25 April 2012

Bad policies hurt the supply chain

I think just about everyone involved with understanding and managing supply chains agree that the supply chain works best when volatility is minimized. Some organizations go to great pain and expense trying to figure out ways to manage their supply chain when faced with sudden demand changes and volatility.

Nevertheless, many supply chain participants continue to maintain policies that actually increase volatility in their own supply chains. Here are some examples:

  1. Short-term promotional pricing
  2. Volume discounts linked to shipment batches
  3. Period-end promotions
  4. Salesperson incentives linked to period-end dates

Short-term promotional pricing

Short-term price promotions contribute to the bullwhip effect and create tremendous inefficiencies all up and down the supply chain. The policy—especially when repeated with some frequency—causes buyers to hoard product. They buy extra-large batches of product when “on sale,” and store it up against the days when the product is not “on sale.”

Some short-term promotions are so predictable that buyers actually delay purchases at regular prices knowing that, if they wait, they can buy at a lower price later.

By the time all of the costs and expenses to the supply chain are added up, it would be difficult—in most cases—to prove that short-term promotional pricing actually adds to the bottom line at all. In fact, studies by some firms specializing in creating and managing pricing mechanisms have shown that consistent pricing at a marginally lower level actually produces more sales and profits than higher prices accompanied by short-term promotions.

Consider a brand like Wal-Mart. This is a firm that has master-crafted its supply chain and built its reputation on consistently lower prices. By doing so, it has—over the last several decades—supplanted previously known giants in the retail industry such as Sears, Penney’s, Kmart and more. Yet, Wal-Mart is not known for “sales” (i.e., short-term promotions). It is known for its consistently lower prices.

Volume Discounts linked to shipment batches

Let me say, off the bat, that there is nothing wrong with volume discounts, per se. The problem is linking volume discounts to transfer batches. In order to realize volume discounts without causing supply chain hoarding and needless volatility, the volume discounts should be separated from the shipment batch.

For example, your customer might get a volume discount if they agree to buy 100,000 units next year, but you might agree to transfer them to them in relatively equal weekly or monthly shipments. This evens out production (on the supply end), warehousing (on the receiving end), and doesn’t make it look like someone sold 50,000 units in March and another 50,000 units in September with little or no activity between.

Period-End Promotions and Salesperson Incentives linked to Period-End Dates

These two are frequently related. Salespeople with the need to reach certain goals for end-of-quarter or end-of-year sales, in order to boost their commissions, begin a big push. This push is usually accompanied by some authority to also offer special discounts.

All up and down the supply chain, prices are being discounted, volatility is being recklessly increased, and, all the while, production lines and warehouses are increasing their operating expenses to meet the boost in demand. Overtime and extra staffing costs are eating up the lion’s share of the profits that might otherwise have been generated if volatility had been reduced, rather than increased, by rational policies.


Of course, there are other wrong-headed policies that needlessly lead to higher volatility in our supply chains, but these are a few that come to mind. These are things well within the span of control of executives and managers where corrective action is easy and at little or no cost. It just take rethinking the way we do business and not being afraid to gore some existing “sacred cows.”

20 April 2012

Understanding the “chain” in supply chain management

After 30 years of growth and development, I am not at all certain that I would rename “supply chain management” to anything else. What I might try to do is to get people to recognize the real implications of the name it already has.

Let's look at that key middle word in the name: "chain."

Very few organization "manage" the supply chain as a "chain."

A great many managers and executives are content to manage only their "link" in the chain. If things don't go well, they may try to substitute one connected link for another (e.g., change vendors or find new customers, for example). But they do not recognize or manage the chain as a chain. They still manage pretty much within the four walls of their own "link" (i.e., company).

The important thing to understand about a "chain" is the interdependence of the links and that the strength of the entire chain is governed entirely by the strength of the weakest link in the chain.


The interdependence of a chain should drive organizations inexorably toward supply chain collaboration and, even further, toward a genuine mutuality. In many cases, the fastest, best and most secure way for organizations to improve their own profitability is to work together with other supply chain participants to strengthen the weakest link in the chain—not seeking to replace that link. That means that all the participants in the supply chain—or at least the strategic links—must be (or become) open to collaboration and even invite new ideas from other participants in the chain.

Collaboration and end-to-end data sharing can help end the damaging effects of "the bullwhip," help firms in the supply chain break their frequently misguided addiction to large batch sizes, and help redefine purchasing and pricing metrics that can lead to more frequent replenishment while holding both truly variable costs and operating expenses low for all the participants.

High-level meetings should be sought between executives and managers for all the critical players in the supply chain. The healthiest supply chains are those where all the participants are making satisfactory profits and a few strong players in the supply chain are not using their leverage to increase profits through policies that weaken other important links in the chain.

How can you tell when your "supply chain management" team is beginning to act like they are part of a "chain" and not just content to manage their own "link"? Look for the following signs:

  1. Metrics and actions taken for improvement reach outside "our link" and efforts are made to optimize the "whole chain" by identifying and seeking to strengthen the weakest link.
  2. Management up and down the supply chain have learned to not ignore the industry's larger ecosystem. They monitor the ecosystem for signs of impending change, manage proactively, and share information freely.
  3. Supply chain managers recognize that there will always be a "weakest link" and, while seeking to strengthen the present "weakest link," learn to pace the flow of products by the "drum" of the present "weakest link." They also recognize that any loss of productivity at the present "weakest link" is productivity lost to the whole supply chain. (As a corollary, supply chain managers should recognize that time, energy and money spent strengthening links other than the present "weakest link" will not improve the performance of the "chain.")
  4. Managers and executives involved in the supply chain have ceased using metrics stuck in "cost-world" thinking and have seen that it is synchronizing product flow and increasing throughput that lead to ongoing improvement and higher profits.
  5. Supply chain managers have recognized that profits depend upon meeting customers' needs and demands, and that understanding these needs and demands is essential from product design forward through all the processes and links in the supply chain.
  6. Collaboration across the supply chain begins with product design so that maximum external variety (end-products) can be achieved with minimal internal variety (raw materials, components and subassemblies).
  7. Supply chain collaboration is leading to strategic flexibility in both products and the processes of maintaining supply chain flows.
  8. Wherever possible, all along the supply chain, the flow of product is buffered with capacity rather than inventory. (Supply chain partners may make strategic capital investments in other parts of the supply chain to build needed capacities as part of the collaboration.)
  9. Managers and executives involved in the supply chain have made it a priority to develop strategic alliances and partnerships all along the supply chain in order to recognize and strengthen the present "weakest link."
  10. All across the supply chain, metrics focus on increasing throughput (not cutting costs).
  11. Forecasts are still used for planning, but "pull" is used to drive all execution in the supply chain.
  12. The focus is now on synchronizing the flow of product across the supply chain, not on balancing supply chain capacities.


On the contrary side, some "big dogs" (or "big dog" wannabees) in the supply chain think they are managing "the chain," but they treat it more like a "leash." They yank their smaller suppliers around until their suppliers are either driven out of business or simply won't do business with the "big dogs" at all any more.

This kind of attitude is bad for business and bad for the economy in general. The best suppliers are profitable suppliers. If any organization is destroying the supply chain's profitability one link at a time, it is destroying its supply chain by weakening one link after another. These weak links will not have reserve capacities to respond to changes in demand or make up for supply chain losses when "Murphy" strikes.

P.S. - I was going to write on the other words (i.e., "supply" and "management"), but this is probably enough for now. Thanks.