Three Silver Bullets to Solve (and Raise Red Flags on) Nearly Every Supply Chain Fire

This past Wednesday, I was presented with a problem. “Alex, your team needs to unpackage, relabel, and repackaged 10,000 of these items by noon Friday.” The product needed a warning label that we just barely learned was required by law. Running on our smallest possible staff, my team suddenly had a mountainous challenge before us that years ago would have kept me up at night worrying. However, I slept just fine because I knew we could handle the challenge with one of my three secret weapons. In fact, I’ve learned that I can solve nearly any supply chain fire with one or more of three things:

  1. Air Freight
  2. Temporary Workers
  3. A Rotary Drill

I initially put together this list as a joke. Executives would approach me with a problem, to which I would reply, “it’s nothing air freight, temps, or a rotary drill can’t solve,” and suddenly the stress of the problem decreased. I still don’t completely rely on these three silver bullets as the solution to any problem. However, with these three tools, my team has conquered surprisingly large amounts of fires that our small supply chain faces.

Perhaps more importantly than taking the stress out of emergencies, these three silver bullets also serve as a signal that our processes have room for improvement. Throwing money at a fire through expedited freight and increased payroll is a sign of deeper problems. Nevertheless, when 10,000 items need to relabeled in the next 36 hours, I need to solve the immediate blaze with whatever I can before backing up to prevent future sparks.

Silver Bullet One – Air or Expedited Freight

Silver Bullet One - Air Freight

Air freight is a needed miracle in modern supply chains. When problems arise, switching to faster shipping can save the day by cutting lead times from distant suppliers significantly. Those precious extra days can help capture last minute sales opportunities and help avoid expensive stock outs. Recently my company learned that one of our products was scheduled to ship to twice as many retail stores than originally planned. We had purchased inventory according to the original forecast, which would be insufficient to meet the new demand. However, by air freighting in product that was just finishing production in China, we were able to fulfill the order and capture the extra revenue. The higher shipping costs took some margin, but the ability to prevent three or four weeks of stock outs was well worth the cost. Realizing that I have an expedited restocking option has helped me reduce my safety stock and keep my company’s inventory investments smaller.

Another problem I often face is large customers needing product before we have it. We’ll tell customers that the launch date for a product is May 15, but then the customer will send a purchase order for an April 25 delivery. We often push back, but sometimes the customer will simply cancel the order if we cannot meet the date. Enter air freight again to save the day.

Although air freight can help your company get through a variety of tight spots, it’s not a good habit to constantly use it. Each time we’re forced to use air freight, it’s an expensive red flag telling us that we need to improve our systems, vendor performance, or customer relations. Nevertheless, expedited freight is an excellent tool to combat supply chain uncertainty.

Silver Bullet Two – Temporary Workers

Temporary Workers

When emergencies blaze out of control, we instinctively call in reinforcements. Dealing in consumer products, I’ve had countless experiences of relabeling, repackaging, and reworking product days or hours before it needs to ship. Often the rework could have been easily avoided months ago from simple communication or error proofing. However, problems slip through insufficient safety nets, and suddenly I’m flying to an offsite warehouse to oversee emergency rework for an urgent order.

Some time back, we had a large promotion ready to ship to one of our top customers. It was in our offsite warehouse prepared to ship the next day. As I reviewed the pictures of the product to confirm everything was good to go, I noticed some unfamiliar labels on the carton. I inquired for more detail and found that although the outside carton labels were correct, the inside product had incorrect barcodes. Over 70,000 products needed new barcode stickers put on them – and they still needed to ship within the next day or two. I jumped on the next flight and assembled a team of 18 temporary workers to help. We quickly created a system to move through the pallets and relabel the products. It was August, and the heat made me sweat almost as much as our looming deadline. However, thanks to my 18 new friends and my assistant who made sure I ate and took breaks, we were able to complete the project in less than 24 hours and ship the entire order on time.

Using temporary workers for unexpected fires is a clear red flag that upstream processes need help. However, as stated at the beginning of this article, knowing that calling in a few extra people can easily solve the problem takes much of the stress out of supply chain firefighting. Using temporary workers consistently may also be a sign that you may need more permanent additions to your staff.

Silver Bullet Three – A Rotary Drill

Rotary Drill

Originally not part of the silver bullet arsenal, a rotary drill in the right hands can solve major problems or inefficiencies in just minutes. It’s my weapon of choice with hands-on problem solving because of its versatility. With a rotary drill (and other tools), my team has built holders, pegs, product paths, and jigs that have often quadrupled production speed. Rather than accepting a process as just slow, a few minutes or hours of building additional tools, holders, or aids can skyrocket efficiency.

For example, as we manufactured one of our products, we needed somewhere to put the small raw materials before they were processed. Laying them next to the worker often resulted in a slight breeze blowing the very light material off the table. Additionally, the worker spent more time aligning the pieces on the machine than actually using the machine. Enter the rotary tool.

By creating a board with nails to put each piece on, we could drastically reduce the time it took to align the raw material on the machine. Putting it on a nail would allow it to stay aligned the entire time. The problem was that the nails were rough and would often snag the materials to create defects. Rather than complain and brainstorm different solutions, we just grabbed the rotary tool and smoothed down the nails. Suddenly, the entire operation was running smoothly, and much quicker than before.. Building small, creative tools – even if they’re not perfect at first – can save loads of dollars and hours.

Think While You Reload

As you remove the spent cartridges from your silver bullet six shooter, think about what could have prevented you from pulling the trigger. Every good Western movie needs a shootout, but the best supply chain cowboys I know avoid pulling the trigger altogether. Each time you resort to air freight or temporary workers think about how you could have solved the problem further upstream. The rotary tool may not raise the same number of red flags since it often helps create better processes, but sometimes I also use it as a last-resort solution that could have been solved earlier on.

A good way to improve is to hold a quick meeting each time you fire a silver bullet solutions. Five minutes addressing three questions could prevent future shots:

  1. Why were we forced to us a silver bullet solution to solve this fire?
  2. What could we have done to prevent this fire?
  3. What will we do differently next time?

A quick meeting with answers to these questions, combined with action items, will improve your processes and help you build up fire prevention measures.

What other silver bullet solutions do you have in your arsenal? Please share yours in a comment below, and don’t forget to subscribe to future articles.

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    2 thoughts on “Three Silver Bullets to Solve (and Raise Red Flags on) Nearly Every Supply Chain Fire

    1. Zach

      No Duct Tape? Good info. You really seem to want to pass on your information to others. I guess what you were trying to say is that reliance on these methods as an everyday way of doing business points to a problem, but occasional use, applied just when needed is not only appropriate but could be lauded. It sounds like you have good upper management who supports fully supports your efforts as well and doesn’t just stare at the bottom line.

      1. Alex Fuller Post author

        It’s true, you can’t forget “the handyman’s secret weapon, duct tape”. For instructions on that, I have to defer to Red Green, who is the true duct tape authority. You’re exactly right though – these are stop-gap solutions that can help you pull through in a pinch, but point to an overall process problem that should be examined. Thank you Zach.


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