Visibility in Supply Chain

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Supply Chain Leaders

Visibility in Supply Chain

A recent Harvard Business Review Analytic Services and GEP study showed that more than 72% of companies believed their key supply chain capabilities—supply planning, demand planning, supplier risk management, warehousing and logistics, procurement, and inventory management—to be digitally immature. New technologies can provide comprehensive supply-chain visibility with real-time data and intelligence to help companies make timely and effective decisions based on shifting market dynamics. While attaining clear visibility into the entire supply chain seems to be a daunting task, it is not an OPTION anymore but a MUST for companies. The Covid-19 pandemic has only accentuated this very fact. Our recent Webinar, ‘Real-time Visibility in Logistics’ offered fascinating facets into what visibility means to the stakeholders and how enhanced visibility is the only way forward for companies. Here’s presenting you the excerpts from the engaging webinar sponsored by LogiCloud and moderated by Sanjay Desai, Cofounder & Regional Director, Humana International (S) Pte. Ltd.


Apurva Mankad, Founder & CEO, LogiCloud and WebXpress India

What do you mean by visibility?

The very idea of visibility is how do I remove uncertainty from my day-to-day life be it supplying cargo, unloading at the warehouse, so on. India is a diverse country. We have 9 million fleet in India, which is more than population of some of the countries. More than 90% of fleet are owned by people with just 5 vehicles or less. When we have such a wide fragmentation, the scope for visibility is humungous. Improving visibility is one of the toughest jobs to achieve for any company be it even Google. I think if we can reduce the plight of people who are waiting at the bus stop to catch the next bus is when we would be able to proudly say that we have achieved visibility in a true sense. I hope to do work in that area in the future.

How can we bring the small players or small suppliers into the visibility ecosystem to ensure end-to-end transparency?

The supply chain is as good as its weakest link. World over the supply chain consists of small as well as large players. Unless you bring the small players into the gamut, you can’t achieve the visibility objective. I will give you an example… we are working with a big retail client in India, they run more than 350 retail fashion stores across the country. Getting material to sell in those stores is dependent on probably 500+ small manufacturing companies. Unless they don’t bring all these players into the ecosystem, they will not be able to do a good job of prediction and in making sure that the stores are having all the SKUs at the right time. For many decades, these companies have been ignored because firstly they don’t have the IT system in place, or they didn’t have the maturity in place, or they were considered too small to worry about. Today that’s not the case. It’s not restricted to manufacturing only, all the partners in the ecosystem need to be brought into the visibility space like the small transportation partners. Companies need to incentivize their partners to get onto the visibility journey. Once they realize the benefits, they will certainly be a part of the change. But until that happens, it’s of no use. It should be the responsibility of big players to bring onboard their partner ecosystem for the real change to happen.

Can you talk about trust & transparency?

Transparency is all about visibility. One should be willing to get the visibility or allow the transparency to go to your partner. One of the traditional problems has been that people don’t want to tell you where they are. Traditionally there has been a trust deficit between supply chain partners especially the logistics partners and the shippers of goods who are always at loggerheads. There is also trust deficit in terms of what service has been provided or not been provided. First thing we need to ensure is building trust. It will help both the partners to declare to each other the updates which might have an impact on other’s operations. There’s a big change culturally as far as the supply chains in India are concerned. Yes, there is a long way to go. As we move forward, this will only improve from hereon.

What are the opportunities that young minds have in the digital world?

Young minds are going to be the key in the future. They don’t have the baggage of the past. The young generation is way more open to adopting technology. They need to be backed with the right capital. That’s why we are seeing a huge influx of start-ups, particularly in India.

What is the best way to achieve supply chain visibility?

Experimenting is critical whoever wants to go in for supply chain visibility solution. For example, one company went on thinking about how a control tower should be like for close to 18 months. The result is that the control tower didn’t see the light of the day. The essence is one must start somewhere and then iron out complexities and inefficiencies arising in the system. The companies should take a pragmatic approach. They should look at where do they stand currently. If you are at 0, go to next milestone, i.e., 1 and so on. The technology needs to be easily deployable into your supply and give you some results on day 1. If you deploy a technology into your system and it gives you results after 30 days, then there is something wrong with that. For sure, one may not be happy with the result in its entirety, but there must be a start.

What are your clients’ expectations?

Involving multiple logistics partners is a must for our customers but bringing them all into one system has always been a challenge for them. Monitoring them and ensuring seamless supply chain visibility can immensely lead to optimization of their processes. This is where LogiCloud fits the bill perfectly. Through our custom solutions & services, even smallest logistics company can be digitally connected to a large company. We are hopeful that LogiCloud platform would help connect all stakeholders in supply chain and lead to greater efficiencies.

Sanjay Desai, Co-founder & Regional Director, Humana International (S) Private. Ltd.

What does real-time visibility mean to you as a supply chain professional?

In simple English, real-time visibility essentially means live information that allows an organization to monitor the movement of goods, information, and their assets. It is also called ‘facts on the ground’. It provides the organization an ability to understand what is happening on the ground, under what conditions, and the occurrence of any issues. It enables the leaders to act/rectify in case of a problem or by ascertaining the situation and finding the best solution in time, which in turn helps in saving costs, duplications and eventually enhancing a seamless uninterrupted customer experience.

Why is it called the ‘holy grail’ of supply chain?

Real-time visibility is the ‘holy grail’ of an organization and not just supply chain function. It is an outcome of an organization’s process management ability to be integrated & connected and the ability to track events related to Capital Assets or Customers; either in a linear manner or in an event-based manner. It refers to the ability that an organization must have or develop over a period to track & trace, in real-time, the movement of goods/ packages/ information right from their suppliers’ network to their manufacturers’ network to the warehouses and local DC en-route to the end customer where the product is finally consumed. An organization can develop a ‘real-time live’ visibility like an Ocean Tracker or can choose to have visibility, which is more triggered based on important events in the end-to-end value networks.

How do leaders’ go about achieving this ‘holy grail’?

It always about leadership right!! It is cultivated & nurtured over a period of time. It is a combination of years of efforts and strong mindsets to remain integrated and connected in as many small siloes and structures that one can create. You cannot achieve this state of ‘connectedness’ by luck, you need to make a conscious effort every time you think of developing a new process or decide to make investments in multi-echelon enterprise business architectures. Visibility may (or may not be) necessarily be uppermost in our minds when we set about developing building blocks of our value networks. In the last 5 – 10 years, most of the software applications built for efficiency, customer engagement, integration do provide this as ‘given’ at an incremental cost.

What are the impacts that an organization would face due to lack of visibility in their network?

Great question… An organization, which does not have proper visibility will work double or triple harder to satisfy their customers v/s an organization, which has proper tools & processes in place to make visibility routinely available across their enterprise. Unable to keep up with their competitors, the lack of real-time visibility will lead to inefficiencies in different areas of the business. Let us look at top 5 challenges amidst many:

  • Lack of Customer Loyalty: Modern customers demand end-toend visibility and if an organization (supplier) is not able to provide the same, they will lose their customers regularly.
  •  Incorrect Benchmarking or KPIs: Without real-time visibility and control, inaccuracies would creep in planning and monitoring the supply chain process, which would ultimately lead to customer satisfaction issues, wastage (duplication) of resources and an ultimate loss of revenue.
  • Loss of customer trust: Lack of real-time visibility leads to confusion and chaos as it is almost impossible for an organization to track & trace deliveries, assets and can not provide a proper ATP (available to promise). If this situation is not corrected in shorter course of time, it is just a matter of time that many customers would shift to the next best alternative in the market.
  • Incremental cost adders: Lack of visibility can lead to discrepancies & increase the chances of theft and damage of goods. The end result is decreased productivity and excessive overhead costs that will bite the organization, indirectly setting it on a different cost saving spin.
  • Increasing risk, non-compliance: Lack of accurate real-time data and insights about your assets will increase the risk of accidents, exposure at border checks and customs clearances. Mitigating risks at the right time leads to higher productivity, enhanced reliability and more transparency.

How do you foresee the shape of things to come?

My strong belief is, Visibility is a (mixed) outcome of an organization’s process management capabilities, customer focused approach, and the key investment decisions that the management makes on a day-to-day basis. As a leader, you need an unstinted desire to achieve visibility. Usually, visibility is taken for granted, either you have it (may be in a tainted form) or you do not have it. Leaders at different levels of the organization, have differentiated KPIs / business objectives to achieve and these can be so pervasive and overpowering that one may lose the sight of ‘visibility’ being as important or an enabler to achieve some of the larger goals in front of us. As Peter Drucker says, “Whatever you track improves” And the best part is. You need the visibility and processes to ‘TRACK’ anything. It is a Catch-22 situation, Isn’t it!

Samuel NG, Senior Director – APAC Distribution, CooperVision, Singapore

What do you mean by visibility?

Visibility to me means empowerment. We use the information to be able to make decisions. From a manufacturing standpoint visibility facilitates stability, integrity, supply, time-to-market, transparency among and with the suppliers, etc. Without visibility, I don’t think all this is possible. When you order a t-shirt from any e-commerce site, you would expect some form of order status visibility and a means to even track your order. We tend to assign a stereotype to vendors who could not provide visibility as unreliable. As consumers, our confidence improves significantly when we get push notifications about our orders. This further explains why visibility as a means to building buyer confidence and reinforcing purchase decision has become critical.

What are those critical factors which impact visibility?

Visibility is all about time sensitivity. Visibility means nothing if it’s time sensitive. The level of sensitivity can vary by industry, circumstance, users and on how value chain or supply chain was set up. Everyone is aware today about the movement of vaccines across the globe. Its supply chain had seen a 360 degree difference pre- and post-pandemic.

During peace time, there were flexibility and tolerance to Pfizer’s production lead time, transit time, temperature range, transportation requirements, packaging, etc. There were abundance and lack of demand. Everyone in the value chain could tolerate some lack of visibility. During the pandemic, demand surged beyond immediate supply, milestone visibility became precision. List of critical factors impacting visibility are in-exhaustive. Most of them are means to the end. Symptoms of the illness. Fundamental factor remains to be information or the lack of it. Not just any information; the information that parties of the value chain has agreed to be circulated at the right space and time. The definition of these agreed information and the process for it, translates how valuable visibility is to the stakeholders.

How can Hyperlocal delivery players improve real-time visibility considering the time criticality?

We have spoken about the tools to gain visibility such as GPS, SIM-enabled devices, etc., but if we go 20 years back, one couldn’t even think of visibility because these tools are not invented. But visibility existed in various forms. One of the backbones of visibility is connectivity and information availability. It doesn’t mean that information or data is not available, it implies that the conduit that information is different. Tools such as GPS, SIM are the modern conduits providing timely and relevant information for visibility. The key difference in the value of real-time visibility between Hyperlocal delivery and conventional last mile delivery, is the expectation vs time. In Guangzhou, China, Alibaba can deliver an order of fresh fish from market to restaurant within two hours. Visibility of its status is transmitted via the online platform. In reality, the merchants and delivery assets are not owned by Alibaba. Other than technology providing the necessary platform to manage milestones and visibility, the explicit commitment to the established service standard by all stakeholders played a crucial role.

How will visibility have an impact on Glocalization?

The metamorphosis didn’t happen these couple of years. It actually already took place long ago. Dell Computers, who used to be my customer and I was responsible for their APAC supply chain, is a classic successful example. They are a global supplier that believed in localization, and they have started doing this as early as the year 2000. Their localization was not only about product design. It extended to their entire supply chain, from manufacturing and assembly to distribution. The icing on the cake, they don’t own any of the manufacturing and distribution assets. Almost everything including PCs and peripherals are manufactured in Asia for Asia market. They have a BTS base in Shanghai for the China and Asia market, another in Chennai for the South Asia and Middle East customers base and their earliest one in Malaysia for the SEA market. They are a phenomenal proponent of supply chain visibility. Their competitive advantage was not only cost competitiveness but more importantly being as close to their customers as possible. They created the ecosystem to facilitate visibility. In short, globalization demanded a lot on visibility to be possible. Glocalization is only possible if visibility exist as a critical success factor within the organisation and amongst its supplier ecosystem.

What is the best way to achieve supply chain visibility?

First, recognize that your success depends on your customer. So, the definition of visibility must stem from your customer’s interpretation of what they want to see and by when. As most supply chain is a connection of multiple stakeholders (links of supplier and customers, internal and external), there must be alignment of the established definitions. And there must be a price for delivering and not delivering these commitments. We can push the timeliness and consistency of visibility further if we can own some of the critical tools and platforms with which information is transmitted or managed.

Chetan Kumria, MD & Founder, Xcell Supply Chain Solutions Pvt. Ltd.

What do you mean by visibility?

Visibility to me is equivalent to facts on the ground. Imagine if you are in a dark room and there are many objects in the room how will you take the decision to go past the objects and reach the door if you don’t have light/visibility? It’s like the old saying shooting in the dark. Similarly, visibility throughout the supply chain can be gained through the data that is collected and analysed and can help to make key decisions and help organizations to be agile, competitive, and cost effective. Also, in the eyes of customer real time visibility helps to bring more clarity in terms of service and bridges the gap between expectation and delivery and reduces the lead time to service. If you see most of the recent business models that are on a platform or marketplace models are made on this model of visibility. Where they are simply providing the product inventory and delivery visibility to the consumer/buyer and demand of consumers to the sellers. To us as an organization, it is most critical to embrace visibility in our day-to-day operations as providing visibility around inventory, dispatches, and delivery is the key to service excellence as a 3PL and we are doing this through adapting a customized mix of manual and tech enabled solutions.

Is visibility relative to industry or is it product specific?

I think relativity in my view is to understand the need for visibility. Yes, it varies from industry-to-industry. If you look at healthcare and pharmaceuticals or the QSRs, chemicals, lubricants, e-commerce, these industries need real-time visibility as compared to commodities. The products which require temperature control or perishable products or products which require safety & handling while transportation or products which are governed by laws of the land, these products require realtime visibility more than any general product.

In India, alcohol beverages industry is controlled by state excise laws. In those laws because of the nature of the product, the excise department controls the route as well as time of each shipment when it leaves from the factory to the warehouse to the retail distribution. In such a scenario also, real-time visibility is the need of the hour. Now-a-days, B2C, D2C have emerged as a new channel and since these segments are delivering products directly to consumers the need of visibility is definitely more when compared to General Trade or B2B channel.

Is visibility a specific outcome of process or is it technological capability that organizations need to embrace?

To me, visibility is the necessity for the industry or a product. The outcome is derived through putting the right processes supported by technology. Definitely, technology plays a very important role shaping the outcome of the results. Let’s look at the GPS and how GPS has really shaped the way tracking is enabled. We can track a truck with the help of GPS on a real-time basis. But this is limited to full-truck load, the challenge that we are facing today is still in the tier II & III cities and the rural towns in India where the last mile delivery in the B2C segment can be tracked but in the general trade, the distributors’ channel still operates on the old processes where till today manual calling happens when the vehicle is on the road. Things are starting to change now, and we will hopefully soon be able to shift to the new age visibility enhancing systems.

How is the tech capability coming along in sync with business demand, in India context?

There are a lot of players in the market where they enable SIM-based tracking. So, these players get the approval through the operator and the driver to track his SIM. That enables real-time truck visibility in the current scenario. Other options involve placing a GPS box in the truck and start tracking the truck. We have come up with ways now to track their passage real-time. In smaller cities or towns, a bigger truck which is 32 ft deploy GPS tracking in the truck. For smaller trucks and smaller operators, SIM-based GPS tracking for short distance is more predominant.

How can 3PLs bring in the expertise of providing visibility services to their customers?

If you look at manufacturing, trading, or marketing companies, their core competency lies in selling their products. All the non-core jobs can be outsourced to specialized in their fields such as procurement outsourcing, logistics, so that they can focus on branding & marketing for selling their products to the target audience. The existence of 3PL comes only because these companies focus on their core areas. In my view, it is the responsibility of 3PL to provide visibility and offer them a complete package comprising of logistics, technology solutions as well as warehousing.

Is visibility dynamic in nature as well and may change in same segment on different point?

There is a difference in the visibility when we say from an industry perspective and when we say from product perspective. Visibility is also dynamic in nature. If the data is coming from a manual source, it will be dynamic in nature, while if the data is coming from technology, then visibility will be static.

Kamish Mirza, Head of Supply Chain Management APAC, Ericsson, Singapore

What do you mean by visibility?

I work in B2B space, so I would like to give you all a perspective on the same. Agreeing to Samuel’s views, visibility to me is all about empowerment. Visibility empowers us to get health check on how well our operational process are functioning. It also enables us to detect bottlenecks, abnormalities, etc. All these aspects are done to enhance user experience and customer satisfaction. It also means sustaining growth. Visibility can be seen in two ways – information flow, which talks about demand, forecast, order flow, etc.; track & trace capability. For us, it’s encompassing the entire ecosystem to enhance efficiency.

What should be the scope of visibility?

Visibility must be end-to-end, and it can’t be a small part of the value chain. It includes the consideration of people, data, and people communication. Functionally the scope should also cover the key supply chain processes including end-to-end planning, purchasing, purchase order activity, warehousing, etc. It must also look into the scope of inventory management and distribution management.

What are some of the indicators you could be lacking the right levels of visibility in your transportation network?

There are two ways to look at it – software where you talk about willingness to share, ability to have one source of truth, and then there is technology aspect which is important to understand when we talk about end-to-end visibility. We have got too many systems. When you look at the value chain. There are tier II & III suppliers who possess their own set of information and system. The challenge lies in having one system where the information flows in a semantic fashion. This is the biggest barrier in the journey to visibility. Secondly there is a big challenge of differentially formatted unstructured data. How do we process and make it simple and usable for the entire value chain is a challenge. There is a lack of good IT support to achieve the desired results. It needs a good data layer to integrate all data points, which is needed to have a common semantic.

How can we bring the small players into the visibility ecosystem to ensure end-to-end transparency?

It is important to understand that not everything is investment intensive. There has to be ecosystem which will help to build upon all these small players. Only then we will survive because if investment is the only way to get visibility, then the overall cost of ownership becomes very high.

What is the role of data?

This is in our DNA. A good data strategy is one of the strongest enablers to achieve a holistic supply chain strategy. From availability perspective, keep the strategy simple rather than over-complicating and giving unnecessary information. Align with the customer what data is needed, what kind of dashboard is needed and how should it be utilized and try to develop a strategy basis that in an agile way.

What if organizations tomorrow start to perceive supply chain as a value generator vs. cost center, will this help increasing the visibility?

Well, it is almost a reality for us. Covid-19 has obviously brought the necessity of visibility into limelight. For us, supply chain visibility, digitalization, automation, is already a value generator. We are creating revenue streams of supply chain solutions towards our end customer. Supply chain as a service is already sold as a product. I am of the firm belief that this will continue to become stronger in times to come. It also depends on the market sentiments. If the market is cost sensitive, the revenue generation will always be challenged. In the last two years, the supply chain has taken a new dimension. The other catalyst of change s the digitalization within the supply chain, which is creating a huge value proposition for customers.

What role do you see of advanced technologies such as AI & ML / Advanced Analytics to improve supply chain responsiveness and agility for operations in complex logistics environments like in India?

These are some of the recent technological interventions being used to build digital capabilities. Depending on the use cases you deal in supply chain, the impact will be visualized. Talking about machine learning in forecasting, we are already seeing huge benefits and impact. It also depends on the industry one is operating in. Having said that, one needs to be mindful of technologies and due diligence must happen before implementing it in their processes. Not all the processes need to be automated. They need to be streamlined first. Time has come for these technologies to take centre stage in supply chain.

What are the opportunities that young minds have in the digital world?

A lot of competitive shift is happening within the traditional supply chain. Younger generation is born in the internet era. A lot of what they have studies is a lot of what they can implement. I feel they just lack business understanding, but that can be learned with the right attitude and aptitude. There is a huge opportunity in the corporate side as well.

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