Businesses have the answers to create a supple supply chain… they just can't see them
Kit Kyte, CEO, Checkit
Over the past 18 months, the global supply chain has been tested from one extreme to the other. From almot total shutdown at the start of the pandemic to an over-indexed response now. Factor in Brexit, evolved regulations, staff shortages, politicking, Suez Canal blockages, protests and whipped-up media demand and it’s little surprise we’re in the situation we are in.
The short-term prognosis doesn’t look great either. The upcoming retail shopping bonanzas of Black Friday and Christmas will test the sector further. No surprise then that Made.com has recently warned supply problems could stretch into 2022 and that a cross-party commission created to scrutinise the UK’s post-Brexit trade deals has urged the government to ‘get a handle’ on the supply chain crisis.
Dealing with ‘dark operations’
Short-term talk of fast-tracking border controls and temporary work visas is exactly that - short term. For a sustainable, smooth and succinct supply chain in the future, businesses must look within and dig deeper into their own operations. More pertinently, the everyday issues that businesses do not possess the capacity to examine, understand and act upon.
The challenge for leaders is that they are managing a vast ecosystem of people and processes, spread across multiple locations and time zones. In many cases, reporting methods are outdated, creating knowledge gaps that leave organisations vulnerable to risk and unable to see opportunities for innovation - something known as ‘dark operations’. While the macro economic issues are beyond the control of businesses, this information and knowledge is well within their capabilities and was a problem long before the pandemic. It’s just that the re-starting of the world’s economy has shone a spotlight on the need to bring the dark into the light.
It's not the fault of the 2.7b deskless workers trying to deliver on the ground. They are digitally disconnected. They use pen-and-paper checklists, disparate spreadsheets and siloed legacy systems. These practices create black holes of insight and control, leaving businesses blind to risks and in danger of missing opportunities. Little wonder that the majority of them feel disillusioned, inadequately trained and deprived of the user-friendly technology that already augments their personal lives, clearly evidenced by the labour crisis we are facing.
Leaders need to be able to see what's working and what's not — not in the next set of monthly reports but right now. Real-time management visibility is vital. The key questions (who, what, where, when and how) can be answered if you make it easy for employees to log their activity and you leverage sensor networks for continuous monitoring. Businesses must capture front-line activity — not with paperwork that's damaged, lost, late or falsified but with digital tools that not only capture but also augment and add value to employees.
Resilience & agility
Outdated practices that stand in the way of information sharing at the necessary scale and pace of today’s operations will need to be replaced with a new mindset that focuses on continuous improvement. Resilience and agility are the two qualities that will characterise successful supply chains in the future. We’ve seen how fragile and interconnected they are so why would a business - any business - not want to try and identify and mitigate an issue before it arose?
Measuring footfall, location and task completion rates will enrich the data the supply chain is already getting, driving more meaningful insight into demand patterns and availability. Applying data analytics to the workforce will uncover hidden inefficiencies – duplicated tasks, paperwork that takes hours out of every day, lost or misdirected stock, employee churn that diverts productive hours into onboarding and training, obligations that are dropped during shift handovers. At the moment, it’s happening beyond the view of most managers.
To realise this vision, leaders need the ability to identify and address areas of weakness. They need closer engagement with the deskless workers who are so crucial to effective operations. They need to coordinate resources efficiently by liberating people from administrative tasks that don’t add value. They need accurate data to prove standards and SLAs are being met consistently in order to strengthen the confidence of customers, regulators and employees. Moving forward, supply chain leaders will look to augment their workforces with digital capabilities, ensuring they can adapt more quickly to global economic forces and other forms of disruption. Soon we'll see frontline people equipped with mobile apps that serve as digital assistants – guiding and capturing their activity in real-time, enabling collaboration and generating much-needed management insight.
Not tomorrow, today
In an environment of stress, pressure and problems it’s only natural for businesses in the supply chain to deal with today, and not tomorrow. But if the pandemic has taught us anything it is that supply chains cannot afford to operate in the dark. To be sustainable, there has to be a reliable flow of data to drive better decisions on improving efficiency, speed and transparency.