‘Where is my shipment – and when will I get it?’: three ways businesses can solve supply chain woes | Let’s workflow it

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Business supply chains aren’t perhaps the most compelling topic of conversation. But in recent months, they’ve become the source of much drama and debate. Supermarket shelves have been sitting bare, empty fuel pumps have led to panic-filled drivers, and manufacturers are still waiting for deliveries of vital components. The “just-in-time” supply chains that have been the backbone of our economy are now showing signs of strain.

The reasons for the shortages are manifold, but they can teach us much about how to build more resilient supply chains going forward.

“By the end of summer, demand started rising, then the ports started gearing up, and suddenly all the retailers were ordering,” explains Amar Ramudhin, professor of logistics at the University of Hull. “We had to find the ships, we had to find the crews; in some cases some of the shipping lines had retired ships because there was not enough demand, but now they have to get them all back.”

And the issues were the same down the chain, with a shortage of HGV drivers – and delivery staff still on furlough – not to mention the twin problems of Covid infections continuing to remove people from the workforce, and, of course, Brexit.

“All of those, compounded with the [coming] Christmas season, means you have to order two, three months in advance and you have to get the goods at least one month in advance to be able to stock the shops,” says Ramudhin. “That’s why everything is happening now.”

The curious thing is that many of these factors were foreseeable – though perhaps that doesn’t count for much in a world governed by so much uncertainty.

With that in mind, here are three ways that businesses can grapple with these conundrums to make their supply chains more resilient.

Better data
For businesses looking to better cope with uncertainty, better data is part of the solution.

“‘Where is my shipment? And when will I get it?’ That basic information today is still not completely available,” says Ramudhin. But if businesses were more willing to share information, it could make an enormous difference to how quickly containers are cleared to pass through our ports.

He describes how, by analysing data on what shipping containers are coming into ports, each could be given a risk score to help customs officers target their efforts more effectively. For example, a container from a regular supplier for a large multinational could be scored as less risky than a one-off import with a sketchy origin.

If such a system could be built, it could mean that many of our biggest importers would be able to sail through customs. “As the ship arrives, we’d know what the manifest says and we potentially could even identify some of the containers that look suspicious because of what’s written on the bill of lading,” he says, referring to the legal document that outlines where shipments are coming from and where they are heading.

a warehouse worker stands amongst the aisles and scans stock with her hand scanner .
Data on shipments could allow customs officers to target their efforts more effectively. Photograph: sturti/Getty Images

Custom tech
The customs challenge is growing particularly evident in Britain. Post-Brexit, new trade rules have been imposed between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK, contributing in no small part to the current delays and disruptions.

Tech can play a crucial role in keeping supply chains connected, despite the increased burden of paperwork. Fujitsu is one example of a business doing just that, in the form of its new digital trader service.

“If you want to create a customs declaration, traditionally you would need somebody experienced with the world of customs,” explains Frank Dunsmuir, Fujitsu’s head of international trade and customs, speaking at ServiceNow’s Now at Work EMEA digital event. “There’s a lot of legislation to get used to, lots of codes, lots and lots of requirements, depending on the type of goods.”

Fujitsu’s new system is built around technology that can manage the customs workflow and ensure that customs data is connected with all of the agencies and systems that need to see it. The technology was developed by ServiceNow, a leading digital workflow provider.

All in all, it means that what would normally be dozens of pages of paperwork can instead be handled digitally, without the need for expert help.

“All of the procedures you need to follow are defined. They’re written down in the government legislation. And when things are defined, they are now rules based, [and] they can be turned into a workflow and a computerised process. So you can build the logic into the system,” explains Dunsmuir. “There isn’t a customs question in there. We take what would be fairly standard invoice and delivery information that customers have, and […] based on the data they are providing, we then put the required codes and procedures into that data to create the customs declaration.”

Chaos engineering
Of course, the supply chain crisis isn’t just a technology challenge – it’s a question of business mindset too.

“I think the concept of resilience will be replaced by ‘anti-fragility’,” says Sebastiaan Laurijsse, head of manufacturing go-to-market EMEA at ServiceNow. To do so, systems that account for different components being unavailable would need to be designed. You can then work out how best to route around the point of failure. Again, having the right data is vital. “Making the data available into your ecosystem, and effectively routed towards the decision-making is critical to make better decisions,” says Laurijsse.

He adds that ServiceNow has implemented these principles in its own business. “We have extreme transparency across the whole ecosystem of processes. This allows us to detect anomalies, forecast potential patterns, and build potential future hypotheses for prediction and prevention.”

To prepare the just-in-time supply chain for future shocks, we need to get a handle on the data and use it to predict and plan for uncertainty.

“Businesses shouldn’t just ‘react and respond’ to supply shocks, only to return to the status quo,” says Laurijsse. “Stresses, volatility and noise in the supply chain are opportunities to improve capability and grow.”

Empower people with digital workflows and wherever work goes, make it flow. Find out more at servicenow.com/uk

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