A recent study of supply chain activities indicated that as much as 80% of total supply chain costs are determined by the network in place and not by the decisions the supply chain team makes on a daily basis within that network. The cause can be attributed to infrastructure, which significantly determines the types of decisions and degrees of freedom that are available to supply chain decision makers. As a result, many companies have literally stumbled into pitfalls associated with warehouses, distribution centers and sources of supply (manufacturing, supplier locations, etc.) because they lacked thoughtful design.

There is help available for vigilant executives in the form of 10 guidelines to implement necessary cost saving measures. All are applicable whether the company is pursuing a growth strategy or struggling with underutilized assets in a challenging economy. Keeping these guidelines at the forefront of consideration can create opportunities to ease pressures on margin and the bottom line.

1. Network structure, which determines 75%- 80% of total supply chain costs, offers the biggest opportunity to reduce those expenditures.

That's because when manufacturing and distribution assets are in place, and major transportation contracts are negotiated, actions to improve operations and efficiencies in the supply chain are limited. The time to discover the biggest supply chain improvement opportunities is during assessment or reassessment of the infrastructure in place; e.g. manufacturing capability, raw material sourcing, major transportation lanes, distribution facilities and delivery to customers.

2. Optimize supply chain infrastructure to realize maximal cost savings.

A company's existing supply chain infrastructure is a primary cause of daily disruptions and short-term challenges. Those companies that experience the smoothest and most profitable operations are the ones who routinely re-evaluate both operations and infrastructure. Those who reevaluate as a matter of procedure tend to become supply chain and profitability leaders. A recurring evaluation of infrastructure should be considered a necessity.

3. Understand the changes that can be impacted.

Change is inevitable, and the response to it will determine a company's profitability. First assure that the processes and tools are in place to recognize the changes occurring in the supply chain. Then identify and analyze potential courses of actions and communicate the execution plan.

4. Consider technological analysis to make the supply chain decisions.

Spreadsheet analysis can evaluate a potential change in a business plan or supply/demand balance and perhaps project the impact of a given course of action. However when decisions involve multiple products made across multiple manufacturing sites, shipping and distribution point issues while serving thousands of customers, companies need sophisticated tools to effectively consider all the options to assure maximization of every supply chain infrastructure.

5. Modern infrastructure planning requires a collaborative effort.

Good supply chain operations happen because the people in charge of different aspects (sales, manufacturing, logistics, procurement and finance) are effectively communicating by:

  • Providing the critical data necessary to make the best overall decisions.
  • Understanding how each critical decision \impacts them.
  • Informing each department of every decision and the steps they need to implement.

6. The planning process needs to include many different scenarios to ensure a robust solution.

Even with collaboration across all of the stakeholders, the supply chain infrastructure design process depends on forecasts of the future that will not all prove to be accurate; e.g. customer demand, competitors' actions, cost of raw materials and transportation. Those who recognize the uncertainty of the data that drives their business planning can use supply chain tools to explore different possible futures and evaluate a course of action. That way they can confidently make decisions that will perform well across a wide range of possible futures and position themselves for a positive return.

7. Consider hybrid solutions to ensure low-cost, high level customer service.

Simplified assumptions are quite common during evaluation and analysis of complex supply chain operations. These may cause managers to overlook opportunities that are combinations or hybrids. For example, instead of sourcing 100% of a raw material from a low-cost country, perhaps optimal customer service at lower costs can be achieved by sourcing 80% to the low-cost provider and 20% to a higher cost and more reliable alternate supplier. Another example is demand variation by day of the week, which may warrant different operations on different days. Hybrid solutions are frequently solutions for optimal mix of customer service and cost, however they are often difficult to identify and evaluate.

8. Models and analysis mean nothing without implementation.

A good supply chain infrastructure planning process begins with solid analysis and evaluation of various scenarios to identify an optimal course of action. However, it is not complete without implementation planning, which must address the cultural and organizational issues that too often prevent companies from achieving the gains that have been projected. If there is resistance within the organization to change, it may be necessary to stage the implementation in increments to gain credibility before tackling the more strategic approach.

9. Optimized supply chains minimize inefficiencies.

A good supply chain infrastructure planning process goes beyond elimination of waste to analysis of benefits and tradeoffs among the different drivers of sustainability in the supply chain. This by definition means that you are creating a greener and more sustainable operation. One example is analysis of tradeoffs between profit and other sustainability measures (for example CO2 emissions). Using tools to analyze the total impact of different courses of action can optimize decision making to meet the overall objectives.

10. The answer is in the data.

Assure the accuracy of the data, and then present it to the right people (See #5).

Roadmap for the Future

Supply and logistic executives recognize the importance of developing new and improved ways to understand and use the volumes of data to help them find and utilize the best approach. It is incumbent upon them to ensure that each aspect of the operation is fully aligned to business strategy and goals, which is the purpose of these guidelines. They should be considered a roadmap combining sound business management practices with the newest technologies and tools as a path to success.

Alan Kosansky, Ph.D., is president and Ted Schaefer is director of logistics and supply chain services of Profit Point Inc.. Profit Point, based in North Brookfield, Mass., is a provider of supply chain optimization systems providing such services as infrastructure and supply chain planning, scheduling, distribution and warehouse utilization improvement.