Five Supply Chain Mistakes that Kill Companies

Supply Chain Epitaph
Any good cowboy knows to be wary of rattlesnakes and stampedes, but the wild west of supply chain also has some precarious situations to avoid. A great supply chain strategy can help you dominate the market over time, but big mistakes can destroy your company in just days. Dozens of smart managers have unintentionally killed or maimed their businesses from these five blunders.

1. Automation – Too Much Too Soon

Supply chain professionals face strong pressures to reduce cost, and automation is an attractive option to accomplish that goal. However, jumping into a new technology without thinking through the strategic process could blur the fundamental problems and goals you face, which often results in investment misalignment. Seven of the incidents described in Supply Chain Digest’s 2006 list of the 11 Greatest Supply Chain Disasters involve poor implementation of new technology and automation. Specifically, the systems were unjustifiably large, unhelpful, or just didn’t work. Sometimes in our zeal to reach the shiny future, we become overly optimistic. Whenever I hear that investing in a new system will, “solve all our problems,” I pause and remember how many failed firms came to that same conclusion. The harsh truth is that the implementation of a new system is much more difficult than is usually anticipated. Furthermore, all too often, companies purchase a system before the demand justifies the investment.

How to Avoid the Mistake:

Don’t use technology as a replacement for a sound strategy and profitable processes. Instead, look to people and processes before technology to solve problems. If you determine that a new system is your best option, be sure to pilot it thoroughly before full implementation so that you don’t make unnecessarily large and risky jumps.

2. Trying to Do Everything Great Results in Doing Nothing Well

As customer needs diverge, you can quickly find yourself trying to provide a wide range of products through many different channels. Lacking a focused strategy can lead your supply chain down the dangerous path of trying to do too much. Richard Rumelt of UCLA compares this lack of a clear, focused strategy to an inept quarterback. If a quarterback were to conduct every huddle with nothing more than the words “let’s win,” then I doubt that team would score many touchdowns. Instead, by narrowing focus and developing a specific strategy of what your supply chain will do – and more importantly, what it won’t do– you can become great at a few objectives instead of being good at nothing.

How to Avoid the Mistake:

Create a supply chain strategy with focus. Strive for a few objectives with which to excel. Avoid vague, all encompassing “let’s win” goals and coaching.

Note: More thoughts on Rumalt’s strategy advice applied to supply chain available at Vivek Sehgal’s Supply Chain Musings.

3. Death by Inventory

Companies die when they run out of cash, and inventory has a nasty habit of eating cash faster than the cookie monster eats cookies. Small companies are especially vulnerable to stock piling inventory in anticipation of opportunities for growth. Never wanting to stock out, some businesses consistently over-order and over-build to capture all remote chances of demand. However, warehouses soon fill with obsolete or expired inventory that is essentially pallets of cash that you can’t use to pay the bills. Small companies aren’t the only ones with inventory issues; big businesses make similar mistakes. For example, Cisco took a $2.2 Billion write-down on obsolete inventory in 2001. More recently, Toyota, a company that prides itself on lean inventory, found itself with too many Trucks and SUVs that it couldn’t sell because demand for those vehicles dropped after the 2008 recession. However, less inventory isn’t always the answer either. Having too little inventory, or having the inventory in the wrong place, can quickly cut your market share and create angry customers. In reality, inventory is a complex creature that requires diligent attention to master.

How to Avoid the Mistake:

Don’t be afraid of politely turning away a few, less-profitable customers and custom items if it means freeing up significant amounts of cash through less inventory. Utilize data to back your decisions to avoid emotional purchasing. Build your company’s sales and operations (S&OP) process to ensure all departments are working on the same realistic forecast

4. Single Sourcing – “Help Me Supplier One, You’re My Only Hope!”

As supplier relationships become more collaborative, having only one primary vendor for key products can make financial sense. However, when your company’s destiny becomes married to your supplier’s future, you’re taking on unnecessary risk. Using one supplier for most of your business often makes good financial sense, but you must also stay vigilant in maintaining good back-up sources. Natural disasters, political unrest, or bankruptcy can quickly make your only supplier unavailable, leaving you in an uncomfortable predicament.

How to Avoid the Mistake:

Always have one or two back-up vendors for critical parts and services – preferably in different geographic locations or countries. Even if they are more expensive, give them a small percentage of your business so they stay engaged with you.

5. Complacency – If It Ain’t Broke, Why Fix It?

Last on the list of supply chain mistakes is complacency – getting too comfortable with a good solution. As Alex Rogo learns in The Goal, it’s difficult to push for improvements without a crisis encouraging change. However, remaining stagnate on a profitable model invites competitor disruption. New business models and supply chain improvements frequently disrupt the dominant firms in a market. Clayton Christensen, in his book The Innovator’s Solution, talks in detail about this phenomenon and offers advice on how to survive and prosper from disruptive innovation. To help our supply chains from losing their advantage, we should strive to improve and innovate before our competition forces us to do so.

How to Avoid the Mistake:

Become passionate about continuous improvement. Keep an eye on competitors, new business models, and emerging best practices. Work today to address risks your supply chain will face in the near and more distant future.

Which of these mistakes could your supply chain be facing – and what can you do to help avoid it? What other advice do you have to avoid these mistakes? Share your thoughts below, and be sure to subscribe free to receive future articles by email.

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    2 thoughts on “Five Supply Chain Mistakes that Kill Companies

    1. Navdeep Sidhu

      If you only use one supplier your leave your supply chain open to risk. What happens if that supplier has an issue and you can’t get your goods in time? You need to have a back up plan so your supply chain is always working.

      Reply
      1. Alex Fuller Post author

        Navdeep – it’s true, you don’t ever want to be without at least one backup vendor for key items. Dual sourcing is a best practice that even the smallest of organizations should strive to implement.

        Thanks for your thoughts.

        Reply

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