Visibility, an often-noted supply chain goal for quite a few years, seems to be a bit more critical every year, and of particular interest for the past few years. Everyone seems to have their own definition of what “supply chain visibility” is. “Visibility” has been lifted in importance to the point of a fixation.
Supply chain visibility is a continuous pursuit. While many talk in terms of “achieving” or obtaining visibility, this capability – visibility – is more often a continual pursuit that should remain high on the radar screens, discussion agendas, and key requirements lists for most companies.
As risks in the supply chain continue to occur and customer demand continues to be less understanding of disruptions, more companies are recognizing the importance of creating and managing a visible supply chain.
Although different interpretations and definitions abound, one way to think of supply chain visibility is:
The right information, in actionable detail, on events, orders, inventory, and shipments, up and down, and end to end, updated and presented in real time or near real time.
This definition – ambitious by intention – sets the goal of having visibility through every tier of your supply base, with every supply chain partner, in real time or near real time. This means continuous real-time automated presentation of information about such things as a real-time consolidated view of inventories across the supply chain, real-time stock and materials in transit, event management with real-time alerting, a continuous projection of future inventory levels from demand, inventory, and fulfillment data.
Supply chain vendors often like to talk about this need for visibility in terms of a “supply chain control tower” and the deliberate analogy to an aircraft control tower has gained wide currency.
The supply chain control tower is more of a marketing message than a packaged solution, however, and end users, slow to adopt the control tower concept, still think of this in terms of visibility. (This is not to necessarily denigrate the useful of the control tower idea for purposes of crystallizing the embedded concepts.)
There are, of course, alternative approaches and strategies, depending on the importance of visibility for, say, collaboration vs. compliance. Technology components that an end user could deploy to achieve supply chain visibility could include:
• connectivity: electronic data interchange, business-to-business network;
• data repository;
• supplier or other portals;
• alerting/event management capability;
• display/presentation: views, dashboards, often role based, updated in near real time;
• business process customization;
• mobile capability;
• wireless technology;
• social capabilities;
• configurable analytics; and
• role-based security.
In 2014, expect to see more supply chain vendors responding to end users’ needs for more robust visibility capabilities in every aspect of their supply chains. While visibility deep into the supplier base remains a particular challenge, end users are increasingly looking for visibility across every stage of their supply chain, from better demand signals, and supplier audits to track-and-trace capabilities, to logistics tracking.