Supply Chain Management Principles

By Daniel Stanton

Many people try to describe supply chain management by talking about what they do, which is a bit like describing a cake by giving someone a recipe. A different approach is to describe what supply chain management actually creates. To continue the cake example, that means describing how the finished cake tastes and what it looks like.

The ten principles illustrated here do a good job of describing supply chain management.

supply-chain-principles
Supply chain management principles.

Customer focus

Supply chain management starts with understanding who your customers are and why they’re buying your product or service. Any time customers buy your stuff, they’re solving a problem or filling a need. Supply chain managers must understand the customer’s problem or need and make sure that their companies can satisfy it better, faster, and cheaper than any competitors can.

Systems thinking

Supply chain management requires an understanding of the end-to-end system — the combination of people, processes, and technologies — that must work together so that you can provide your product or service. Systems thinking involves an appreciation for the series of cause-and-effect relationships that occur within a supply chain. Because they are complex systems, supply chains often behave in unpredictable ways, and small changes in one part of the system can have major effects somewhere else.

Bimodal innovation

The world of business is changing quickly, and supply chains need to keep up by innovating. Supply chains need continuous process improvement, or sustaining innovation, to keep pace with competitors. Lean, Six Sigma, and the Theory of Constraints are process improvement methods that can help with this task. Continuous process improvement isn’t sufficient, though, because new technologies can disrupt industries. This effect is called disruptive innovation. When a new solution for a customer’s needs emerges and becomes accepted, this solution becomes the new dominant paradigm. In other words, if you’re in the business of making buggy whips, you need to figure out how to make buggy whips better, faster, and cheaper than your competitors do, and at the same time, you need to figure out what the new dominant paradigm is going to be so that you know what you’re going to make when buggy whips are replaced by a different technology.

Collaboration

Supply chain management can’t be done in a vacuum. People need to work across silos inside an organization, and they need to work with suppliers and customers outside the organization. A “me, me, me” mentality leads to transactional relationships where people focus on short-term opportunities while ignoring the long-term results. This actually costs more money in the long run because it creates a lack of trust and an unwillingness to compromise among the players in the supply chain. An environment in which people trust one another and collaborate for shared success is much more profitable for everyone than an environment in which each person is concerned only with his or her own success. If you believe that you’ll be doing more business together in the future, and that the business with a particular customer will be profitable, then you are more likely to give them a deal on the products they are buying from you today. Also, a collaborative type of environment makes working together a lot more fun.

Flexibility

Because surprises happen, supply chains need to be flexible. Flexibility is a measurement of how quickly your supply chain can respond to changes, such as an increase or decrease in sales or a disruption in supplies. This flexibility often comes in the form of extra capacity, multiple sources of supply, and alternative forms or transportation. Usually, flexibility costs money, but it also has value. The key is understanding when the cost of flexibility is a good investment.

Suppose that only two companies in the world make widgets, and you need to buy 1,000 widgets per month. You may get a better price on widgets if you buy all of them from a single supplier, which would lower your supply chain costs. But you’d have a problem if that supplier experiences a flood, fire, or bankruptcy and can’t make widgets for a while. You may save on your purchase price for the widgets, but you’re stuck if anything goes wrong with that supplier.

If you bought some of your widgets from the other supplier — even at a higher cost — you wouldn’t be hurt as badly if the first supplier stopped making widgets. In other words, having a second supplier provides flexibility.

Think of the extra cost that you pay to the second supplier as a kind of insurance policy. You’re paying more up front to have that insurance policy, but in return, you’re increasing the flexibility of your supply chain.

Technology

The rapid evolution of technology, for moving physical products and for processing information, has transformed the way that supply chains work. A few years ago, we ordered things from a catalog, mailed in checks, and waited for our packages to be delivered. Today, we order products on our phones, pay for them with credit cards, and expect real-time updates until those packages are delivered to our doorsteps. Supply chain management requires understanding how technologies work and how to use them to create value at each step in the supply chain.

Global perspective

The ability to share information instantly and to move products around the world cheaply means that every company today operates in a global marketplace. No matter what product or service you provide, your company is global. As a supply chain manager, you must recognize that how your business depends on global factors to supply inputs and drive demand for outputs. You also need to think globally about the competition. After all, your company’s real competitive threat could be a company you’ve never heard on the other side of the planet.

Risk management

When you combine high performance requirements with complicated technologies and dependence on global customers and suppliers, you have a recipe for chaos. There are lots variables, and lots of things can go wrong. Even a small disturbance, like a shipment that gets delayed, can lead to a series of problems further down the supply chain, such as stockouts, shutdowns, and penalties. Supply chain management means being aware of risks and implementing processes to detect and mitigate threats. Stability may be the key to making supply chains work smoothly, but risk management is the key to avoiding or minimizing the costs of dealing with surprises. Done well, risk management can provide opportunities to capture value during times of uncertainty.

Visibility

You can’t manage what you can’t see, so supply chain management makes visibility a priority. Knowing what’s happening in real time (or close to real time) lets you make better decisions faster. Visibility comes at a cost, however: You have to build your supply chain in a way that lets you capture data about key steps in the process. The value of visibility is that it lets you make decisions based on facts rather than on intuition or uncertainty. Having better visibility into supply and demand allows you to optimize the amount of inventory that you hold throughout the supply chain.

Value creation

Supply chain management is about creating value — meeting your customers’ needs in the right place, at the right time, at the right level of quality, for the lowest cost. This value is the heart of supply chain management. If I had to pick just one principle to describe the whole process of supply chain management, it would be value creation.