The value of visibility

· logistics and systems

Last time I wrote about how big companies have the resources to invest in technology, they have the viability to make visibility very appealing. Like Uber has done by telling you what to expect from your rides. But we left wondering, what about the little companies, how can they do the same? Arguably they need visibility the most since it’s the small companies which deliver components to much larger consolidators - though that’s now delving in a whole new topic which we won’t go into today. Today, what I want to suggest is a means to make visibility viable for all.

First, let’s put things into an example. You are an entrepreneur, a wholesaler. You sell building materials and your supply chain is quite straightforward. You source materials and with the help of a freight forwarder, you import goods from overseas. The container gets to your warehouse, where you (i.e. your team) unload it, check it, and put it all away. Then an order comes in and you pick, pack, invoice, and dispatch your product.

Today though, there’s a problem, one of your biggest customers has called you, urgently demanding a product which as just run out. To compound the issue, you have no idea where the latest shipment is because there is no information immediately available. You call, text, and email the freight forwarder only to find out that the shipment has been delayed.

As things stand, you have very little control over this situation, you can’t magically make the ship (or the paperwork which makes it move) go faster. However, what you do need to do is respond to your panicked customer, at a minimum, they need to be updated and their expectations managed. An accurate information chain needs to be there to support exactly this kind of scenario.

This here problem, is one which I am extremely familiar with, visibility though it’s demanded by customers is not demanded by business operators. When it is demanded, it's used in response, as a reaction, which isn't great. Because visibility is not pursued, information quality suffers. Even if your freight forwarder or transport company has an online portal, how accurate is the information, how up to date is it, can you seek and find this information for every order your business processes? And how many different places do you have to go to find out what you need?

As you can see with this example, even on a small scale, it’s easy to find the gaps. You might keep things straightforward, but supply chains today are not as advanced as people make them out to be. One small change can bring a whole world of hurt and even if the technology exists it can be isolated or fall apart due to error. Systems, at the moment, are not just fragmented but they are also fragile.

Now, strictly speaking, visibility won’t be the fix for everything, but what it will do is allow you to move from being reactive to proactive. In the process keeping your customers happy. Happy customers usually mean more customers.

So, how could visibility be put in place? Jeez, I really wish I had a product to plug here… anyway, let's go through the list.

First, you could invest in some software which brings everything together with epic words like Ai and blockchain and smart. But this can be very expensive, and implementations can be as painful as getting a root canal without any anaesthetic.

Second, you could take the time to organize yourself, proactively checking the status of shipments and orders. This is possible for small operators but then again, the time invested in checking something for your own knowledge leads to more to anxiety than peace of mind.

Now I did pitch, and win, an entrepreneurial competition in Silicon Valley with something I called Outcome. The idea was to monetize information and give people incentives for contributing quality data to a given supply chain network.

But in the three months of extensive analysis plus the last ten years I’ve been trying to work this out, I don’t think we are ready for this kind of approach. The basics aren’t right and we – as an industry – need to walk before we can run. Also, I’m not interested in becoming an Elizabeth Holmes grade sociopath selling something which doesn’t exist.

To make things as clear as they can be what I'm saying is visibility is not pursued in the way it needs to be, as a result, our information systems are not flexible, nor do they cater for an entire world full of different products and supply chains.

What we need to do is emphasize the value of visibility, the ability to be proactive, to forecast and to plan. Visibility allows us to be more efficient with the resources we have, and in turn, that is valuable.

So, help me out by sharing this message and I'll do my part I’ll keep working on the book about supply chain (the one I’ve been promising. Let's catch up in 15 years’ time and celebrate switching on end-to-end visibility for every supply chain in the world.

Damn it, I completely forgot a whole different angle to this with ethical visibility… I’ll get back to you on that.

Oh, and by the way, the simplest and most practical way which I can think to give visibility to a small or medium-sized operator is... to use email updates. Yes, very anticlimactic but emails are cheap, can be triggered automatically, and your inbox can be searched through quite easily.

See you in 2034.