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The Importance of Supply Chain Resilience

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The Importance of Supply Chain Resilience

Acknowledging potential weaknesses in your supply chain before they are exposed by elements beyond your control is of critical value. With current events in mind, managing future supply chain disruptions will be an integral component of corporate strategy. Calling it Supply Chain Resilience, Supply Chain Disruption, or Business Continuity Management (from the ISO 22301 standard) does not affect the necessity of having strategies in place that may make the difference between following or leading in a disrupted economy, and even between surviving or folding.

To identify potential soft spots, a review should not be limited to a single product flow or single supply chain element. For any company, the next big disruption does not have to be a pandemic; it can be something minuscule on a global scale, yet have the same devastating effect on the ill-prepared in particular trade lanes or in a particular industry. Unpredictable is not a reason to be unprepared. Creating supply chain resilience is a holistic exercise that involves more than just a few savvy logistics people. HR, finance, compliance/legal (to name a few) are all stakeholders in a healthy case of business continuity management.

How then to build a strategy? Like any other strategy, the process seems logical: review, assess, and mitigate. In this particular case: 1) review your tradelanes, products, and materials flow by matching them against risk categories (i.e., labor, business risk, global trade, nature, and materials), 2) assess risks for each combination, and 3) mitigate risks by either changing behavior now or planning for alternate (sourcing) options should the anticipated risks become reality.

Trade Lanes and Risk Categories

The relevant components to review within the supply chain include the importing and exporting country or countries, the manufacturing locations, the finished goods, and the (raw) materials. Ideally, for finished goods and materials, the associated Harmonized System (HS) codes are made available. Scratch what does not apply and move to the following step where each of the ‘inputs’ is categorically reviewed.

As mentioned, this should not be an exercise limited to supply chain professionals. For example, labor risks can be associated with the likelihood of strikes, wage volatility, and the availability of appropriate labor resources—not necessarily areas that keep the supply chain brain occupied every day.

In a similar fashion, other resilience elements expand across different areas of expertise. Business risks relate to cybersecurity, corruption, counterfeit products, and the chance of entering into business with bad actors that are on (any of the) denied party lists.

Global trade accounts for the compliance requirements related to the shipment of goods (i.e., licenses, documentation, permits, etc.), associates the products with the various duties and taxes, and identifies if Free Trade Agreements(FTA) apply and how to qualify for preferential treatment.

Arguably the most unpredictable, but not the least expected risk to account for, is nature. It’s important to identify the various kinds of disasters that may hit: natural hazards, pandemics or epidemics, flooding, earthquakes, hurricanes, volcanic eruptions, landslides, or drought can all play parts.

Lastly, consider materials. Understanding the market comes with insights into scarcity, sourcing locations, and price fluctuations.

Risk Assessment

Risk assessments match the input with the risk categories. For example, how vulnerable is the manufacturing location when it comes to labor regulations, corruption, or flooding? Is there an FTA in place that could potentially lower the import duty burden? Where in the supply chain can a cyberattack be most expected? In short, some homework is in order to create a thorough risk profile.

For many components, the sources are readily available, such as the Corruption Index at transparency.org, labor statistics on Statista or NationMaster, or duty rate information from the various global trade content providers (or the WTO).

Building Resilience

As with cyber-security risks (PEN tests) or a regular laptop virus scan, supply chain risk assessments will point out the components that need immediate attention or, in this case, are a high priority for alternate sourcing or routing options. It’s then time to build that resilience.

Look for options by analyzing the market and tradelanes. Mine import and export data to identify alternative sources for goods and materials, even manufacturing locations. Map out alternative routes for products to get where they need to go. Document the reasonable options and share with as many people as possible—preparedness is, of course, an all-inclusive strategy.

Next and where possible: test run! Re-route shipments temporarily or source occasionally from a new supplier; in other words, make sure the alternative options are viable. In addition, communicate with external sources that would be part of continuity plans. Make them aware they are part of these plans; put people or suppliers on a retainer and try to agree on terms before disaster strikes so the projected costs can be anticipated better.

Lastly, keep those alternate plans up to date; otherwise, it may be too late to create and execute on alternate alternative plans.

lean supply chain

LEAN OR AGILE? FOR A COMPETITIVE ADVANTAGE IN THE SUPPLY CHAIN, THE ANSWER IS BOTH

Maintaining competitive advantage in the global logistics playing field is no easy task. There are hundreds of companies striving to earn the loyalty and business of global and domestic clients and the competition is becoming more intense with each passing day. Thanks to technology, companies are now able to take a step back and truly evaluate what structures make the most sense to meet customer demands in unpredictable markets.

Technology offering features such as predictive analytics are enabling logistics leaders to employ proactive measures for even the most complex of disruptions. However, readily available technology does not prove successful without careful consideration of the right platform and what supply chain management structure will meet the needs for specific company goals and customer demands. Company A might require a lean approach, while company B requires characteristics of both lean and agile supply chain structures. Before diving into which one benefits the most, it’s important to understand the differences between the two. 

An agile supply chain structure focuses heavily on layered benefits including visibility, predictability, and speed in terms of reaction times. Lean supply chain focuses on the most cost-effective options, ultimately reducing costs and recovering what’s been spent. Both are extremely important and attainable, but the trick is finding the right balance between the two while recruiting the best partners fit to support meeting the needs of customers. This element is critical in maintaining competitive advantage and ultimately makes or breaks customer relationships. 

“Everyone is striving to find that balance between having an agile supply chain and a lean supply chain because logistics and transportation costs fall to the bottom line,” explains Matt Castle, vice president, Global Forwarding Products and Services at C.H. Robinson. “These costs need to be recovered at some point in time, regardless of what business you’re in. There’s always going to be a focus on ensuring a lean supply chain in terms of cost and the economy, as well as how to find that balance of also maintaining flexibility based on the needs of the business. Having that agility can be a major differentiator in delivering on customer expectations.”

Castle adds: “Another question to think about is how to approach diversification in your supplier base. There can obviously be restraints based on a particular importer or exporter in terms of where they’re sourcing or buying product and availability, but I recommend ensuring you have an outlet from a secondary supplier. It’s worth the front-end legwork from a planning perspective to ensure you have a multitude of choices.”

The advantages of agile supply chain go far beyond mastering efficiencies or recovering costs and requires taking a holistic look at all the moving parts of your business. Implementing this type of approach relies heavily on planning and thinking differently in approaching the management of customer expectations while ensuring your business can offer a level of flexibility your competitors can’t offer. 

“When I think about an agile supply chain, I think about having flexibility—the ability to adapt at a quick pace, speed and the ability to recover from a certain level of uncertainty,” Castle says. “I believe it’s important to collaborate with a company that has a diverse portfolio of services. This is so businesses are able to adjust quickly from an ocean service to an air service, from an intermodal to a truckload, or even breaking down at a warehouse facility, LTL or small parcel.

“Having a provider that can seamlessly move from one product to the next is extremely important. It’s also important to ensure you’re engaging with a provider that has a global footprint. There are different scenarios playing out in different countries, so your ability to have a presence that can engage a global environment is critical.”

Any business implementing an agile supply chain approach must ensure supporting providers and partners are a good fit. Choosing the right third-party logistics provider can determine just how quickly your business can recover from an unpredictable situation and continue operations. Uncertainties cannot be completely eliminated, but they can be managed in a way that your business and customer relations do not suffer with the right partner. Without this, an agile supply chain structure is limited. 

“When thinking about uncertainty in the supply chain, having a third-party logistics provider that’s multimodal or that offers a variety of products allows you to seamlessly move from one product to the next,” Castle advises. “That is one of the best defenses against being able to navigate any level of uncertainty–from speeding up or slowing down products. It comes back to having some level of a global presence, as it’s something a lot of importers and exporters are trying to navigate today.”

Technology is equally important when aligning operations with an agile approach. This also requires careful consideration of what works in terms of what kind of products and the regions associated with operations. The technology needs to provide a level of visibility that enables your business to react to a variety of disruptors–from weather to policy, disruptions can come in different forms and require proactive, quick solutions to mitigate additional risks. 

“Put simply, it’s a matter of having product available–whatever your business may be, to either sell or have within the production cycle so that you’re not ending up with a plant shutdown,” Castle says. “An agile supply chain creates an opportunity to deliver product on the shelf that a competitor isn’t able to.”

“For C.H. Robinson, Navisphere is our technology platform. Managing any kind of supply chain is about how you bring visibility to what’s happening with the movement of your goods. What’s changing in terms of expectations around technology is how do you start to weave different factors in so that it starts to align with more predictive elements.”

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Matt Castle is vice president of Air Freight Products and Services at C.H. Robinson. He joined C.H. Robinson in 1996 and has 25+ years of experience in the transportation industry. Castle is responsible for driving growth through global airfreight product. He received his degree in Aviation Administration and Management from the University of North Dakota.