Strengthening the Weakest Link

Continuing on with the pictorial representation of the supply chain and its many interlinks, I could not help but think of a chain link fence as a macro model. If one were to cut one link, the fence does not fall down, and the integrity is little affected.

This is the idea behind a mesh network and the Internet in general. One server going down does not kill worldwide communications, as there are innumerable paths around any node. Indeed, the dependability of a mesh network is based upon multiple paths for any single packet traveling down the electronic highway.

In considering the dependability of the electronics supply chain, anything we can do by using a multiplicity of potential materials, sources, configurations, communication pathways, and parallel workflows tends to look like our chain link fence. If one supplier (or one link) is cut, then having another or several other suppliers increases the likelihood of being able to manufacture or procure a product.

If my email goes down, I can always grab the phone. If my inside salesperson is sick, then there is another back-up person who can take my call. This is all very obvious, and it is so thoroughly worked into our everyday expectations that we don't really give much thought to avoiding a crisis that is about to come upon us. That is the very mindset that keeps emergency services going around the clock. I think we can agree that if a water pipe needs to be repaired, we should not wait until our living room chairs are floating in three feet of water before fixing it.

Any one link in a supply chain can be made more dependable by considering all of the things that not only can go wrong, but — even more valuable to the troubleshooting, repair, and recovery process — the things that have gone wrong. Where in your internal supply chain did the ball get dropped? What can be done to build in permanent processes that will avoid a similar negative recurrence?

Work Breakdown Structures (WBS) are often used as a planning tool for major projects undertaken by engineering during development cycles, but the WBS can also be used to retrace a problem's genesis and identify the specific point of “breakdown.” By using detailed, step-by-step flow diagrams mapping a department's internal supply chain for standardized processes, it becomes easy to identify where and when a process needs to be modified to help eliminate repeating problems.

An example of an internal supply chain would be in purchasing. The first link might be the MRP demand report that a computer has rendered to give visibility on upcoming material requirements. Prior to this link, sales and marketing, following their own internal supply chains, have given their input for the build forecast by providing booked sales orders and sales projections to the material planners to review and key into the MPR system. Sales orders are turned into work orders, and work orders drive the material requirements.

The end of one internal supply chain becomes the beginning of another; in this case, purchasing receives the MRP demand report and is required to move to the next inner link in its department's chain. Graphically, it looks like this: MRP report > Purchasing review > Soft copy preparation for RFQ > RFQ to suppliers > Returned RFQs compared and assessed for availability, price, etc. > Buyer selects suppliers for parts > Purchase order generated > Purchase order given to supplier.

This is a simplification for sure, but it does identify basic processes or steps that are in demand in order to effectuate the supply procurement. Hence, I refer to this internal process as a mini supply chain. Purchasing's last link will feed into manufacturing's first links.

Now, if we consider that every effort to improve the dependability of any single link in a supply chain will help the effectiveness of the entire chain overall, then should we not examine our internal processes with more than just a “how to make things work” approach? Instead, let's expand our usefulness and dependability to the incoming and outgoing links by creating or enhancing our departments with the supply chain concept in mind. Every other department is our customer, and we need to solicit their feedback on how we might improve our services to them.

In the final result, there is both a formal and informal network in every company. People learn who the producers are and who the slackers are. They know if they go through certain formal channels that something may take way too long to get done. They also know who they can go to if they want to get around the system and get the same or better results. Becoming an effective department supply chain manager means fewer incidences of being left out of the loop, happier customers, and a more harmonious workflow and environment.

If you manage a department, it does not matter what specific disciplines your people provide as much as how integrated are those disciplines into the rest of the company. Make sure your incoming and outgoing links are as dependable as you want your people to be.

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