Your Next Stop: The Supply Chain Twilight Zone
A Purchasing Manager for a packaged food manufacturer awakes one morning to discover a new reality of how supply chains are managed—and how this reality is closer than we realize.
I am a big fan of the original Twilight Zone television series, hosted by Rod Sterling. The original black and white series ran on CBS for five seasons—from 1959 to 1964—and remains in syndication to this day. Each Twilight Zone episode holds your attention with stories involving people who face unusual, extraordinary and often terrifying circumstances. This is the opening monologue for the 1st season:
You're looking at a tableau of reality, things of substance, of physical material: a desk, a window, a computer. These things exist and have dimension.
Now this is Sara McNeal, age thirty-two, who also is real. She is a Contract Supplier Purchasing Manager for a mid-sized manufacturer of packaged food products. But in just a moment, we will see how thin the line is that separates that which is real from that which is possible.
Sara spends most of her day trying to ensure the products ordered from her 20+ contract manufacturing and packaging partners are delivered On-Time and In-Full (OTIF), while meeting her company’s quality standards. Her work is accomplished through phone calls, emails, and tracking the status of these orders through various spreadsheets.
Even though she works hard, often into the early evening, there are always fires to put out – especially since the start of the COVID pandemic. The OTIF performance of her assigned contract suppliers dropped far below the company standard, and she is under immense pressure to get this number up to where it was pre-COVID.
When Sara graduated at the top of her class from a leading business school with a degree in supply chain management, she had high hopes, dreams even, of applying her hard-earned knowledge to significantly improve her employer’s supply chain capabilities. However, those dreams have not been fulfilled. She yearns for the day when the manual aspects of her job can be automated, freeing her time to focus on more value-adding activities, like working on cost reduction and sustainability initiatives with her contract supplier partners.
Turning in for the night after a rather stressful day, Sara has a vivid dream of the future of supplier management.
When she awakes, Sara is unaware that her world has already changed in significant ways. She has entered the Twilight Zone.
The next morning, Sara logs into the computer in her home office before the rest of the Contract Supplier Purchasing Team to get an early start on going through voicemails, emails, and any updates to spreadsheets from her assigned contract suppliers. She is startled to see that someone had cleaned off her desk of all the various sticky notes she uses to keep track of order issues and action items, and wonders if her 10 year old son, Tommy, is playing a trick on her to get even for her insisting he finish his homework prior to hanging with his friends yesterday.
Upon logging into her computer, Sara is further panicked to find that the spreadsheet she had been working on is gone. She thinks Tommy has gone too far. She needs that spreadsheet for a Zoom meeting this morning! The spreadsheet was quite complicated, containing the status and action plans for all outstanding POs for her assigned partners.
Sara is just about ready to shout for Tommy when she notices that someone has installed a new program called Nulogy on her computer, with a new headset attached to her computer. Sara curiously slips on the headset and launches the new solution. To her surprise, her computer says, “Good morning Sara, I have analyzed the latest operational information from your assigned partners and the impact on OTIF Performance, and have identified the top opportunities for you to address.”
Sara nearly falls out of her chair and is tempted to run back upstairs and climb back into bed. Maybe she is still dreaming, and pinches herself to wake up.
Although Sara is dumbfounded, she decides to play along and responds: “Show me the top opportunities for improvement.” The computer responds, “I have identified a raw material disruption due to a fire at ABC Corrugate that will affect 20% of Extreme Packaging’s orders leading to late delivery to 3 customers. Would you like to see the best 3 scenarios for resolving this supply disruption?” Sara responds that she does and the Artificial Intelligence (AI) enabled solution displays the best 3 scenarios graphically and numerically in both volumetric and financial terms side by side.
After partially recovering her senses, Sara evaluates the scenario tradeoffs and determines the best path forward for her company. Sara instructs the computer to select scenario 2, which involves sourcing the affected packaging materials from an alternate supplier at a bit higher cost but still providing a positive margin. The AI-enabled Multi-Enterprise Supply Chain Business Network (MESCBN) Platform sends scenario 2 changes directly to Sara’s company’s ERP solution for execution and displays the new baseline information for Sara’s review.
Sara is so mesmerized by the ease of use and power of the intelligence-infused supply ecosystem collaboration platform that she almost misses her group Zoom meeting. Again, she is surprised to see that the new platform is being used real-time in the meeting to review past and present contract supplier order performance, discuss disruptions and actions to resolve them, and to discuss more value-adding opportunities to improve performance, quality, and ecosystem sustainability. The collaborative supply ecosystem platform shows near real-time updates to inbound and on-hand raw, packaging, work in process and finished goods material, to in-process production and available capacity, to quality data, and to any detected disruptions or deviations to plan.
Everyone on her team seems energized and truly excited about their work. She almost asked her boss when this new solution was implemented, but she didn’t want to sound crazy. Time flies and Sara solves all of her near-term order problems. She wonders what she will do for the rest of her day. She doesn’t have to ponder that question for long.
Knowing that Sara has completed her priority activities for the day, the AI-enabled supply ecosystem collaboration platform asked Sara if she would like to analyze longer-term supply opportunities and risk scenarios to determine the best responses. The MESCBN Platform is constantly analyzing new structured and unstructured data from multiple tiers of raw, packaging, contract manufacturing, co-packing, and 3PL partners to uncover opportunities and potential risks in the immediate, mid-term, and longer-term horizons. The platform gathers, cleans, aligns, synchronizes, prioritizes, and presents this data to assist its human counterpart.
In this case, the MESCBN platform has identified a dozen or so situations that require “human” attention. This is where Sara is able to finally achieve her dream of using her deep supply chain and procurement knowledge to work on value-adding activities that significantly improve her company’s top and bottom line performance while helping make the supply chain greener.
Sara’s future world seems like something out of a Twilight Zone episode, but in reality the type of capabilities described in this post are already commercially available or will be in a few short years. Of course, going from a manual, brute-force supplier management process to a collaborative and dynamic, AI-enabled multi-enterprise process overnight can only happen in the Twilight Zone. In reality, it takes a well thought-out journey involving incremental improvements in people, process, technology and data capabilities.
As with any journey, often the hardest parts are setting a destination and taking that first step. Has your company developed their vision and path for enabling multi-enterprise dynamic supply ecosystem collaboration? Nulogy can help you develop your vision and every step along the way to a multi-enterprise collaborative supply ecosystem future.
Download our white paper to learn more about how a multi-enterprise platform can prepare your business for the future.