Lead time – A Time to Refocus

Lead time metrics seldom gets senior leadership level attention outside of Supply Operations, until something blows up badly, such as the 2011 tsunami overwhelming Japan’s economy and its swift, cascading impact on automotive and electronics supply chains world-wide.

More recently, in the midst of the world-wide pandemic, there has been a spate of headline-grabbing bad news from large auto makers and other industries, all traced back to growing lead-time of parts/ component and products [i].

Auto makers, after seeing an unexpected surge in demand starting Q3, 2020, are now stuck in neutral, exposed to painful revenue and profit shortfalls due to semiconductor chip shortages over the near-term (calendar Q1 through Q2/early Q3, 2021), possibly longer – forced to idle factories and people, for months. Unexpectedly large (and growing) lead-time of critical parts are squeezing both top and bottom lines. All this at a time when auto, and other industries, are trying to get back to some semblance of ‘normal operations’ after intermittent and prolonged shutdowns earlier in the pandemic.

The current lead time debacle need not have been this bad, the pandemic and subsequent sharp surge in demand (across some segments) notwithstanding.

Lead time of products, key components and raw materials are critical variables which require timely and regular attention of (yes) CEO/ COO of any product company serving multiple geographies and relying on global supply networks. Now, with long and uncertain lead times in the form of persistent shortages, it has the CEO’s attention again.

How do we break out of this endless cycle of using lead time as a ‘reactive’ metric, and use it to gain an operating advantage?

What’s your Lead time? A Measurement Gap

Wildly swinging lead-times are usually the tip of the iceberg. Below the surface are many causal forces –

  • inadequate manufacturing capacity, new industries competing for scarce capacity and supply (e.g., auto industry vying for the same fab capacity used by electronics makers), or
  • gaps in planning and collaboration processes (with supply chain partners), missing system capabilities, or simply not knowing what innovations are available to tackle lead-time unreliability. This is the purview of this write-up.

One of the primary needs is the ability to measure the lead-time of products – quickly and accurately. To date, planners, buyers and analysts, even in larger, well-run companies find themselves leaning on spreadsheets and “notes” (from their latest calls with supplies) when asked –

“What’s the lead time of XYZ product?” – their own product, which is getting supply constrained.

Most often, the product’s lead time data in their ERP systems is dated. Makes sense – most of the lead-time info in their ERP system is supplied by the buyer/planner’s spreadsheet.

For component parts and critical sub-assemblies that are procured from suppliers, product companies are often totally dependent on the lead-time data they get from their manufacturing partners – CM[1] in hi-tech electronics product makers or Tier 1 suppliers in automotive and other manufacturing-intensive supply chains. With an arms-length relationship with the eventual parts’ suppliers (either Tier 2, or sometimes upstream), it’s not surprising that these numbers fed to the product companies can be dangerously stale.

Astute operations and supporting IT teams understand these gaps – that ERP is a system for ‘recording’ (storing) lead-time data, and not designed to measure lead-time. They need a different approach, different processes to capture this data quickly and accurately, and often, a new enabling system.

Astute operations and supporting IT teams understand these gaps – that ERP is a system for ‘recording’ (storing) lead-time data, and not designed to measure lead-time. They need a different approach..

Tackling unreliable Lead times – Focus on right Process & System

However, before embarking on a project to plug the gap – ‘fix lead-time’ data and systems, it’s important to identify any bottlenecks in the end-to-end processes from demand through supply planning and all the steps that lead to the subsequent shipments from suppliers. For supply chains that are impacted by long lead-times on components that are further upstream of their Tier 1 supplier (or CM/ODM[2]), analyzing this end-to-end process is just a start, and may not close the gap due to variability in component lead-times.

If you have not done this, it is best to wrap your arms around product lead times looking at processes and interactions with the immediate upstream tier of supply, at the get go – i.e., between the product company and its Tier 1 supplier (CM/ODM).

Once the process bottlenecks and disconnects are removed, the company is in a position to systematically measure the lead-time of their products from this vantage point (with Tier 1 supplier).

As soon as companies gain visibility and some control over product lead time, they can plan the more demanding and potentially uncharted territory of expanding these processes to include critical Tier 2 supply.

Design for Implementation and usage

Once process related constraints are identified and resolved (via suitable agreements with supply chain partners to share data), companies can proceed to the next step, namely – providing a system enabler that works in simple manner to capture lead-times.

Specialized solutions built on the cloud are ideal, since most processes are executed collaboratively. Ensure that the system is fast to implement and quickly gains traction with all users, including the supplier users. A “large, ERP mindset” (‘small army’ of people, ‘large’ implementation centered) and ‘hit-and-miss’ post implementation stabilization and usage, is a sure shot to an expensive failure.

Take the lead with your Lead time

A recent article outlines our findings of new approaches and innovations in process and system from younger, dynamic growing product companies that are successfully scaling operations while facing larger competitors, as well as larger technology companies with leading supply chain operations practices, both of which have navigated supply chain disruptions – large and small.

Use the information from this article to brainstorm with your senior leaders (CEO/ COO) specific areas that need to be re-thought through and acted upon, both at a macro and micro-process level

For example, in the case of macro-process, answer key questions such as –

  • How can product Lead times be measured systematically which is closer to reality (if not real-time)?
  • What is the end-to-end process and supporting system needed that can measure lead-times accurately?

What is the end-to-end process and supporting system needed that can measure lead-times accurately?

For micro-process dive into specific processes and system changes that are economically implementable, such as –

  • A Lead-time review process to identify lead time outliers and take corrective actions rapidly.

Ideas from the above referenced article can help you define the extent of your lead time challenges and opportunities, providing you an outline of a few key process and system areas that need to be rethought, redesigned (as needed) and retooled. Use these to bring your lead-time picture into much sharper focus, gaining an operating advantage in the process.

Lead time requires focused leadership on process and system. Falling behind is not an option.

*Please email contactus@zyom.com with questions or additional information needs.


[2] ODM = original design manufacturer (using in hi-tech electronics supply chains)


[1] CM = contract manufacturer (in hi-tech electronics supply chain)


[i] Reference: Chip Shortage Spirals Beyond Cars to Phones and Consoles Bloomberg, February 7, 2021
https://finance.yahoo.com/news/chip-shortage-spirals-beyond-cars-200059989.html

Uncertainty, Volatility and a new operating advantage

Uncertainty mixed with volatility, such as what the financial markets and various macro-metrics are signaling is an explosive mix, even for very well-run companies. In times like these what companies can earn (Revenue, Profit) becomes uncertain. One thing remains certain – there are many opportunities to learn.

But, when it comes to learning that’s useful for the operations of hardware product companies, there are far too many stories wasted on a few large companies and speculative, often misplaced assessments made regarding specific ‘traits’ and ‘tools’ of successful companies that helped them achieve operational excellence (a la Apple, Cisco, etc.).

Here are four specific, contrarian lessons from dynamic, younger companies that despite their smaller size and vulnerabilities took on much larger competitors, often successfully, achieving solid operating success.

You would find these useful for your operations to tide over this period of variability/ volatility in demand-supply, and utilize the operating capability outlined here to your advantage in 2020 and beyond.

From a new vantage point – Contrarian Prudence

Contrary to conventional wisdom, companies can learn a lot more from smaller, younger companies that despite their smaller size and vulnerabilities, took on much larger competitors and often prevailed, and attained an enviable customer and revenue base in a (relatively) short period of time.

Finding patterns in this group is more relevant, especially for younger or smaller companies and startups, looking to carve their niche.

As a part of a startup, Zyom, we have learned something quite counter-intuitive working alongside some dynamic, highly competitive smaller companies. One, in particular (let’s call it Company “RapidR”), stands out, among peers. We will use a sum-total of our experience at this and other companies to highlight a few key learnings, some quite contrarian.

This company was able to navigate through the last ‘Deep Recession’ in the US (2007-2008) while still a small company, and came racing out of it, scaling steadily and then at a furious pace, taking on, often successfully much larger competitors, and establishing a strong position for itself.

What follows are a few lessons learned working with this (RapidR) and other companies in the networking and broader Hi-tech electronics products industry, some of which fly in the face of conventional wisdom and “management best practices” Continue reading “Uncertainty, Volatility and a new operating advantage”

On Operations and Scale – A Key Driving Force

Making a company scale is vital. For hardware product companies (offering physical goods), this is especially key when technology is still in its early stages of adoption. Scaling early provides a solid competitive anchor in the markets they serve, making it harder for follow-on competition to achieve similar scale or size. Most research and case-studies have overlooked a very important piece of the scaling puzzle – scaling operations effectively and rapidly – both the Demand and Supply-side.

The author derives ideas and inspiration from an example of scale available to us in abundance – that of us, Humans, and attempts to answer the following question –

Why is it that some companies can achieve scale and grow, while others in the same or similar industry with promising products cannot?

Utilizing experiential evidence of scale from directly working with a company that scaled significantly in a short period, and utilizing direct and indirect knowledge from other companies, including past experiences, the author arrives at, what could be fairly counter-intuitive answers.

One specific capability in particular stands us in good stead.

What is this capability? How to develop & utilize this capability?

This article could give you some fresh ideas as you plan to scale in the new year (2019).

To Scale is Human – Evidence from the long arc of Pre-history

Travelling back into the mists of time, an alien would have wondered, looking at us – the Human species, whether we could even make it past a few millennia.

The Homo Sapiens were not the best equipped, the strongest, of great size or anything spectacular to have survived, let alone thrive on Planet Earth.

There were many competing “human like” species (Hominins), some stronger, many better adapted for the conditions they were living in (Neandertals in Europe, Denisovans in Asia, among others).

Somehow, we survived and they did not. Somehow, we were able to not only overtake the other Hominins on their home turf, but we went from strength to strength until, ours was the only surviving human-like species left.

Today, we dominate the planet, and have changed the geography of the planet, not just the history. When it comes to scale among living beings, there is no better example than us – Humans (1,6).

How did this come about? Many things appear to have happened along the way, corroborated by scientists. One in particular stands out – we gathered beneficial mutations – physical, cognitive and social – along the way.

While there are different views on how it came about –

the single most beneficial “mutation” that the H. sapiens evolved was the propensity for active collaboration with totally unrelated individuals.

This singular ability of ‘being able to engage with others in complex, social activities towards joint goals’ – scientists conclude – is one of the key reasons the modern human (H. sapiens) survived, outlasting other hominins (2,3).

Kolo-painting-Tanzania-rock-art-sm
Picture: Pre-historic Art – Kolo Painting (Tanzania) https://northerncircuitadventure.co.tz/kolo-painting/

So, how is this related to the operating success of the modern-day enterprise.

Using experiential evidence from a company going through critical phases of its development life-cycle, in a young market-space, we would like to share how this ability of being ‘peerless collaborators’ is a critical capability that separates the best run companies from the also rans.

Continue reading “On Operations and Scale – A Key Driving Force”

Transitions and Turbulence – how to ride it out?

Often product transitions in product companies lead to serious turbulence. In product and innovation driven companies – such as hi-tech electronics and consumer goods, this can become a traumatic experience with big tangible losses in excess & obsolete inventory & near-term lost revenue. The longer term lost market opportunities and customer goodwill can have a corrosive effect on its competitiveness. This need not be the case. This blog provides a case summary derived from a real-life Product transition experience at a dynamic consumer goods company, and what the company learned through a methodical postmortem collaborating with an external partner.

Often transitions lead to turbulence which becomes a traumatic experience for all involved.

This need not be the case. As a real-life scenario described below reveals, with a concerted effort a consumer goods company was able to figure out the causal factors which impeded the success of a product transition and how they could preempt it in the future.

 

3in1-fall-plan-ride-surf

The scenario and the solution approach have broad applicability in the hi-tech electronics and other product innovation-driven hardware industries as well.

 

Transitions are of various types – sometimes these are driven by technology-changes, sometimes due to competitor actions, and on other occasions due to product refreshes which may result in phase-out or reduction in volume of older products.

 

In this note we will cover the transitions that Product enterprises go through when they make major changes to their products or product lines in the context of this case.

 

 

 

Wipeout in Transition – A Consumer Goods Case summary & Key Takeaways

A large consumer brand faced the deadly effects of a product line transition that went totally off the rails. Upwards of $20MM (USD) in losses (inventory obsolescence and write-downs) were recorded.

wipeout-surfer-nicolas-colombo-v2

Management recognized this event, and the fact that this was caused by a single product transition – in other words, a single product event. They wanted to get to the bottom of this fast.

 

There were hunches and hypotheses, but one of the key decisions made was – let’s have someone from the outside do an operational postmortem of what went wrong and determine what it would take to ensure this didn’t recur in the future. An intensely collaborative exercise with the external partners uncovered two major takeaways –

 

1)     Trust factor depletion – there was a major erosion of trust between Sales and Operations (Procurement & Supply Chain Ops) that took place over a period of time in the recent past before the product transition debacle.

 

At that time, Product demand was perking up and was being diligently reported by Regional Sales teams, yet Operations apparently got cold feet when responding to the demand – not fully ‘comfortable’ with the ‘optimistic’ numbers from Sales. Shipment volumes were consistently lower than the order volume – resulting in long lead-times, ‘unhappy customers’ and potentially ‘lost sales’. While the part about ‘unhappy customers’ and ‘lost sales’ could not be conclusively established, it was clear that the Sales teams were unhappy with the lack of fleet-footedness on the part of Ops when demand “signals” from Sales were being explicitly communicated to them.

 

Sales made their displeasure with Ops clear to senior leaders. While such Sales-Ops mismatch on demand is not uncommon, the contentious nature of the recent Sales-Ops interactions and the fact that volumes shipped by Ops was always chasing the growing demand, made the pendulum swing too far to the other side when the next change hit, namely this product transition with several technology changes in the new product.

 

Takeaway: when the ‘trust gap’ between Sales & Ops grows noisy, it’s time for leadership to pay attention and act on the data-points.

 

2)     A Transition Planning process and owner and a tool – Except for quarterly business reviews, Ops glitches – such as a missed delivery, or growing lead-times – rarely get top leadership’s attention, unless it directly impacts a large customer/channel partner or revenue. As such these operations ‘micro-events’ are stashed away in corporate (tribal) memory as one-offs with lessons learnt based on isolated reviews. This works for most garden-variety operational issues, most of the time. Not so for transitions.

 

Transitions are a critical time and a critical driver of future revenue from new products.

 

In the frenetic activity to launch a new product with new technology-set, a big process component was missed – How to plan the transition? What’s the ideal way to transition? What if things went off the ‘desired’ course – push-out of launch dates, lower shipments in channel than Sales plans? How to navigate the transition in such cases? Even experienced Ops teams often miss this. A conscious effort has to be made to chart out the transition process and more importantly all the moving parts involved –

 

  • What is the Product’s Transition Plan? When & how to change it?
  • Who is responsible for transition planning?
  • Whose inputs are needed when making changes?
  • How do changes affect decisions and plan? How to communicate decisions and plan changes?

 

Key Takeaways: First and foremost a Transition Planning process needs to be defined working across functions.

 

Next, the ownership of the Transition planning process needs to be clearly defined, including the cross-functional team members.

 

Finally, there is a need for a tool – a digital transition planning tool which companies can use to generate transition plans fast, plan & decide among different ‘What-if’ scenarios, re-plan in real-time if needed  and distribute the resulting actions across all team members quickly so follow-up execution can be completed before it’s too late. A metaphorical surfboard to ride out the transitions.

2010_mavericks_competition_klein_bearbeitet-v2

 

Think about it. In day to day Operations, most of the planning resources and energies are deployed on products in various stages of volume production. However, for critical product transitions which can be a make or break for smaller companies, we think the same (Volume Production Planning) approach will do.

 

No it will not.

 

Product transitions have their own patterns and noise – as this company found out too late..

 

With careful thought, planning and attention of the right cross-functional team guided by Operations, companies can smoothly ride out a transition “wave” and catch the next one to go higher.

 

(Thanks to Alpana Sharma and John Duvenage for edits and organization)

What’s the demand? Solution to a most demanding enterprise

Determining Demand – A hard problem. Reasons why this is hard problem. Why current systems are a bottleneck. Thinking anew about Demand and systems needed – in ever intensely collaboration-dependent enterprises & their value networks

A hard problem – What’s the demand?

Pinpointing what is the real demand that a product company has to build to – this is clearly one of the hardest Operating problems in the Hi-tech branded products industry. Let’s try to uncover why? Why focused energies need to be expended at the senior-leadership level to ensure that the right approach and yes tools are applied to solve this problem.

Different Roles, Different lenses

Experienced industry practitioners well know “Demand” for a company’s products may mean different things to different functions.

final-blogpic-pinpointing-demand-zyom-img_5752-v2

For the CEO this starts with the current and next year’s target, crystallized out of a periodic business planning cycle (Annual, Quarterly) into target Financial numbers (Dollar forecast) – often a range. In the best cases, this is arrived at collaboratively with inputs from Finance, Sales, Marketing, Product Engineering and Operations. Although, we have some data-points to believe that Operations maybe involved sub-optimally to the detriment of the company’s execution to its business plan.

For the Sales leader this means current Quarter’s & next quarter’s Sales forecast.

For Marketing, this is looking at Product Mix and plan based on product launches, transitions, events.

Engineering cares most about baking feedback from recent launches and providing reliable launch time-frames.

For the Operations leader and team this means determining – what is the net demand that has to be built and shipped in the current & next cycle (monthly, quarterly) and prepare in case demand flexes. In essence answer –

What is the net Demand that Operations needs to build or buy for?

As plan adjustments are made based on how Sales is tracking to their numbers and other factors impacting demand, Ops needs to answer – What to plan, source, procure, build, ship, deliver & manage the myriad changes to – so that quarterly financial numbers are met or exceeded.

Often, this is made harder by the fact that Operations are downstream recipients of the company’s Annual or Quarterly Plan, sometimes not pro-actively involved at the get-go in the business planning process.

Degrees of difficulty

What is the demand that Operations should execute to, becomes harder to answer due to many factors. Let’s consider these –

  • Young companies in a growth mode go through many changes rapidly – growing the number of products, establishing the number of Channels they sell through, the number of customers and countries they deliver to. This means that the structural value networks themselves are changing, sometimes quite frequently.
  • In addition, the demand from these different Sales channels and direct customers is fluctuating. By Sales Channels we mean all the indirect channels through which a company sells. This includes Resellers, VARs (Value Added Resellers), Distributors and VADs (Value Added Distributors).
  • A system to support Operations do this is very often the Achilles heel. Experienced Operations leaders know ERP provides valuable Supply data & some input data to determine demand, however they cannot depend on their ERP systems alone for fast and accurate planning and re-planning for Demand.

Demands thinking out of the box

ERP is not a panacea or cure-all. Most experienced Operations leaders know they have to think and act out of the ‘ERP box’ if they want to get to their demand picture quickly and accurately, in an environment where change is a constant.

Operations leaders know they have to think and act out of the ‘ERP box’ .. to get their demand picture quickly and accurately

To make this happen, experienced Operations leaders direct their teams to extract data from ERP, merge it with other data and intelligence from outside such as emails, in their own offline spreadsheets and then determine demand. However, they dread this and know fully well they can only go so far in managing their demand with spreadsheets.

Spreadsheets are errors prone and cannot be relied on for collaboration.

When any of the inputs change (say, inbound P.O.s), inputs that are needed to determine real customer Demand to be fulfilled – the spreadsheet(s) go through a domino effect and all numbers become incorrect instantly. The process to change the data in spreadsheets to re-compute demand is painstaking and does not meet the cycle-time or accuracy needs of growing enterprises in competitive markets where collaboration is a pre-requisite.

Operations teams need a specialized system. A system that can rapidly reflect all upstream changes (such as Sales execution, Marketing actions) impacting demand.

Operations teams need a specialized system.. added on top of ERP. .. cannot be done in your ERP system

As we head deep into Q4, the ability to rapidly generate “Demand for Build” reflecting changes and shifts is a critical one – and these capabilities need be added on top of your enterprise systems like ERP. It cannot be done in your ERP system.

Dynamic companies such as Ruckus Wireless, Aerohive Networks have done just that and reaped significant benefits. Implemented right, such a system can be a key factor in scaling operations, while facing changes that impact growing demand. How do we know this? We have provided the system for their Operations teams. Please pen down your thoughts below or reach out to us at Zyom. We would love to share more.

p.s. This blog post is dedicated to the memory of Doyle Westley of Aerohive Networks, a respected collaborator