Our new global economy has opened the door to more opportunities than ever. Businesses have never had so many choices for products and services, or the chance to work so efficiently across borders. Technology has expanded options, as instant communication has made it possible to carry on business in three (or more) continents simultaneously. And the global nature of these innovations makes supply chain management more important than ever.
Companies are beginning to recognize the importance of maximizing supply chain efficiency and minimizing costs. In a 2012 U.S. Supply Chain Survey conducted by IDC Manufacturing Insights, 80% of supply chain managers reported that reducing their total supply chain costs was a top priority. And supply chain improvements can have positive implications across the board: A freight transportation infrastructure study by Boston Strategies International showed that a 10 percent reduction in direct transportation costs would result in supply chain improvements that could reduce companies’ overall operating costs by 1 percent.
Successful management of a global supply chain can be daunting — there are so many moving parts than ever before — but there are steps that can help your company tackle the inevitable issues and take advantage of the opportunities.
Review Your Talent Pool — Three-fifths of the supply chain management executives who responded to a 2013 PricewaterhouseCoopers’ survey said that the “acquisition or development of supply chain talent and skills” was essential to their current success. Note the word “development”. Of course your company can hire new talent, but you can also better utilize existing staff by ensuring their skills are up to date. Provide ongoing and intensive training, whether through internal education or by outsourcing training to supply chain management academies.
Focus Your Energies While Broadening Your Horizons — It’s not just training that can be outsourced. Consider your company’s core competencies. Where does your company shine? What are the tasks your managers and staff must do? Are there any that could be done more effectively out-of-house? Outsourcing can focus your staff’s energies and help them perform at the top of their game. And keeping a global perspective can be very cost-effective. According to a 2013 white paper by Fifth Third Bank, analysts report that companies can substantially lower supply chain expenses by identifying countries or regions with low-cost suppliers (and by keeping managerial staff limited).
Communicate and Collaborate — An optimized supply chain is just that, not a bunch of independent activities and functions, but a chain. All of its links — from small internal departments to large global trading partners — must communicate with each other in order to optimize efficiency. Better communication and collaboration between manufacturers, suppliers and retailers can improve everything from data-driven forecasting to inventory management.
Today’s technology can make communication easier than ever. Andrea Robinson, the UK business development manager for CargoWise, suggests that “using a single automated database ensures trading partners can communicate in a language compatible with other companies to identify common key performance indicators that provide a level of integration for shared systems and processes.”
Embrace Technology — An investment in information technology is critical for supply chain infrastructure development. IT supply chain solutions can:
- Organize and unify supply chain processes
- Integrate department activities
- Enable sharing of software and information resources
- Provide metrics that help to evaluate performance
- Provide transparency
- Offer customer service
- Identify trends and changes more quickly and enable the supply chain to respond faster to both
Mobile technology can also be a supply chain game-changer. According to Ms. Robinson, “This technology can help improve field sales, merchandizing and marketing, and enable direct services to the consumer (through customized location-based coupons or services that improve employee productivity in the field). Providing information such as provenance, origin, item contents and specialized information on demand about sustainability, local content or manufacturing methodology enhances the brand and allows companies to connect directly with the consumer.”
Of course, an investment in IT is like any other. It’s vitally important to assess your needs, conduct a thorough search, and carefully choose the right solution for your company.
Plan (but keep an open mind) – IT solutions can also aid in planning, by providing information that helps to predict needs, forecast trends, and identify strengths and weaknesses within a supply chain. Companies can (and should) utilize this information to set goals, remembering to be realistic, flexible, and open to input from collaborators. “Adaptability is key!” was one of the takeaways from a recent successful supply chain optimization by HP, the operator of the largest IT supply chain in the world.
By following many of the steps above, HP was able to “streamline, simplify, standardize” and profit. By optimizing its global supply chain, the company leveraged scale spend and common parts; consolidated suppliers manufacturing partners and logistics providers; eliminated unnecessary or duplicate nodes; reduced the number of drivers; and decreased the number of IT processes and applications used.
HP also learned a few lessons along the way. As mentioned, the company found that adaptability is crucial, as is business continuity, especially during transformational efforts. But the most important idea behind the company’s success is also one of the simplest: Strong organizational leadership is essential. In the end, a thoughtful plan created by collaborative, creative leaders is the strongest link in an optimized global supply chain.