Global visibility: myth or reality?

Global visibility: myth or reality?

The computer systems did not become antiquated overnight. In fact, the company made major strides over the years; first, customer service started using the new sales order system, then, the computer department built electronic links to major ocean carriers; and just last year, the logistics team insisted that all its forwarders and brokers provide online track and trace. With all these improvements, why was Jack struggling to locate the shipment destined for Cleveland?

Jack's question is simple: "Will the parts arrive in time to keep from shutting the assembly line down?" It was 8 p.m. Friday and he reasoned, "The sales order system should provide me with the part number, which means I should be able to get the tracking number from the purchasing system, which will lead me to the new track-and-trace system so I can see if the container actually sailed from China. If the shipment has already hit the Port of Los Angeles, our broker should have gotten it through Customs and the parts may well be on the road."

For many companies, tracking a shipment from the factory to the customer remains cumbersome. Despite new enterprise systems and electronic connections with suppliers, customs and service providers, there are still information black holes throughout the supply chain.

Global visibility should provide a door-to-door view for each shipment, a profile for each supplier and service provider that touches the product, and drill-down capabilities to address inquiries relative to logistics, compliance and finance.

Leading manufacturers recognize the critical nature of their supply chain and are regaining control by implementing global initiatives. These initiatives span regions, unite business units and break down traditional departmental boundaries. Senior managers from sourcing, logistics, compliance and finance are working together to create guidelines for selecting business partners, implementing security programs and setting technology standards. Over the past few years, the number of suppliers and service providers sending status data and critical documents electronically has increased dramatically. At the same time, information requirements continue to evolve, with minimal standardization from customer to customer. Enlightened corporations are helping to define standards for the industry through organizations such as the Voluntary Interindustry Commerce Standards Association and RosettaNet.

As corporations regain control, many are developing global data models to manage the movement of goods, information and money across the supply chain. These global data models are highly reliant on the standardization of the information and processes that are used to communicate with each supply-chain participant. Once global visibility is achieved, the next logical step is to incorporate real-time technologies so that cargo can be monitored as it moves; exceptions to plan will be flagged immediately. Technologies that support real-time processing and alerting are still emerging; however, devices such as radio frequency identification tags and wireless pagers are being adopted. Just over the horizon, Internet-based portals will serve as control centers for interpreting real-time alerts, analyzing various potential responses and implementing changes to ensure that delivery and security goals are met.

Jack was pleased to learn that even large corporations are challenged with supply-chain visibility; and, he was excited that as industry standards come to fruition, the cost of technology continues to decrease. "The challenge for my company is to make global visibility a reality on a very tight budget." He decided to launch a short-term project and initiate a longer-term plan. For the short term, his team will focus on making it easier to respond to inquiries by coordinating access to current information systems. This will be achieved by building a poor man's portal to graphically unify processes, provide an intuitive interface and link directly to today's systems. Although not elegant, this effort will make it easier to track shipments, help identify existing information voids and begin to get his team focused on improving the existing processes.

To initiate a longer-term plan, Jack will ask the executive committee to appoint a cross-functional team to focus on supply-chain performance and security. Initial objectives will include the development of commercial guidelines, a review of compliance and security programs and increased involvement in establishing standards for the company and the industry. As the organization matures and technology becomes more affordable, this team will evaluate solution options.

Jane Biddle is president of Biddle Associates in Chatham, N.J. She can be reached at (973) 701-2557 or