It had looked, for a short while, that we had ‘solved’ the supply chain problem. From simple but effective tracking barcodes, all the way up to the blockchain and AI technologies, supply chains were one of the first areas where combining technologies led to remarkably efficient processes – and helped usher in the era of globalization.
For a long time, procurements role within this was primarily focused on finding the lowest prices of goods that could move through the supply chain, creating additional value for their business by driving purchases through preferred suppliers and increasing economies of scale. Concepts like ‘just-in-time’ supply chain management added layers of complexity, but procurement departments proved to be agile and innovative, often leading from the front.
However, friction in the supply chain stubbornly remained and, in some cases, grew.
Factors beyond anyone’s control, from Brexit to the China-US tariff war, alongside the most recent crisis coming in the form of the pandemic and the blocking of the Suez Canal, showed that supply chains weren’t as resilient as we thought and that we’ll never truly ‘solve’ friction in the supply chain.
Common friction points in the global supply chain
As well as those geo-political challenges, many of the old problems did not go away, or took on another form. Different systems and processes – all still primarily in the control of people – need to talk to each other seamlessly to create more simplified and integrated supply chains.
This ideal vision, even with all the technologies available to us, simply hasn’t come to pass.
In one piece of research based on studying a global logistics provider and their customers found that, between the purchase order being placed right through to the product landing in its destination, over 200 steps took place. In other words, 200 potential sources of friction.
These sources of friction can be loosely placed into two buckets – process and people.
Typically, purchase order execution, missing information or documents, delays of entry filing, poor visibility (and therefore control) over the supply chain, trade compliance procedures not being followed, etc. are the areas where human error and time delays can significantly impact on supply-chain efficiency and cause friction at multiple points along it.
These then, are the areas most ripe for improvements because, while technology and automation aren’t the silver bullet, they can be game changers when you’re looking for a competitive advantage.
How procurement departments can reduce friction in their supply chain
While there are an incalculable number of ways to improve each of those steps along the supply chain – often dependent on what industry you are in and where you are sourcing from or sending to – there are several general principles that can be applied to almost any business.
1. Track better, manage better
Agility is one of those watchwords that have been thrown around within the business sphere over the last five years or so. It can sometimes feel like a catch-all term that is really telling the reader ‘do better, and do it faster’, which doesn’t feel too helpful.
It’s better to define agility closer to ‘find problems quicker to solve problems quicker’, which is a bit more actionable. Finding problems quicker means having visibility over them.
When you are using multiple systems, from spreadsheets to emails to external platforms, gaining visibility over your supply chain can be very difficult. And this goes two ways – your customers will want to have visibility of the products coming to them and will run into similar difficulties.
With this visibility comes agility, and the ability to better manage spend on a rolling basis.
‘When managing spend, it’s critical to have total visibility of the whole source to pay journey. Without this, possible savings disappear into the gaps between the procurement and finance teams’ says Stephen Carter, Director of Product Marketing at Ivalua. ‘By improving visibility, any friction points in the process can be spotted and quickly addressed. This will unlock supplier liquidity, strengthen links in the supply chain, and add savings to the bottom-line.’
Setting up systems that fully integrate with the supply chain then becomes a key priority for procurement professionals looking to identify friction points along the chain. One of the primary ways of getting visibility over your supply chain is automating your payment process.
2. Automate your payment process
Managing international payments, reconciling invoices, and dealing with local regulations can be a big administrative drain on your resources.
Digitizing your entire payment process will give your finance team much more control and visibility over spending, while also reducing errors, and helping to prevent fraud in the process. Having the ability to create and execute multiple payments easily in multiple territories, all housed within a single platform, will not only save time but money as well.
It gives your team greater ability to control and maximize cashflow, while also potentially saving on FX rates if the system you use has local banking rails. For the customers, automating payments and leveraging local payment rails will mean that suppliers will be paid accurately and on time, reducing debtor days in the process.
All these friction points will be reduced, or eradicated entirely, by automating payments.
3. Leverage (multiple) preferred suppliers
Funneling spending through a number of preferred suppliers will improve relationships over time, help you identify and solve friction points, and reduce costs through bulk and long-term buying. This has always been the way procurement works, although this has been changing recently with the global upheavals.
Because of these global events, ‘Resilience’ is another watchword being thrust upon procurement officers, and the balance between resilience and cost-savings will be a real challenge over the coming years. This will be particularly true if no global shocks like we’ve seen over the last number of years occur. If all remains stable, questions will inevitably come from leadership and board level on why costs are higher than they need to be.
One solution is to ensure that you have more than one preferred supplier for each area required. This, again, is fairly standard today, but businesses will need to create more diversity in their preferred suppliers list, such as geographic location, so that if something happens in one part of the world you can quickly pivot to another.
4. Collect the Data – and Analyze it
What’s not measured is not managed, and it’s no different when it comes to supply chains. While it’s often a tedious and laborious task, analyzing your supply chain to produce actionable data is also a very necessary one.
Begin by mapping out all the steps, producing a flow-chart (or similar) to see all the links in the chain. Collecting data on each of these steps will then allow you to identify problems, such as deliveries being consistently late, or invoices not being paid on time due to inaccurate information being provided.
Then, if you can, compare these steps with others in the market and what they are doing. This can be difficult data to collect – after all, you wouldn’t make it easy for your competitors to do the same – but you may find some interesting insights with some basic inquiries.
After that, it’s a matter of analyzing the data you’ve collected.
Where are you sourcing from? Are their alternatives? Can delivery of the final product to the customer be executed in a different way? By simply asking these questions, innovative solutions may emerge. If your supply chain is of a significant enough size, it may be economically beneficial to purchase software for analyzing your supply chain, although these can be expensive.
The real benefit that comes from collecting data is getting internal buy-in for future change. With data, people are much likelier to act because they see the immediate benefits.
Collaborate and Iterate to Reduce Supply Chain Friction
Building a frictionless supply chain is an impossible task – we can only search for improvements. As a truly collaborative exercise, the supply chain must be treated as a genuinely collaborative process, rather than one where you’re stitching disparate parts together.
Procurement professionals are the central spoke in this wheel, bringing multiple stakeholders together (often from different countries with different currencies, languages, regulations etc.), so are therefore best placed to reduce friction along each link in the chain. However, procurement officers can’t do this all alone; it requires collaboration within the business too.
By investing in technologies and processes, friction in the supply chain can be reduced considerably, especially when the above steps are taken (relatively) regularly and new iterations of the supply chain process are created to improve each time.
While we can never ‘solve’ the supply chain problem, we can work towards giving procurement professionals the tools and support to make everyone’s life a little bit easier, and supply chains a lot more efficient.
To learn how TransferMate can help you reduce friction in your supply-chain, click here.