deposits, low interest rates, restrictions on loans). 

Small businesses make up 99% of commerce in the Philippines.  Which means they also likely make up 99% of supply chain transactions in the Philippines.  Even if the remaining 1% of enterprises that comprise big businesses may hold a large share of the commerce, the revenue and investment potential of small enterprises cannot be discounted. 

Banks aren’t just important to supply chains, they are much like them and can even be managed as such.

Banks purchase and deliver cash to and from branches and require the logistics of armoured cars.  They not only tap the talent of managers and staff to serve clients but also have work systems that can be optimised (e.g. tellers and customer services). 

The science of determining how many branches to have and where to locate them are not much different from that for storage depots for manufacturing firms.  And finding out how much capacity a branch should have (number of staff and how many operating hours) isn’t far from the capacity computations for assembly lines and logistics operations. 

The risk management for banking operations which encompass safety and occupational health aren’t really unlike that for the standards and practices for supply chain operations. 

Organisations with supply chains have been continually adapting to risk and improving customer service, pre-pandemic and amid the pandemic.  If they can do it, banks can too. 

The science of supply chain management and engineering can work for banks as much as it has in many industries.  It just perhaps needs the insight to get it started.  

About Overtimers Anonymous

What Collaboration Is and Is Not

Collaboration denotes a cooperative working relationship between parties which leads to mutual benefits.  It’s not commonly observed in industries and supply chains despite the potential benefits it can bring.  This is because it’s not easy to do and in the first place, many business executives don’t think it’s worth the trouble. 

Many enterprises, small businesses especially, don’t have the leverage to collaborate.  Big companies look down at small ones, for one thing, and see no worth in pursuing collaborative relationships with enterprises that contribute little to their revenue or cost. 

Even if a small business grows larger, it would still have trouble earning trust from suppliers and customers.  It’s just natural to be suspicious and wary when dealing with others outside of our own organisation, if we aren’t already to those within our own workplace.  Our parents did tell us not to talk to strangers when we were children.  We were taught not to trust just anyone.  

Collaboration has to start between individuals within an organisation before it can expand to those outside it.  An organisation has to establish internal collaboration before it can externally collaborate with other enterprises such as vendors and customers.[1]

Internal collaboration is when “sales, marketing, and operations find a way to align and focus on serving the customer in a way that maximises internal profit.”[2]

When internal collaboration is achieved, then an organisation can move to external collaboration.  External collaboration “consists of a supplier and a customer working together to achieve mutual improvement.”[3] 

We should know what collaboration is and what it is not. 

  1. It isn’t a meeting.  It’s not several representatives of one company meeting with those from another.  It’s not enough also that representatives draw up agreed action plans or sign a contract after a series of meetings.  Agreements and contracts aren’t collaborations; they’re just formalities to existing business arrangements that don’t outright lead to mutual improvement; 
  2. Collaboration isn’t an internet link.  When an enterprise can order materials from suppliers via email or customers can order merchandise via a dedicated electronic data processing (EDP) network, that is not collaboration.  That’s a connection.  Such a network that eliminates time-consuming documentation may be a manifestation of enterprises working together but it’s really nothing more than a wired conduit between information systems; 
  3. Collaboration is about multi-function cooperation, not just one department with another.   It’s about representatives from every relevant function of an organisation cooperating with counterparts from another.  Suppliers and clients in collaboration wouldn’t be limited to price and order issues; they’d be discussing inventories, payables, quality, and operations reliability;
  1. Collaboration is working together.  It is about enterprises huddling as one in developing common mutually beneficial objectives and strategies;
  2. It isn’t a merger.  Collaboration doesn’t mean becoming one enterprise.  There’s still a distance to maintain because there would still be diverging interests.  A customer who’s into retail may not want to really involve herself too much with a supplier who’s into manufacturing, for instance; 
  3. Collaboration is dedication via leadership.  Enterprise executives must lead by showing initiative, investing time, and developing trust with their counterparts.  When executives dedicate, they show how serious they are to the organisation.  Naturally, the organisation would follow the leaders; 
  4. But it’s dedication not commitment.   Collaboration is more like a friendship, in which individuals come together as a team to explore opportunities and come up with common goals.  But it’s not a marriage where an enterprise wholly commits itself to another.  We don’t sell our souls when we collaborate; 
  5. Collaboration is not for everyone.  Small businesses may not have much leverage to collaborate but who cares?  Some firms may be perfectly fine without collaboration, for now or for the meantime.  A hardware store dealing with thousands of items wouldn’t spare the time to collaborate with a vendor of very few items, even if the items make up a significant bulk of sales;
  6. Collaboration is an activity that requires preparation and structure.  Dealing with counterparts, whether internally or externally, with other functions or with vendors or customers, requires planning, policies, and a framework of assignment, accountability, and performance measurement.  There must be a front-line team who will work with another from the other side.  That team must know what it wants, what its limits are, and what it must answer for; 
  7. Collaboration is a system.  At least it should evolve into one.  Collaborating is not just a meeting of minds and just getting things done together.  For it to be worth it, it has to result in a continuous mutually beneficial relationship.  Each side should establish a shared routine of communications, negotiations, and transactions that point toward higher levels of performance that give rise to ever increasing benefits. 

Collaboration is not only about getting two parties together, ironing out differences, and coming out with an agreement.  It’s not a meeting.  It’s not something that leads to a contract or even a merger.  It’s an activity where counterparts work together toward a common purpose for mutual benefit.  But it’s not a marriage; counterparts should respect each other’s individual personality and path.  It requires a team with a set agenda and that’s dedicated to perform.  It eventually becomes a system where the parties perform and grow together in a shared environment. 

It’s not easy to start, not easy to sustain.  But it might be worth the effort.  Because two heads are always better than one.  Working together is better than working alone. 

About Overtimers Anonymous


[1] Reuben E. Slone, J. Paul Dittman, and John T. Mentzer, The New Supply Chain Agenda: The 5 Steps that Drive Real Value (Boston, Massachusetts: Harvard Business Press, 2010), chapters 5, Kindle.

[2] Ibid, chapter 5, Kindle.

[3] Ibid, chapter 6, Kindle.

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. 

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.