Ava Ex Machina and the Retail Supply Chain

There is a lot of buzz about the “autonomous” supply chain these days.  The subject came up at a conference I attended where the theme was the supply chain of 2030.  But, before we turn out the lights and lock the door to a fully automated, self-aware, supply chain “Ava Ex Machina”, let’s take a moment and put this idea into some perspective.

 

The Driverless Car Analogy

I’ve heard the driverless vehicle used as an analogy for the autonomous supply chain.  However, orchestrating the value network where goods, information and currency pulse freely, fast, and securely between facilities, organizations, and even consumers, following the path of least resistance (aka the digital supply chain), may prove to be even more complex than driving a vehicle.  Digital technologies, such as additive manufacturing, blockchain, and more secure IoT infrastructure, advance the freedom, speed and security of these flows.  As these technologies makes more automation possible, as well as a kind of “autonomy”, the difficulty and importance of guiding these flows becomes ever more crucial.  

 

Most sixteen-year-old adolescents can successfully drive a car, but you may not want to entrust your global value network to them.

 

Before you can have an autonomous supply chain, you need to accelerate the Detect, Diagnose, Direct Cycle – let’s call it the 3-D Cycle, for short, not just because it’s alliterated, but because each “D” is one of three key dimensions of orchestrating your value network.  In fact, as you accelerate the 3-D Cycle, you will learn just how much automation and autonomy makes sense.

 

Figure 1

Detect, Diagnose, Direct

The work of managing the value network has always been to make the best plan, monitor issues, and respond effectively and efficiently.  However, since reality begins to diverge almost immediately from even the best plans, perhaps the most vital challenges in orchestrating a value network are monitoring and responding.

 

In fact, every plan is really just a response to the latest challenges and their causes.

 

So, if we focus on monitoring and responding, we are covering all the bases of what planners and executives do all day . . . every day.

 

Monitoring involves detecting and diagnosing those issues which require a response.  Responding is really directing the next best action.  That’s why we can think in terms of the “Detect, Diagnose, Direct Cycle”:

 

  1. Detect (and/or anticipate) market requirements and the challenges in meeting them
  2. Diagnose the causes of the challenges, both incidental and systemic
  3. Direct the next best action within the constraints of time and cost

 

The 3-D Cycle used to take a month, in cases where it was even possible.  Digitization – increased computing power, more analytical software, the availability of data – have made it possible in a week.  Routine, narrowly defined, short-term changes are now addressed even more quickly under a steady state – and a lot of controlled automation is not only possible in this case, but obligatory.  However, no business remains in a steady state, and changes from that state require critical decisions which add or destroy significant value.   

 

You will need to excel at managing and accelerating the 3-D Cycle, if you want to win in digital economy.

 

There is no industry where mastering this Cycle is more challenging than in retail, but the principles apply across most industries.

Data Is the Double-edged Sword

The universe of data is exploding exponentially from growing connections among organizations, people and things, creating the need for an ever-accelerating 3-D Cycle.  This is especially relevant for retailers, and it presents both a challenge and an opportunity for competing in the digital economy with a digital value network.  Redesigned, retail supply chains, enabled with analytics and augmented reality, are not only meeting, but raising consumer expectations.

 

Figure 2

Amazon’s re-imagination of retail means that competitors must now think in terms of many-to-many flows of information, product, and cash along the path of least resistance for the consumer (and not just to and from their own locations).  This kind of value network strategy goes beyond determining where to put a warehouse and to which stores it should ship.  Competing in today’s multi-channel world can mean inventing new ways to do business, even in the challenging fashion space – and if it is happening in fashion, it would be naive to think rising consumer expectations can be ignored in other retail segments, or even other industries.  Consider a few retail examples:

Zara leverages advanced analytics, not only to sense trends, but also to optimize pricing and operations in their vertically integrated supply chain.

Stitch Fix is changing the shopping model completely, providing more service with less infrastructure.

Zolando has been so successful in creating a rapid response supply chain that they are now providing services to other retailers.

Nordstrom, of all organizations, is opening “inventoryless” stores.

Walmart has been on an incredible acquisition and partnership spree, recently buying Flipkart and, as early as two years ago, partnering with JD.com.  And, then, there is the success of Walmart.com.

Target is redesigning the way their DC’s work, creating a flow-through operation with smaller replenishment quantities.

 

Yet, many companies are choking on their own ERP data, as they struggle to make decisions on incomplete, incorrect and disparate data.  So, while the need for the 3-D Cycle to keep pace grows more ever more intense, some organizations struggle to do anything but watch.  The winners will be those who can capitalize on the opportunities that the data explosion affords by making better decisions faster through advanced analytics (see Figure 2).

 

The time required just to collect, clean, transform and synchronize data for analysis remains the fundamental barrier to better detection, diagnosis and decisions in the value network.  A consolidated data store that can connect to source systems and on which data can be consolidated, programmatically “wrangled”, and updated into a supra data set forms a solid foundation on which to build better detection, diagnosis, and decision logic that can execute in “relevant time”.  This can seem like an almost insurmountable challenge, but it is not only doable with today’s technology, it’s becoming imperative.  And, it’s now possible to work off of a virtual supra data set, but that’s a discussion for another day.

Detect, Diagnose and Direct with Speed, Precision & Advanced Analytics

Detection of incidental challenges (e.g. demand is surging or falling based on local demographics, a shipment is about to arrive late, a production shortfall at a vendor, etc.) in your value network can be significantly automated to take place in almost real-time, or at least, in relevant time.   Detection of systemic challenges will be a bit more gradual and is based on the metrics that matter to your business, such as customer service, days of supply, etc., but it is the speed and, therefore, the scope, that is now possible that drives better visibility from detection.

 

Diagnosing the causes of incidental problems is only limited by the organization and detail of your transactional data.  Diagnosing systemic challenges requires a hierarchy of metrics with respect to cause and effect (such as the SCOR® model).  Certainly, diagnosis can now happen with new speed, but it is the combination of speed and precision that makes a new level of understanding possible through diagnosis.

 

With a clean, complete, synchronized data set that is always available and always current, as well as a proactive view of what is happening and why, you need to direct the next best action while it still matters.  You need to optimize your trade-offs and perform scenario and sensitivity analysis.

 

Figure 3, below, shows both incidental/operational and systemic/strategic examples for all three dimensions of the 3-D Cycle.

Figure 3

Speed in detection, speed and precision in diagnosis, and the culmination of speed, precision and advanced analytics in decision-making give you the power to transpose the performance of your value network to levels not previously possible.  Much of the entire 3-D Cycle and the prerequisite data synchronization can be, and will be, automated by industry leaders.  Just how “autonomous” those decisions become remains to be seen.

 

Fortunately, you don’t need Ava Ex Machina, but your ability to develop a faster and better 3-D Cycle is fundamental to your journey toward the digital transformation of your value network.

 

The basic ideas of detecting, diagnosing and directing are not novel to supply chain professionals and other business executives.   However, the level of transparency, speed, precision and advanced analytics that are now available mandate a new approach and promise dramatic results.  Some will gradually evolve toward a better, faster 3-D cycle.  The greatest rewards will accrue to enterprises that climb each hill with a vision of the pinnacle, adjusting as they learn.  These organizations will attract more revenue and investment.  Companies that don’t capitalize on the possibilities will be relegated to hoping for acquisition by those that do.

 

Admittedly, I’m pretty bad at communicating graphically, but I’ve attempted to draft a rudimentary visual of what the architecture to support a state-of-the-art 3-D Cycle could look like (below), as a vehicle for facilitating discussion.

 

 

The convergence of cloud business intelligence (BI) technology and traditional advanced planning solutions supports my point, and that is definitely happening.  Cloud BI solutions (e.g. Aera, Birst, Board) incorporate at least some machine learning (ML) algorithms for prediction, while Oracle, Microsoft, IBM, and SAP are all making ML available in their portfolios, adjacent to their BI applications.  Logility recently purchased Halo which embeds ML.  Many advanced planning vendors are pitching “control towers” which are really an attempt to move toward combining BI capabilities and planning.  Perhaps most importantly, Oracle has built their cloud supply chain management solutions with embedded BI, really making an effort toward a faster, better 3-D Cycle.

 

For maximum success, you may need a partner who can do four things for you:

 

  1. Bring an in-depth understanding of the 3-D Cycle
  2. Listen and learn your business strategy and operations
  3. Offer thought leadership on the application of the 3-D Cycle in your business
  4. Craft, configure and deliver a solution that provides competitive advantage

 

As the unstoppable train of time pulls us into the weekend, I leave you with this thought to ponder: 

“Life is short, so live it well, in gratitude, honesty and hope, and never take it for granted.”

 

Have a wonderful weekend!

Advertisements
%d bloggers like this: