Lack of Visibility Kills

I know it’s Saturday, and I know you’re probably expecting me to talk about something along the lines of Flaming Laptops since I usually take the day off from sourcing, but something happened this week that not only cost many large retailers a significant amount of money, but killed someone. If you haven’t figured it out yet, I’m referring to the E. coli outbreak that has hit 20 states (so far) as a result of tainted spinach.

Even though Wal-Mart Stores Inc., Safeway Inc., SuperValue Inc., and other major grocery chains stopped selling spinach and removed it from their shelves and salad bars, the problem is not over – since investigators still are not sure about the source of the problem, which they believe to be somewhere in California’s Monterey County, which grows more than half of the nation’s spinach crop.

The CNN article seems to suggest that the nation’s “fractured network” of food safety agencies is the problem – that they do not “communicate” well enough, implying that one of the agencies, or someone at one of the agencies, did not do their job. I do not think that is the problem. As far as I’m concerned, the problem lies with Wal-Mart, Safeway, SuperValue, and every other chain that sold the spinach. You should know who your suppliers are. You should be aware of their health and safety processes and policies. You should verify that they do regular health and safety inspections or do your own. Your supply chain should be visible to you and you should know that you can trust everyone in it and that everyone in it is doing their job.

It’s not just the benefits of global visibility, or the costs associated with having to trash or scrap and write-off a large buy since the quality was sub-par and the product unusable. In cases where you are producing a product for public consumption, lack of visibility, as this example clearly demonstrates, can produce a product so unsafe that someone dies. And that’s going to cost you a lot more than the high dollar lawsuit sure to come your way – it’s going to cost you brand image, customers, and if you’re the poor sap whose job it was to insure quality, a hell of a lot of sleep.

I’m not saying you need to rush out and buy a six, seven, or eight figure visibility solution (although I’m sure Apexon would love to talk to you if you thought that was the answer for you), although a solid visibility solution is definitely worth a reasonable investment, but that you need to develop a visibility mindset. Institute processes to make sure each supplier meets your health, safety, and quality requirements, perform your own random checks, make sure your suppliers do their checks when they say they do, and to the required level of quality, and, finally, make sure your suppliers have a culture of making sure their suppliers aspire to the same level of health, safety, and quality that they do. Visibility needs to permeate your supply chain to provide maximum benefit.