Q&A: Your Best Backup Plan? A Good Database

Q: Are descriptions, National Motor Freight Classification item numbers and freight classes required on the bill of lading?

We currently have less-than-truckload pricing in with a third-party logistics provider that is freight all kinds. We are moving to a new operating system, and our IT department is questioning the needs in this area. I’m of the opinion that providing that level of detail is the right way, even if not absolutely required.


A: Do you plan to do all of your transportation business only with this 3PL for the rest of eternity (or at least as long as the life of your new operating system)?

I mean, what happens if the 3PL can’t handle a particular shipment, is uncompetitive on one route or another, even (heavens forfend!) goes out of business? And you say this is LTL pricing; is every shipment you dispatch LTL?

For that matter, is your FAK scale all-inclusive? Are even the highest-classed shipments included with the lowest? What about hazardous materials, refrigerated goods, high-value ones, any requiring special handling, etc.?

I think these questions ought to make clear that your new B/L form needs to be able to accommodate “that level of detail” when it’s needed. That may not be very often, but when the occasion arises, it’s pretty awkward to have to scribble important information on the document’s margins.

Your point about including the information because it’s “the right way” is poorly taken. The bill of lading serves three purposes: to provide requisite shipping instructions to the carrier; to constitute, when countersigned by the carrier, its receipt for the goods; and to memorialize the contract of carriage. Leaving aside specialized versions such as order bills, any information not relevant to these purposes is unimportant.

And when you’re sending out normal shipments via your 3PL, that NMFC and class information will be in that category. All it’ll do is clutter up the paper for no purpose; you can include it if you like, but it doesn’t make the document any more useful for any of the purposes I’ve identified.

It is, however, so simple to design a B/L form capable of recording this information that I doubt this is your IT department’s point. I suspect its real question is whether you still need NMFC databases linked with your products so that the information will automatically be generated when a B/L is prepared, which is another matter entirely.

The answer is no, you don’t, provided you’re willing to tie yourself pretty firmly to your current 3PL or some other future supplier who’ll also be willing to negotiate FAK rates with you. To my thinking, that’s needlessly restrictive.

Reading between the lines of your question, your current system includes such information. For a professional programmer, it’s pretty much child’s play to carry the data forward to your new one. Yes, some maintenance will be required (NMFC items and class ratings do change occasionally), but even that’s pretty minimal.

Now, that’s not vital for the onesy-twosy shipment that falls outside your normal range. You can just get the information the old-fashioned way — that is, get a book and look it up — and add it manually. That’s a minor annoyance if you’re only doing it once a month or so.

But keeping that information in your system and updating it now and again, although perhaps unimportant for the present, leaves your options open for the future. Your IT folks may grumble a little about doing it as they’re developing the new system, but I promise you they’ll squeal like stuck pigs if you develop new transportation providers who need the information and they have to go back and reprogram to add it back in.

Back in my salad days I had occasion to develop billing programs for businesses I ran. Sure, my primary focus was on how those businesses operated at that particular point in time. But I also made allowances for the future, so far ahead as I could see it; I certainly didn’t want to go back and rewrite large sections of code just because something in the real world had changed.

So my advice is not to eliminate chunks of your database just because you don’t need them right now. Fiddle-dee-dee, as Scarlett O’Hara famously said; tomorrow is another day. If the extra workload is so minimal, it’s wise to be prepared for it.

Consultant, author and educator Colin Barrett is president of Barrett Transportation Consultants. Send your questions to him at 5201 Whippoorwill Lane, Johns Island, S.C., 29455; phone, 843 559-1277; e-mail, BarrettTrn@aol.com. Contact him to order the most recent 351-page compiled edition of past Q&A columns, published in 2010.


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