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

Collaboration – One small step.. A big operating advantage

Collaboration is powerful! Dan Tapscott, in his TED talk, explains how starlings, small birds, can take on larger predators when they fly in formation with hundreds or thousands of other starlings[1].

To date, the word ‘collaboration’ has been used profusely in business text and talk. However, we have barely moved the needle in product innovation, production and distribution that smart collaboration can result in. This is surprising given the transformation that has taken place in the technology world – from a ‘desktop centered’ to an ‘internet-enabled’ consumption, creation and distribution of information –that is fairly ubiquitous world-wide.

Poor responsiveness of far-flung supply-chains

A recent Economist Special Report[2] highlights how poor responsiveness becomes a big Achilles heel in extended supply chains with offshored or outsourced manufacturing. It points out how GE home appliances and Chesapeake Bay Candle have decided to ‘reshore’ manufacturing operations back to the US (from manufacturing sites in China and Mexico), to become “more responsive”.

In 1999, I had the opportunity of designing supply chain collaboration software for companies such as HP and Dell. However, the promise remained unfulfilled, due, in big part to the relative immaturity of internet technologies. That has completely changed in the last 8-10 years. As a part of a startup – Zyom – we have been hard at work trying to realize this dream of internet enabled smart collaboration.

At a recent webinar hosted by Zyom, Fred Harried, VP of Operations at Ruckus Wireless, explained – how collaboration was one of the key factors that enabled him to scale his Operations several X in the last 4 years, and how Zyom’s MozartCC system was a key collaboration enabler. Attached is a brief 6 minutes overview of some of the Q&A highlights from the webinar[3].

This example highlights how a small step – the innovative use of internet for collaboration across partners provided a boost to a startup in handling changes much faster, ensuring low inventory exposure for all supply network partners – a true Win-Win.

We are at the very early stages of utilizing the huge untapped potential of the internet for connected enterprises, their value chains and beyond – Collaboration may indeed be a disruptive advantage for Operations… more on that in the next blog.

Drop a line – Do you think collaboration could provide a competitive advantage? Fuel growth? Be a Disruptor? Or, none of the above.


[1] Don Tapscott: Four principles for the open world; POSTED JUN 2012; TEDGlobal 2012

http://www.ted.com/talks/don_tapscott_four_principles_for_the_open_world_1.html

[2] The Economist, Special Report – Outsourcing & Offshoring, Jan 19th, 2013

http://www.economist.com/blogs/schumpeter/2013/01/special-report-outsourcing-and-offshoring

[3] ZyomTV – Scaling Operations-Zyom Webinar Q&A Highlights (Dec 7, 2012)

http://youtu.be/GvSTb2nmoq0

Operating in 2013 – Have you considered this Transition?

It’s that time again when the best and brightest roll up their sleeves and dive into ‘reading the tea leaves’ – some even compulsively. No, I am not talking about the November 6th Elections. I am talking about the longer-term (12 to 18 month) business planning cycle.

Dynamic companies all over the world have started, or are well into their 2013 Planning process.  Irrespective of their fiscal planning cycles, this is a critical time to pause and invest energies in making projections for the year ahead. Among the many transitions, have you considered this?

Plan carefully and deliberately for Product Transitions – Product transitions (major or minor changes in Products) are a critical time for technology-intensive companies. To stay focused, I will discuss those changes to products caused by “sustaining” [1] improvements in product technologies. For a computing tablet maker (such as Apple’s iPad) this could be a better display (e.g., ‘Retina’ display), more memory, etc. While many of the critical ingredients needed to run Operations during such Product Transitions are well understood by Product Companies, several key variables remain elusive:

  • How will the new product (or new revision) ramp-up in volume? Will it meet targets?
  • How will it impact the demand for existing products?
  • How to manage the upside and downside risk?

These are just a few of the critical questions that cross-functional Product and Operations teams have to answer. Done right, Product Transitions can generate the next new source of Revenue and Growth.  Any slip-ups, on the other hand, can deal a rough hand to the company– millions of dollars of unplanned inventory write-offs, or open the doors for competitors to sneak into a nascent market.

Interacting with cross-functional Operations and Product teams at companies such as HP and Samsung, I got some rare insights. The single biggest one –

Processes & Planning for Product Transitions have unique needs and need to be given focused attention and resources.

So, as you go through your planning cycle, set aside some bandwidth to carefully account for this process. If you have comments or need some thought starters, please drop me a line.


[1] Clayton Christensen ‘The Innovator’s Dilemma’

The Biggest Risk to Supply Chains (circa 2012) and How Not to get Blindsided

The most serious Risk that Companies with extended supply chains face is – the Shortage Risk. In the wake of the Japanese earthquake and tsunami[i], the floods in Thailand and a fire that took significant capacity of a critical automotive industry resin offline[ii] – ‘major supply shocks’ have taken center stage. But these are only a small subset of the Shortage risks that Companies and their Supply Chains face.

Often, the more mundane, ‘garden variety’ shortages that Companies face on a daily basis, can pack a vicious punch – making a serious dent in a company’s competitiveness, if not pushing it off the cliff!

Let’s understand why Shortages are the biggest risk now and examine potential warning signs that shortages maybe just around the corner.

The Destructive Impact of Shortages: For the want of a nail..

Shortages impact all companies downstream of the manufacturer facing shortages – to varying degrees. Sometimes, shortages can cut across industries.

For example, if Amazon buys up significant capacity of TFT glass (a specialized LCD used in different products) for its next new Kindle launch, that can cause shortages in unrelated industries – such as at video-game makers or electronic-toy makers. Even, the most agile Operations executives can get blindsided in such cases.

The impact of shortages can be severe. Dynamic young companies trying to ship products, stand to lose a lot. But even larger companies are not immune (Smartphone Biz Hurt by Own Success as Chip Supply Shrinks [iii]). Beyond the obvious Revenue impact, shortages can:Scaling Mount Moving Target

–          turn away new customers (revenue hit),

–          put-off existing customers (satisfaction erodes, loyalty and customer lifecycle value diminishes),

–          cause unintended consequences (long lead-time for large companies downstream or an entire industry[iv])

–          worse (perception of poor management controls, even if incorrect, adverse competitive impact[v])

Any one of these is bad enough. Their compounding effect can be devastating.

Avoid getting Blindsided – Warning Signs

At a time of such a tepid recovery, leadership across companies of all sizes should take note of this threat and ask – What are the warning signs that we are exposed? Here are a few critical ones we have found helpful:

1) Frequent over-forecasting by Channel partners and Field Sales – Manufacturing Operations team frequently asked to jump through hoops to increase shipment quantities at short notice, often to find later that forecasts were lowered.

2) Dependence on very few suppliers – OEMs totally dependent on few Contract Manufacturers (in the Hi-tech electronics industry) or Tier1 suppliers (in the Auto industry) who are also major suppliers for other competitors. BOMs with a high percentage of single-sourced items should also throw up red flags.

3) Visibility limited to key suppliers in the first tier of supply only– For an OEM this means having the ability to manage and monitor the performance of direct suppliers only, in the best case (CM/ODMs or Tier1 Suppliers [vii]), and no visibility beyond that[vi].

4) Frequent Allocations sometimes even on ‘run rate’ products – For products that start approaching stable sales patterns, alarms should go off if shortages occur, before these products go on hard ‘allocation’.

5) Quarterly Business Reviews (QBR) with suppliers showing ‘strain’ or going ‘too smoothly’– If QBRs with Supply Chain partners start showing strains due to unplanned costs,etc.– that’s an early warning. Dangers may also be lurking, if no disagreements arise.

6) Total time to respond to demand changes is unknown or too long – When it takes too long to answer – “How long will it take to ship a 10% upside?” or the range is too wide (“a few hours to a few days”) – that’s a red flag.

There are exceptions to the above. However, time and again, across different companies and industries we have found the above provide a good check-list to harden Supply Chain processes and systems against shortages.

Have you been part of a recent ‘shortage event? Did you see any other warning signs? Other Supply Chain risks that are bigger?


[i]  Japan and the global supply chain: Broken links; The Economist; March 31st, 2011

http://www.economist.com/node/18486015/print%205/8/2011

[ii] German Chemical Plant Fire Threatens Auto Backlog; April 23, 2012
via NPR, http://n.pr/Jjco6q

[iii] Smartphone Biz Hurt by Own Success as Chip Supply Shrinks; King, Satariano and Culpan – May 14, 2012
http://www.bloomberg.com/news/2012-05-15/smartphone-biz-hurt-by-own-success-as-chip-supply-shrinks.html?cmpid=yhoo

[iv] Automakers Avoid Crisis After Scramble For Resin;  Fri, 04/27/2012, AP
http://bit.ly/auto-resin-supply-shortage-2

[v] Report: UMC benefits from TSMC 28-nm supply shortage;  May 17, 2012
http://www.eetimes.com/electronics-news/4373239/UMC-benefits-from-TSMC-28-nm-shortages

[vi] Don’t let your Supply Chain Control Your Business; Choi & Linton; HBR, Dec. 2011
http://hbr.org/2011/12/dont-let-your-supply-chain-control-your-business/ar/1

[vii] Case Study – Accelerating Demand Responsiveness while facing Uncertainty and Growth
http://www.zyom.com/Education/CaseStudyindex.php