Mar 1, 2012

Time to Reduce Frictions

Past articles in the Wall Street Journal traced demand for an electronics product all the way from the consumer-facing retailer, Minnesota-based Best Buy,  around the world a couple times, and finally to a California machine tools shop near the opposite, upstream end of the supply chain.
As the Journal shows, the chain doesn’t really function as a unified system. It’s more a series of one-to-one contractual interactions. Separate pieces only connect with each other in a logistical sense.
Almost miraculously, and not through any real planning, the product (a DVD player) takes shape as it progresses from supplier to supplier back to Best Buy. Nobody in the process has a clear idea what’s happening with everybody else.
In good times, this crude set-up works well enough. But when demand or supply shifts suddenly in one part of the chain, the others get jolted. The thing is, because the data and strategy linkages are so weak, responses to the change in one place are apt to be too big in some places, too small in others. As a result, upstream suppliers have been caught with millions of dollars in unsellable excess inventory and the need to lay off much of their workforce.
Downstream, retailers haven’t had enough inventory to catch the wave when buying restarts.
I’m delighted to see this important issue getting press coverage. Businesses have to get much, much better at working together as integrated routes-to-market systems. Technologically and operationally, giant suppliers like Procter & Gamble and giant retailers like Wal-Mart have been discussing and dabbling in this for years. But strategically, “partners” in a value chain system rarely work together as partners.
As the Journal article shows, there is an urgent need to shift from frictional relationships to smooth ones.  And that is fundamentally the new generation's top management challenge.

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