Finding the weakest link
In our work at Deep Analysis, we use the term “supply chain thinking” to describe our belief that any business can benefit from observing the concepts and structures of a traditional supply chain. Chains are made up of links, and the chain as a whole is only as strong as its weakest link. In other words, the links in a chain depend on one another to keep the chain strong. So, whether you are a legal firm, a healthcare organization, or a government department, you are not the center of the universe; you are a link in a broader chain. We all work with others, whether they are suppliers, customers, citizens, or third-party contractors—they are links in our chains.
Traditionally, we have relied on two things to ensure that all these links operate together efficiently. First, and most importantly, we rely on trust; we work on the assumption that most people and most organizations are relatively trustworthy and at least try to do the right thing. Second—and to be fair, it’s a distant second—we rely on the law to set guardrails that cannot be overstepped, and if they are, that provide us with a mechanism to resolve the situation.
This past year, we have all, to some degree or another, become aware of the global supply chain as we have heard the news of container ships stranded in the ocean and experienced higher prices or the unavailability of certain products in stores. But, we may be less aware of how critical efficiency between links is to companies involved in supply chains. Profit margins are often thin, and the slightest blip in otherwise efficient processes that move from one link to another can have immediate and catastrophic effects. Many, if not most, of these links depend on personal relationships, trust, and traditional (often paper-based) processes. Hence, the crisis caused by the pandemic and geopolitics is triggering a massive, once in-a-lifetime shift in the way supply chains operate. Though traditional and often reluctant to change, the supply chain sector is now reassessing its lack of embrace of technology and, significantly, rethinking long-established processes. This, in turn, will provide us all with a swath of lessons (both good and bad) to be learned.
From a KM and information management perspective, we can place these lessons into the two broad buckets of trust and efficiency. Efficiencies are the most straightforward lessons, as supply chain operators are now targeting repetitive manual tasks for automation. Examples here are embracing modern document capture technologies and tools such as robotic process automation (RPA) to speed up and reduce errors in basic paperwork processes. In supply chains, there is typically a tremendous amount of paperwork to deal with and, of course, plenty of regular human errors to resolve. Moving to modern intelligent document processing (IDP) and RPA is now on many supply chain agendas.