Is There a Right Way to Build an Agile, Adaptable and Resilient Supply Chain?
Guest Post By Christine Barnhart, Senior Director – Product & Industry Market Strategy, Infor
I’m asked on a regular basis for the best practices on building a robust supply chain that not only is able to weather disruptions but thrive in today’s volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous (VUCA) environment.
This question always makes me giggle, as my response never changes: “It depends.” For those of familiar with Six Sigma programs, you know this time-tested response. Your plan for improvement always is informed by where you are today and how you want to leverage your resources to go somewhere else. Improving your supply chain is no exception.
I think that all too often we jump to technology and believe that implementing a new solution or upgrading a system will fix all our issues. But new tools or software alone can’t fix the myriad issues that supply chains face every day.
While few businesses came through the pandemic unscathed, some fared better than others. We can learn from their success and utilize that knowledge to inform the journey and create some best practice suggestions for others hoping to build an agile, resilient and adaptable supply chain – one that thrives even in the harshest economic conditions.
Three Keys to Building a Strong Supply Chain
1. Don’t start with technology. Look at your people first.
People are the most important resource for any company: They are your greatest asset and play the largest and most central role in your success or failure. Tools are built to support your employees, make it easier and more efficient to access data, uncover insights, make decisions and observe outcomes. Your team will reflect the characteristics of the supply chain that you build. If you want a resilient, adaptable and agile supply chain, you need supply chain professionals who are resilient, adaptable and agile in their thinking, rational and problem-solving skills.
Supply chain leaders and professionals who embrace change, actively engage in continuous learning, have demonstrated an appetite for innovation and experimentation, and are undaunted by ambiguity are able to build supply chains that perform better during global health crises, geo-political strife, climate disasters and rapidly changing socioeconomic shifts.
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2. Buying a tool that moves poor business practices onto a technology platform will not yield sustainable improvements or results.
I’ve lost track of the number of times that I’ve seen improvement projects fail simply because we were unwilling to change our mindset and shift a business process or practice because “This is how we’ve always done it.” Leaders must take a step back, look at the problem or the business need from a different angle, and ensure we are really thinking about the No. 1 goal – satisfying our customers – in everything we do.
I would argue that after customer needs, we need to address employee needs. (See 1. above. Employees are your greatest resource for success!) Do your business processes make sense? Are they efficient? Easy to understand? Have you given your employees the “right” tools to enable them to make decisions faster and without spreadsheet Olympics? As an engineer, I love data but even I recognize that simply building data lakes – which, more often than not, are data swamps – and providing business intelligence or analytics tools in not enough. Pulling data into static spreadsheets for analysis and decision-making is not only time-consuming but it ignores a fundamental characteristic of all supply chains: That they are constantly in motion and ever-changing.
3. Real-time collaboration and decision-making is critical to success.
Connecting your employees to one another is important. But to be successful in overcoming disruption, you must connect to your entire supply chain network. This means all your trading partners: customers, suppliers, carriers, forwarders, etc.
Email doesn’t work – it is slow and time-consuming. Phone calls are great for a subset of interactions but not scalable across vast, global ecosystems. Point solutions that live on islands of data yield sub-optimal results because they optimize the silo at the expense of the whole. The solution is obvious: You must create digitalized ecosystems on a shared cloud platform that leverages artificial intelligence and machine learning, so that you can automate routine decisions and provide the necessary insights and decision support to your employees for more complex and intricate recommendations.
Companies leveraging a supply network powered by a robust multi-enterprise business network (MEBN) have fared better over the last 18 months because they have broken down their internal, enterprise silos and those with their trading partners. In particular, collaboration with suppliers and customers on forecasts, orders, deliveries, etc. have allowed leaders to better manage all aspects of their supply chain, including minimizing shortages and late deliveries, better leveraging transportation spend, and managing inventory buffers.
While no company was immune to the pandemic’s impacts, providing employees with robust and easy-to-use tools that serve up insights and prioritize issues based on business impact has allowed some to minimize cost and service issues. Leveraging MEBNs to create collaborative and mutually beneficial supply networks has supported “virtual vertical integration,” providing greater agility and adaptability for the enterprise and its suppliers and customers – and creating a win-win-win!
Take the Steps Required to Achieve Supply Chain Nirvana
There may not be one right way to create agile, adaptable and resilient supply chains, but by recognizing that people are the backbone of any successful company and ensuring that they have clear goals, robust business processes, easy-to-use technology and productive tools that support multi-enterprise collaboration and informed decisions, you can take a giant leap to Supply Chain Nirvana – and success today and tomorrow.
Christine Barnhart is the Senior Director of Product and Industry Market Strategy for Infor’s supply chain solutions. She brings expertise from more than 20 years of expertise in manufacturing, purchasing and planning with companies that include Berry Global, Mead Johnson Nutrition and Whirlpool. In 2018, she was recognized as one of the "Top Women in Supply Chain" by Supply and Demand Chain Executive.