Sourcing Success in these Turbulent Times Require Long Term Planning and Cost Concessions

In a McKinsey article a few months back on How medium-size enterprises can better manage sources, McKinsey said that small and medium-size enterprises often struggle to find Procurement cost savings. Yet there are ways to do it while still pursing growth and providing a superior customer experience. The article, which concluded with an action plan for procurement cost savings, recommended:

  • establishing CoE teams
  • improving forecasting
  • expanding (the) use of digital procurement tools
  • gaining greater market intelligence
  • establishing a culture of — and process for — continuous cost improvement
  • incorporating supplier-driven product improvements

which, of course, are all great suggestions, and mostly address four of the five reasons that McKinsey give that prevent companies from reining in spending, which included

  • a lack of spending transparency (which would have to be corrected to improve forecasting)
  • talent gaps (which can be minimized with the right tools, market intelligence, and CoE teams)
  • underused digital tools and automation (which is directly addressed by using more of them)
  • exclusion of procurement and supply chain in business decision (which would hopefully be a byproduct of a corporate culture for continuous cost improvement that only happens when procurement and supply chain is not involved higher up)

but the fifth is largely unaddressed — the myopic focus on the short term which McKinsey claims could be addressed by putting more effort into planning and forecasting. But that doesn’t solve the problem.

Better forecasting will allow for longer contracts to be signed for higher volumes, which can lead to long term strategic supplier relationships, and better planning can allow this to happen, but this does not completely address the need for long term planning.

Supply Chains today are not the supply chains of the last ten to twenty years.

  • rare earths are even rarer
  • many critical raw materials are in increasingly limited or short supply
  • transportation can be unpredictable in availability and cost; even though most of the world declared COVID over in mid-2022, China still had mandatory lockdowns, ocean carriers scrapped many of their ships for insurance (and in some cases, post-panamax ships that had never made a single voyage), airlines furloughed too many pilots who found other jobs or just flat out retired, and the long-haul trucking in North America (the UK, and many first-world countries) has been on a steady decline for over a deacde
  • ESG/GHG/Carbon Requirements are escalating around the globe and you need to be in compliance (both in terms of reporting 1/2/3 and ensuring you don’t exceed any caps)
  • human/labour rights are escalating and you have to be able to trace compliance down to the source in some jurisdictions; you need suppliers who insist on the same visibility that you do
  • diversity is important not just to meet arbitrary requirements for government programs or arbitrary internal goals, but to ensure you have the right insight and expertise to solve all types of problems that might arise

And you can’t effectively address any of these problems unless you think long term AND accept that some of the solutions will cost more up front.

  • In mid November, the trading price for Neodymium (a rare-earth that is critical for the creation of strong permanent magnets, which makes it possible to miniaturize many electronic devices, including the [smart]phone you might be reading this on) was over $87,000 USD/mt. In comparison, hot roll steel was around $850 USD/mt. In other words, Neodymium was 100 times more expensive than steel. And while you can still buy steel for about the same price you could 10 years ago (it was around $900 USD/mt), Neodynmium is almost $20,000 more (as it was around $69,000 USD/mt in November 2013). It’s not the only rare earth to increase about 26% in 10 years, with further increases on the horizon. You need to have a strategy to minimize your need (which could include product redesigns that use more sustainable alternatives or recycling strategies that use recovered materials from older phone models). And when it comes to recycled materials, due to a historical lack of recycling efforts, or research into technologies to make recycling efficient and cost effective, recycled materials are almost always more expensive at first. Always. But as adoption increases, plants, technologies, and processes get more efficient, and the cost goes down (while, at the same time, raw material prices for materials in limited supply continue to go up). In other words, if you want to mitigate the ever-increasing costs for rare earths and other materials that are in limited supply, you have to incorporate the use of recycled materials, and maybe even invest in your own plants (and recycle your own phones you buy back because it’s cheaper just to buy them back and extract the rare earths yourself than buy the recycled rare earths from someone else).
  • Global trade is costly and unpredictable. Supply assurance is finally dictating near-sourcing and home-sourcing (which SI has been advocating for almost fifteen years, as inevitable disaster was the logical conclusion of outsourcing everything to China as eventually a pandemic, global spat, natural disaster, or other event would send shockwaves through the world when it severely disrupted the trade routes [because even though the chances of a pandemic, natural disaster on the scale of Krakatoa or the Valdivia earthquake, or another catastrophic event is minimal in any given year, over the course of a century, it becomes very likely]), and that is going to require re-investing in those Mexican factories (that worked just fine, by the way) you shut down twenty years ago, training appropriately skilled workers in low cost North American (or Eastern Europe) locales, and paying a bit more per unit (and even transportation until the carriers rebuild those routes). But in the long term, as global transportation costs continue to rise, and the local-ish resources get much more efficient (using the best technology we have to offer), your costs, and transportation risks, will go down while your competitor costs continue to go up.
  • if you don’t insist, and ensure, up front that your suppliers can report the data you need, how will you get it; chances are those suppliers need help and modern systems, which temporarily increase their operational costs as they install, integrate, and learn the systems; not more than a few cents here and there per unit, but a noticeable blip on the overall costs none-the-less
  • if you want suppliers that monitor their supply chain and insist on no slave/forced/child labour, appropriately treated and well paid labour, and, better yet, a community focus throughout the supply chain (so that the humans who mine the materials, harvest the food stuffs, weave the silk, or otherwise do the foundational work have a reasonable quality of life, health, and safety), you’re going to have to put the effort in to find them and the extra money to support them in their humanitarian efforts; since most of these workers in remote low-cost locales are paid pennies on your dollar, it’s another blip on the total cost to ensure they are paid every penny they deserve, but it’s still a blip; but you can’t afford not to do it if your jurisdiction has laws making you responsible for slave labour that later gets discovered in your supply chain
  • and while diversity shouldn’t cost more, since it’s the same number of employees, the reality is that the supply base embracing it could be a minority, and if these minority suppliers suddenly become in demand, market dynamics may kick in and they may charge a premium that your competitor will pay; but, as new challenges continue to arise, you will need the diversity to solve them; so, another blip in the cost you need to absorb

In other words, you need the long term focus to guarantee success, and you need to understand that, up front, it may cost a bit more. However, done right, your costs will decrease over time while your competitors’ costs skyrocket. So if you truly want success, in any high dollar, strategic, or emerging category, plan for the long term. And you will truly succeed.