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Making Supply Chain Visibility Visible

If it's not one tool a supply chain manager needs, it's another. Or maybe it's not really more tools that are needed, but rather the patience and wherewithal to understand the tools you already have and how to make them work together to do more for you.

Supply chain visibility may fall into this category.

It's debatable whether visibility should be a stand-alone system or something more comprehensive than a single software platform. And it's usually safe to say that existing ERP and warehouse management systems may not go far enough in extrapolating all the “right” data needed to increase visibility within complex, global supply chains.

But, as Patty Stafford, a senior business consultant at Worldwide Chain Stores, noted during a recent World Trade Group webinar (the archived file will be posted here), there are several components vital to this aspect of supply chain management. The key ones, she said, include:

  • Connectivity. Having a “universal adaptor” technology that can access information from various tools and systems, convert data into a common format, and integrate with the existing supply chain execution tools will help deliver a more immediate response or action.
  • Data repository. Information needs to be stored in a safe place, where it can be accessed, shared, and analyzed internally and by trading partners.
  • Alerts and notifications. Companies have to reduce “alert overkill,” this practice of notifying too many people about too many “problems.” By developing better pre-defined notification conditions, more thoroughly assessing who needs to be notified and when, and refining how matters are more appropriately escalated will reduce “alert fatigue” and increase visibility.
  • Visibility and analysis. Configurable analytics and user-defined rules-based screen displays could improve and gives users the flexibility they need to manage inventory and respond to supply chain disruptions.
  • Sourcing and execution. Integrating visibility with execution tools is important to fully leverage across-the-board capabilities to avoid and solve problems.

While this may look like a hard to manage and even harder to do kind of list, some of the tools and data may already be in your system. They just may not be used in the right combination. Stafford said:

Trying to manage your complex, supply chain network without supply chain visibility is like trying to steer a ship in the fog. You don't see the rocks until you're on top of them, and when you do see them, it may be too late to save the ship or your bottom line. Today's advanced visibility systems clear that fog from the network so that you can navigate around the rocks and avoid disruptions, delays and other problems that plague supply chains on a daily basis…

I find the biggest challenge companies face

[on the journey to supply chain visibility] is one you'd think is easiest to fix: The ability to display and use information in a meaningful and timely manner. Many times, our clients have a WMS [warehouse management system] or an ERP system, and they don't have an understanding of what is in that system currently. They also tend to look at that data in isolation. Where supply chain visibility really becomes a true benefit is to take data from many systems and create feeds in a meaningful and timely manner.

How is your organization making data available in a meaningful and timely manner? How has that given you more visibility into what's happening in the supply chain? And has it made you more responsive, flexible, and loved by supply chain partners?

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4 comments on “Making Supply Chain Visibility Visible

  1. Ariella
    May 7, 2013

    @Jennifer I like the way he put it: “Trying to manage your complex, supply chain network without supply chain visibility is like trying to steer a ship in the fog. You don't see the rocks until you're on top of them, and when you do see them, it may be too late to save the ship or your bottom line.”  Timing is everything, and hindsight visibility doesn't help you as much as seeing where you're going before you get there.

  2. FLYINGSCOT
    May 8, 2013

    It is a real skill managing the big data that companies generate,  Those that can master it are successful and this is often made a lot easier by havig the correct tools like SAP etc.

  3. t.alex
    May 13, 2013

    It is an interesting analogy to compare with steering a ship through fog. Really, we need advanced technology and systems to see through all of this. 

  4. gary.meyers
    May 13, 2013

    We're finding just the sort of “pain” you describe in your article in our work with supply chain business managers in manufacturing firms using on-premise ERP systems like SAP.  We had one customer tell us that it took them nearly a year to develop a single On Time In Full (OTIF) KPI.  This is a big problem.  As Gartner famously said a couple of years ago, 70-80% of BI projects fail.  

    Rather than spending months or years using do-it-yourself BI tools, many companies are now discovering the benefits of a purpose-built supply chain application.  Using cloud-based Big Data technology, combined with best practice pre-built supply chain analytics, they solve the visiblity challenge in days, and enable their business users with tremendous self-service capabiility.

    As your article says, “While this may look like a hard to manage and even harder to do kind of list, some fo the tools and data may already be in your system.  They just may not be used in the right combination.”  Indeed, the data is already in the system, but there's a reason this critical visiblity has not been available in the past – the job was just too hard (or too costly) with the tools at hand.  New capabilities provided by the cloud, Big Data, and domain-specific applications are finally making Supply-Chain Visibility Visible, and smart manufacturing firms are leveraging it for their competitive advantage.

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