A Lesson From Apple: Simplify

If your supply chain is more complex than the leading competitor's processes, you've got a major problem. The simpler a manufacturing and order fulfillment process is, the nimbler it will be and the more competitively it will help your company achieve its goals.

Many people may not realize this, but {complink 379|Apple Inc.}, the world's leading consumer electronics company, operates one of the leanest and simplest supply chain operations in the world. At Apple, the same clean look-and-feel customers experience when they use the company's most successful products is mirrored in the design and supply chain processes that support the devices. In its manufacturing, procurement, and repair and warranty fulfillment operations, Apple may be as above the competition as it is in winning products it sells.

Nowhere is this more obvious than in its retail operation, which, in my opinion, is one of the more public manifestations of Apple's lean supply chain operations. While other retailers are complaining about the weak economy, Apple's outlet stores remain buoyant and are considered among the most successful retail operations on earth. The retail division had 357 stores in 2011 and for the year posted sales of $14.1 billion, up 44 percent from $9.8 billion in 2010. That growth puts it in a distinct class compared with other retailers globally.

At any of these Apple stores, the look-and-feel is that of ease of access and neat display, combined with free and unhindered flow of products and people. Clutter is literally non-existent; even at the stores' busiest, the sense of order and ease of use remain obvious. You don't believe me? Perhaps it will sound better coming from Apple itself. Here's a comment from Apple's last annual Securities and Exchange Commission filing: “The stores are designed to simplify and enhance the presentation and marketing of the Company’s products and related solutions.” Apple's retail outlets, in my opinion, take their cue from the company's supply chain.

Here are the key features of Apple's supply chain and why they reinforce the idea of a simple yet highly effective winning system:

  1. Highly defined, limited, and contiguous products:
  2. Apple sells only a handful of products, and although it has expanded these over the years, most of what the company markets can be easily packed into a small box container. It sells PCs, smartphones, digital music players, TV box, and a handful of peripherals and digital products. The products are highly contiguous in terms of the supply chain needed to support them. In fact, many of these products are manufactured by the same company: Foxconn.

  3. Single manufacturing strategy:
  4. This could be considered a problem in the event of a major natural disaster, but so far operating mainly in a single manufacturing region hasn't hurt Apple. In fact, manufacturing “substantially all of the company's hardware products” in Asia, as Apple said in its 10K filing, allows it to whittle down costs and coordinate logistics and shipping services in only a handful of locations. As for the dangers involved, remember this: no system is without risks. The decentralized (plus outsourced) electronics manufacturing services business has evolved to the point where even the absence of key components in one single location can ground the whole system to a halt globally.

    Additionally, Apple understands the risks in its strategy and is believed to be continuously taking steps to hedge and reduce the potential problems. The company noted that in addition to the production of its products by “a few outsourcing partners located in Asia,” it “has also outsourced much of its transportation and logistics management.” While such arrangements “may lower operating costs,” Apple said, “they also reduce the company's direct control over production and distribution.” Having identified the challenges, Apple has been proactive in monitoring and ensuring supply partners live up to the ends of their agreements. Simplicity doesn't translate into stupidity.

  5. Strategic and forward-oriented procurement strategy:
  6. Apple dominates in its markets partly because it has also figured out a way to secure components at competitive pricing. Apple has spent billions to assure guarantee of components such as LCDs. Its strategic proposition to critical component suppliers is refreshingly simple: it shares the financial risks with them. “The company has entered into various agreements for the supply of components,” Apple said.

Apple isn't perfect, and some of its decisions with regard to sole-sourcing and partnership with only a handful of manufacturers in a single region could come back to haunt the company. Nevertheless, its supply chain is anchored on the principle of simple efficiency. Your company may not be able to copy or use Apple's system as effectively, but a complex system is inherently more difficult to manage.

With a complex supply chain system, you'll score many goals depending on the range of products being manufactured, but some of these may turn out to be a strike against your company's interests.

11 comments on “A Lesson From Apple: Simplify

    July 9, 2012

    I believe a clever German once said “make things as simple as possible but no simpler”.  

  2. bolaji ojo
    July 9, 2012

    My first car was a Volkswagen Beetle. It was simple, functional and both easy to drive and fix. Now, I have a vehicle that has been telling me for weeks that one of my tires is underinflated. I have tried to correct the error but the light is still on on the dashboard. I'll have to check the manual — online!

  3. Anand
    July 9, 2012

    While other retailers are complaining about the weak economy, Apple's outlet stores remain buoyant and are considered among the most successful retail operations on earth.

    @Bolaji, thanks for the post. I think one of the reasons for this phenomenal success of Apple is that Apple had very less competition from other companies in Smartphone and iPad business. But now it looks like Samsung is giving tough competition to Apple, both in smartphone and tablet business. Needs to be seen what new feature Apple will add to its much awaited iPhone5 smartphone.

  4. Ariella
    July 9, 2012

    @Bolaji those lights on the dashboard are the bane of many a mechanics' existence. Unless they really specialize in that type of car, they really have to just make an educated guess. I've had hours of frustration due to those dashboard codes. It's not just a matter of getting the right repair but getting enough driving on to show it clear when you are up for inspection. I wasted the time and gas of nearly 100 miles of driving when my mechanic attempted to replace the part he thought was the cause. It didn't clear. I went to the dealer who diagnosed it with the Toyota specific equipment and then replaced a smaller part. So that repair actually cost me less than what my mechanic offered — meaning to save me money — by replacing a larger part sourced from a junkyard.  

  5. Ariella
    July 9, 2012

    @FlyingScot The quote attributed to Albert Einstein is “Make everything as simple as possibe, but not simpler.” However, the attribution is not altogether simple, as evidenced by the discussion of the source in

  6. Wale Bakare
    July 9, 2012

    @Bolaji, here we are. We want them badly, we want to transform our life endeavours – Innovations. 

  7. Anna Young
    July 9, 2012

    At any of these Apple stores, the look-and-feel is that of ease of access and neat display

    You're absolutely correct Bolaji. I've visited Apple's store in Cambridge, UK. It never ceases to mesmerize its customer. It's sleek, inviting and captivating. I think the company is just ahead of its game

  8. _hm
    July 15, 2012

    It will be nice to see how Apple will sell its big screen TV in same Apple Stores?


  9. Barbara Jorgensen
    July 16, 2012

    Here's my mantra: KISS (Keep it simple, stupid)

  10. Anna Young
    July 26, 2012

    @_hm, it would be nice. Do you foresee a problem with Apple's TV screen?

  11. _hm
    July 26, 2012

    Yrs, poor performance very high price!

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