When I am attempting to improve a process or define a strategy, I am concerned with the amount of effort, resources, and time that will be spent or saved. After assessing the tradeoffs and determining whether the initial effort should be pursued, I can approach the actual work with a level of confidence that will help promote or justify whatever decisions I have made. This is assuming I have the information or resources necessary to make a correct analysis.
In any supply chain, both knowns and unknowns must be factored into overall and individual decisions and plans. The more visibility I have over the entire length of the chain, the more informed my strategy will be. Decreased visibility will raise the risk of a bad decision or incomplete strategy. If I am going to base actual efforts or establish real dependencies on the resultant plans, I better be sure I can anticipate all the risk possible and have some manner of backup or contingency plans in place.
Alternate sourcing is the most obvious contingency for materials issues. If I can buy from multiple suppliers, my product availability is on safer ground. If I cannot, how do I minimize my outages without a huge bankroll for risk or contingency buying? What are my alternatives?
I need to ask some very essential questions. First, I will go to the source that generated the requirement. In most cases, that is the design engineer. I will ask the engineer if there is any way to modify the design to eliminate the hard-to-find part. If the answer is no, I will ask if there are several parts that can be used to replace it. If the answer is no, I will ask if the technology in the design can be replaced while achieving the same results. If the answer is still no, I will inquire as to the benefits of the new design to the product's feature set. If the component or assembly is essential to the feature, I will ask marketing if the feature is absolutely necessary to fulfill a customer's requirement. If it is an add-on feature, maybe the customer doesn't need it, because 99 percent of the customers wouldn't use it anyway. It may be just a nice-to-have feature.
This line of thought may seem intrusive, but be careful of designing anything that is overdeveloped. Sometimes if the feature enabled by the hard-to-find component is not essential to the overall function, the feature can be designed out, and the product's cost can be lowered.
The supply chain is a function of both supply and demand. Sometimes the best strategy for increasing demand is to reduce cost. Sometimes cost can be reduced by eliminating features. Sometimes features can be eliminated by watching for the engineering phenomena known as creeping elegance or feature creep. This usually happens somewhere toward the middle of the design or development process, when someone asks, “Can you add this function or feature?”
The additional feature was never part of the original product requirement document, and feature creep costs extra engineering hours and resources. When engineering has the design reviews, make sure marketing is represented. It may opt out of an additional feature if it would delay the product's delivery. Meanwhile, back at the purchasing department, the pressure is off, and life returns to normal.
If this sounds too complicated, remember it all started by asking a few questions before kicking everyone into high emergency gear. Take the time to ask the questions. Watch for feature creep, and by all means, understand that your best supply chain strategy begins by making sure your internal operations don't surreptitiously generate any unnecessary demands.
Generally speaking, the shorter the chain, the more manageable it is. If you eliminate noncritical links by identifying paths and tributaries that need not be taken, you are already ahead. Creeping elegance is best combated by the elegance of simplicity.