End-to-end visibility - Similar challenges for logistics supply chains and global IT systems performance
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Back in the early 1990s a marketing manager at Unisys, where I was working at the time, called me an “old trucker” (at least I think that is what she called me). She was referring to my background in, and obsession with logistics and supply chain. Having spent my first eight working years in what was then called storage and distribution, I was recruited by Burroughs (which later become Unisys) to sell distribution solutions. For a further eight years I parlayed that line of business background into selling and then bringing to market new logistics solutions. Since the mid-1990s my career has taken me away from that market although, to this day, I still live in an area of the UK that has become known as the logistics golden triangle, situated as it is between the M1, M6 and M69 motorways and now sporting the enormous Daventry International Rail Freight Terminal (DIRFT) as well.
Somehow, I have never lost an interest in the industry. I have been following closely the disruptions to global supply chains caused by a series of Black Swan events (something extraordinary that happens very rarely) that have happened so frequently over the past couple of years, they should perhaps be called Grey Swan events. So it was with some interest that I picked up and read the Raconteur Supply Chain Resilience supplement in the latest edition of the Sunday Times.
Very quickly I was struck, not only by the convergence of the information technology areas I research as an IT analyst onto the issues of supply chain resilience, but also the similarity of the underlying messages that company boards in particular, and business management in general, need to take heed of. At Bloor we promote the idea, that for businesses to survive and thrive in 21st Century, they need to be Mutable. In other words, they need to be very flexible and agile to deal with and take advantage of constant change.
The word that jumped out at me first was visibility. In fact, it was a lack of visibility through the whole supply chain that was being highlighted, the implication being that significant gaps still exist. I spend a lot of time understanding how business can gain end-to-end visibility in the performance of the infrastructure supporting business critical applications and services. In this world the growth of public cloud, IoT, Edge Computing and the fact that most businesses have poor visibility into the performance of global cloud and telecom networks have made genuine end-to-end visibility harder to achieve. The fact that physical supply chains are afflicted with a lack of visibility was a shock and a disappointment for me.
Back in the 1990s the technologies were developing to the point where end to end supply chain visibility in near real time was within the grasp of the industry. That is not to diminish the challenges of the cost and performance of global networks that existed at the time, nor the cost and responsibility for building out the underlying infrastructure around technologies such as RFID (Radio Frequency Identification). But I was aware back then that a lack of trust and collaboration within supply chains was perhaps an even bigger inhibitor to end-to-end supply chain visibility. Unfortunately supply chain visibility was often used as a weapon by which the larger players nearest the end customer in the chain achieved productivity advantages at the expense of component producers or, for example, grocery suppliers. If this is still the case Boards and senior management need to revisit these issues to build trust and true collaboration.
The Sunday Times supplement had contrasting and sometime competing views on the resilience of global supply chains and the adherence to JIT (Just in Time) philosophies. Gaps on supermarket shelves, shortages of test tubes, shortages of computer chips (amongst others) and the blockage of the Suez Canal all attest to there being, at the very least, fragility in some supply chains. JIC (Just in Case) additional stockholding, near-shoring and bringing suppliers physically near producers are all solutions being considered. Go and find the Sunday Times supplement and download it to read more about these issues and their potential solutions. What I want to highlight here are the tremendous developments that have occurred in IoT (the Internet of Things), AI (Artificial Intelligence), ML (Machine Learning), Data Architectures and Streaming Analytics, that offer the genuine prospect of better prediction of problems and real time (sometimes automated) responses to issues based on a clear understanding of priorities, be they service level, reputation or cost…or an amalgam of all three.
There are clearly implications for businesses to better understand and manage risk. Into that will come concerns about both cyber and physical security. And we haven’t even touched on issues around suitably trained staff availability. No doubt I and my colleagues at Bloor will be returning to these issues in future. However, despite being called an old trucker, I’m not sure I will be taking an HGV1 test anytime soon … but I might just dig out and dust off all my Institute of Freight Forwarders certificates of study. You never know, they might come in useful!