The view from APICS 2017

Just what is supply chain management today? It's moved from cost cutting to enabling the business.

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Just what is supply chain management?

It’s a question I ask myself about this time each year when I wrap up the fall conference season. After all, the major certification and trade associations representing the industry all position themselves as supply chain organizations, even though the roots of each were siloed in operations, logistics and transportation, procurement and materials handling automation. Yet, there’s now a lot of overlap. Two weeks ago, I sat through a presentation on Industrie 4.0, Germany’s vision for the NextGen manufacturing supply chain, at the MHI annual conference. That’s the kind of topic you might expect to hear at APICS, which is operations focused. Yet tonight, sitting at a table at an outdoor restaurant in San Antonio, where I just wrapped up attendance at APICS 2017, the folks at the table next to me were discussing how they were handling order fulfillment in their distribution centers, a conversation I’d otherwise expect to hear at MHI. 

This was my third supply chain conference in six weeks. And, while the underlying focus of each conference was a little different, the challenges faced by the attendees shared much in common.

If you think about it, and if you think about my question, it makes sense. A number of companies sent supply chain professionals to all three, but representing different disciplines. That’s because, increasingly, supply chain problems are problems about enabling the business, and not just getting stuff out the door and putting out fires. Regardless of the discipline, the job today is about moving the business forward.

Exhibit number one might be a great presentation I heard from Valerie Young, a vice president of supply chain services and operations, from 3M. One of the initiatives Young discussed was the implementation of a new ERP system across the company, and how each organization, including supply chain, was tasked by the CFO with delivering measurable value to 3M as a result of the new system. Similarly, as part of 3M’s customer first strategy, supply chain was tasked with meeting with customers to think about new processes to solve customer issues ….. and move the business forward.

Exhibit number two was a conversation I had with Karin Bursa from Logility, the supply chain management software firm. Bursa mentioned about how many companies are talking about an Internet of Things strategy and a connected supply chain but still have dozens of disparate and disconnected information systems within their own organization. “You can’t have an IoT strategy without have a connected enterprise first,” Bursa said. “Otherwise, you’re going to struggle to gather insights from all that Big Data being collected by the Internet of Things.” In other words, you can’t move your business forward if your supply chain isn’t connected within the four walls of your business.

Exhibit number three was a presentation I listened to at the end of the day from Jim Haller and Kyle Ous from Chainalytics, which looked at what it takes to have a packaging strategy that can compete with the Amazon effect. Their argument was that if the packaging you’re using for e-commerce fulfillment can’t deliver the same customer experience as Amazon, you’re going to be at risk of losing customers. 

That leads me to a quote from Steve Melnyk and Nick Little from Michigan State in their presentation about the new supply chain manager. “Today’s supply chain is the result of investments made in the past. Tomorrow’s supply chain will be the result of investments made today.” Their broader argument is that supply chains that used to focus on cost cutting must now do what they need to do in order to solve their customers’s problems. 

So, just what is supply chain management? It’s about the business.

About the Author

Bob Trebilcock
Bob Trebilcock, editorial director, has covered materials handling, technology, logistics and supply chain topics for nearly 30 years. In addition to Supply Chain Management Review, he is also Executive Editor of Modern Materials Handling. A graduate of Bowling Green State University, Trebilcock lives in Keene, NH. He can be reached at 603-357-0484.

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