A global supply chain is the norm for almost any company in business today. In order to take advantage of the capabilities throughout the world and in order to reach markets around the world it is important to create a system that reaches across borders. Creating that system is a difficult process especially for smaller companies focused on technology and marketing as first priority. How do you build a robust supply chain that is a competitive weapon rather than a necessary evil? Below is a summary of mistakes commonly made.
1. All eggs in one basket: It is risky to partner with only one contract manufacturer, logistics partner or key component supplier. Comparing price, quality, locations and practices can give you the information you need to drive your supply chain toward best in class. Having some tension in the relationship will also give your partners a good reason to offer you the best prices, quality, technology and lead times. But if you don’t have the volume to support more than one supplier without compromising cost or attention, put your eggs in one basket…and watch that basket very closely. Even with one partner you can quote annually to keep the tension in the relationship and to give you additional information. Ask for a transparent cost model so that you know what you are paying for and can more easily disaggregate the work to look for the best combination of suppliers. Even if your volume won’t support multiple production suppliers of key components, qualify more than one supplier ahead of time to give you options if there is a problem later.
2. Out of sight, out of mind: Once a global supply chain is set up and running it is a mistake to assume that the job is done. Weekly conversations should be held with your partners either in person or on the phone or via video-conference. Virtual meetings can be set up to review metrics, current action items and future work. Monthly visits should be made to meet with the key players eye to eye. Walk the production floor. Talk with the people on the production line even if they don’t speak your language. Use a translator and convey your thanks and interest in their work. That will help you later when fast action is needed and you are not there to oversee. Observe and ask questions. Make sure that you are getting what you expect. Remember, people respect what you inspect.
3. Too little, too late: It is unwise to assume that a verbal contract or purchase order with legal sounding words on the back is good enough. Draw up a contract and negotiate the details. While you are unlikely to ever sue your supplier, the value of a solid contract is that you have talked over the problems before they occur. Don’t wait until you have a field quality issue to decide who will take lead and drive to root cause. Don’t wait until there is a sub-tier issue to decide who is liable for the resolution and cost. There are templates available for supplier contracts and it is okay to start there but don’t stop there. Think about what is important in the relationship and write it down. Even if it doesn’t end up in the final draft at least the conversation has been held and documented and there is some understanding of expectations.
4. It’s not my job: Don’t sit back and assume that your supplier will watch your back. Supply chain design and development remains the responsibility of the product company. The inputs to strategy are targeted markets, technology needs and growth plans. Yes, the inputs also include changes to the supplier landscape and cost shifts, but it is unwise to rely on the supplier to tell you when to modify your supply chain. I recommend an annual review of labor and logistics costs, shifts in the market, tax changes and other macro-economic factors. What are the implications to your supply chain? Is it time to manufacture in a region for tax purposes? Are labor rates changing enough to consider a shift to another region of the world? Do you have a change in your product roadmap that will require new process technologies?
5. Only sure thing is death and taxes: Death is hard to control but don’t overlook the impact of taxes. The tax implications of your supply chain decisions can outweigh the labor cost benefits. Have a tax expert examine your plans ahead of time. Understand your target markets and if there are import taxes based on manufacturing content. Are you selling into government agencies? Some have restrictions about where the product is made.
6. Count the costs: Don’t make the mistake of just looking at the price tag from your supplier. Remember the cost to move the product to the market. Remember inventory carrying costs for a longer pipeline. Remember the cost of travel to manage a remote supplier. Quality costs are higher if your pipeline is longer and if the time to resolve is longer. And finally, what is often overlooked is the cost of time. If your new product slips a month due to the challenges of remotely ramping with the wrong partner, the costs are large. Do the math on the full costs of your alternatives.
7. Time Flies: Time should be mentioned a second time because it is just that important and is often not considered when designing a supply chain. It does take longer to get work done across time zones, cultural and company boundaries. However, if managed well there can be an advantage to having multiple time zones to work a product launch or a quality problem. The key is to set up the processes ahead of time with the right responsibilities and accountabilities. It is a little like a battle strategy in that you want to consider where you position your forces and how you arm them based on where the enemy lies. With new product launches the enemy is lack of documentation, lack of information flow and lack of iteration. Launching remotely needs more of all three. Don’t neglect to make that investment to save valuable time.
8. Risky Business: When natural disasters strike, the companies best able to recover are the ones that don’t ignore the inevitability of failure. Having a documented business continuity and enterprise risk management plan in place will give the troops a jumpstart on what to do. Work with suppliers ahead of time on “what if” scenarios. Know who within your organization will run the war room. Decide how you will respond to a disaster in any part of the world. Of course you can’t anticipate every problem but you can do enough to be in better shape than others. When being chased by a grizzly bear you don’t have to be the fastest, just faster than the other guy!
9. Stunted Growth: Don’t just think about what you need now. It is a big mistake to pick partners based on what you need today and not think about their global footprint, scalability, systems strengths and capacity. There is nothing worse than having to pick up and move your processes while growing just because you didn’t partner with growth in mind. If you need one assembly line now, make sure that your partner has room to give you three without moving you to another building or location. Can you claim dedicated resources now ahead of expected growth? Have you picked a supplier who has bought into your plans and will invest with you appropriately?
10. Flee, fly or flow: Last but not least, don’t staff up with a wimpy team. Understand the importance of picking supply chain leaders who have lived through global supply chain challenges and can bring experience to the table. Resiliency is a characteristic that comes to mind. There are a myriad of challenges that come up with a global network of suppliers. The challenges can be viewed as a necessary evil or can be managed and mitigated to bring your company a competitive advantage.