Supply Chain Lesson Learned: Plan to React

I am a bit of an introvert. When it comes to work, I tend to be succinct and only offer my opinion after I have thought about the topic. It turns out, supply chain moves a bit too fast for us thinkers. Decisions often need to be made immediately when it comes to plant safety and product quality. And the decisions are not easy.

I remember one time I was filling in as Quality Manager at a plant for a few weeks, and a lab technician came to me with a sample container full of one of the products. The specification stated that the product should have a light pink color. The technician asked if the sample met the spec or not because the sample was very light with just a hint of pink, but it was hard to tell. If the sample didn’t meet spec, this would stop the product from being shipped out to our warehouses and lead to an investigation. In this situation, a decision needs to be made immediately. Now of course there are color tests that are less subjective, but at the time this lab was not using them. So I had the technician grab the sample from the last batch that we shipped out the door to compare, and they were very close in color. Based on that, we made the decision to continue with shipping. In the meantime, I called the research and development group to discuss the specification and the recent batches – but they didn’t get back to me until after I had to make the decision.

I actually think it’s possible that the lab technician was messing with me a bit, but things like that happen all the time in production. Are you going to stop production on a line when there are technical issues – let’s say one of the display screens isn’t working, but the screen further down the line is. Or maybe one of the weight checkers isn’t working. What if you’re already backordering customers on that product? There are many examples of grey areas in production.

But the fast decision making doesn’t just happen at the production level. When quality complaints are reported by the customer, how much inspection are you going to do on that product? At what point do you put the product on hold? At what point do you recall the product.

We had a packaging issues that affected every single product that was put in 55-gallon drums. Every single product! And guess what? We had to put all of the products on hold until the resolution was determined. The issue was a safety concern for our customers who were using the wrong tools to get the product out of the drums. When it comes to customer safety, the answer is a bit easier, of course do anything to prevent an issue from occurring. But when this means millions of dollars in revenue lost and the chance of the customer using the wrong technique to open the container, then what?

I could go on and on about decisions that need to be made instantaneously in supply chain. Think about when you’re backordering product and you finally get some available… which customer gets the product?

Here’s where the thinkers come in, however. When it comes down to it, if priorities are clear and set ahead of time, the decisions that need to be made fast can be made fast. If the priority is safety first, then we are absolutely not going to ship defective drums to our customers in the slight chance that they would be injured. If priority is quality, then we will allow ourselves the time we need to investigate the issue before shipping the product, or set up emergency quality control personnel to immediately respond to quality issues. If we have certain customers that need the product more urgently than other customers, they need to be identified, or stick with a first order in, first product shipped rule for each region.

When you can set up your supply chain to be able to react to issues that occur – doing the heavy thinking ahead of time, you will be able to make faster decisions, better serve your customer, and stick with the priorities of the company.

In summary, no matter how fast you need your supply chain to react, you need to think about and set up your supply chain as such ahead of time, based on priorities and business objectives.

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