Global Supply Chain Visibility is No Easy Task

Supply chain visibility is no easy task – in fact, defining what it means can be a challenge in itself. What is your definition of supply chain visibility? Is it data visualization, business intelligence, and analytics, or is it a collaboration tool used to connect your trading partners and suppliers? The answer is not always that clear because supply chain visibility has to take on all of those roles to fill the promise of true insight and near real-time reporting.

We can all agree that we want access to more data, that we want to make better decisions and that we want to make those decisions faster. In fact, this is the promise behind the big data revolution. There are articles everywhere about big data and the latest mega-trends. The problem is we don’t always have access to the underlying data. It is held in disparate systems, and in some cases, different geographical locations with a whole host of other problems. Even the data we have can present problems, ranging from data transformation to currency conversion.

You often hear of the importance of the three ‘”Vs” —  Variety, Volume and Velocity — but I question this. Is there too much variety in the data, do we have too much data to deal with or is the speed at which the data is being created too fast for us to keep up with it? There is another challenge which may be even more fundamental than harnessing the data itself and that is collaboration. Collaboration is vital to the success of your organization’s visibility plan, and may be the single largest determinant in the success of your project, with very good reason. By their very nature, supply chains operate through collaboration — it is essential to the movement of goods and the method by which your goods make it from point A to Z. This means you have to design a supply chain visibility solution around your trading partners and suppliers. Any effective solution needs to support both your internal and external partners and actively enable them to participate in the flow of goods throughout your entire process for any workflow.

Let us take a look at how visibility in your supply chain can extend from the sourcing of raw material all the way to the delivery of finished goods to a consumer. To achieve this level of visibility you have to define your schema. What does your supply chain look like at the various stages of the process? First look at sourcing, then the purchase order process, order management, track and trace, all the way through to reconciliation. As you go through this process you can begin to diagram where you have collaboration events, manual updates and when alerts need to be triggered.

Your objective is to design a solution which is mapped to your supply chain workflows and processes. At each stage in the process, from the ordering of raw materials all the way through to the delivery of a finished good, you need to identify the events in each stage and then map them to Key Performance Indicators (KPI) or dashboards. At each stage you can trigger different events to update statuses. From a data visualization perspective, you could then color code it, perhaps using the traffic light shorthand of Green, Yellow, and Red tags to highlight executed, at-risk, and missed events. Alerts and flags are set to alert us to potential and actual issues. This is the direct route to improving collaboration.

One approach to achieving supply chain visibility is to deploy a solution in the form of an online community where members can exchange order information, order statuses, and other vital statistics in near real-time. The challenge here is working with your trading partners and suppliers and getting them to participate in your solution. I recommend you engage them early in the process if you want to succeed. Keep in mind updates should be done behind the scenes through Electronic Data Interchange (EDI), Web Services or other protocols and should not require human intervention. It is the things that can result in a work stoppage or a budget overrun that we want to focus our resources on, as they present the most risk.

Another approach is to implement best practices and reduce supply chain complexity through platform consolidation. Moving to a platform approach can help ease both user and system level access to the supporting data elements. A platform approach can help establish links between the different processes or stages in your various workflows. It’s important to look for software solutions that can tie stages together — e.g., Enterprise Resource Planning, Order Management Systems, Transportation Management, Warehouse Management, B2B Data Exchange, Multi-Modal Transport, Customs Compliance, and Visibility. It’s not as much about data consolidation as it is about having access to the right data at the right time.

Information sharing is collaboration at its best. To do this you have to ensure the architecture is open. You will want to confirm that connections to all those disparate systems are available as there is no homogeneous system out there. They are all bound by some common thread or data connection.

While true supply chain visibility is not an easy task, you should view supply chain innovation and disruptive technologies as competitive differentiators if you want to compete and win in today’s quickly changing world. Innovative thinkers and data-driven companies are proving to be the market leaders. To be successful you have to not only invest in supply chain visibility solutions, but think of this as an ongoing journey and process as there will always be new suppliers to onboard, new technology to integrate, data to be mined, etc.

Although this is no easy task, the benefits are substantial, and by implementing the right solution you can improve collaboration and expose opportunities across multiple channels by eliminating blind spots. Visibility does not need to be an elusive goal.

Larry Lewis is the Director of Product Marketing responsible for driving Kewill’s solutions across the Courier, Express and Parcel markets with responsibilities for the company’s multi-modal shipping and spend management products and services. Larry has over 12 years of experience in software and high-tech industries. Prior to Kewill, he was the co-founder, CTO and COO of Pointandship Software where he led the design and development teams for their Shipping Expense Management software. Prior to co-founding Pointandship Software, Larry was the COO at Comm360 System Integrators.