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”