5 Guiding Principles for Successful Supply Chain Technology Projects

A new wave of technology has crashed onto the shores of supply chain management. For the past few years, we saw this wave forming on the horizon and were inundated with headlines formulated in the future tense, predicting the arrival of various technologies on the supply chain scene:

  • 3D-Printing will change manufacturing  
  • Smart glasses coming to a warehouse near you?
  • Robots may change the way we do business
  • Cloud technology: what’s in it for supply chain managers?

The fact is, the technology is already here. It is no longer “coming”. Manufacturers, for example, must now weigh the potential of producing certain parts “in-house” with the help of 3D-printers against the option of procuring them from overseas. Warehouse managers must assess whether smart wearables will increase efficiency enough to justify the investment, and start planning today for the pick-by-robot systems that are gaining momentum. Furthermore, managing inventory in the cloud has become more of a “when” question, rather than an “if”.

We are clearly in the implementation phase of this current wave of smart technology. Some managers and companies will be swallowed up and taken out to sea while others are undertaking numerous projects to keep up with the changing environment and remain competitive. Early adopters were able to assess the potential of this wave while it was brewing on the horizon. They built a boat and are riding high on the smart technology wave. Take DHL as an example: The parcel delivery service provider recently opened a new innovation center in Singapore and has turned to its customers to generate new ideas and help test new technologies stemming from augmented reality and robotics. Furthermore, DHL successfully completed a vision picking pilot project in January 2015 which revealed a 25% increase in efficiency, and is currently rolling out this technology.  

While the early adopter ship has sailed, it is not too late to start implementing some of these new technologies that promise efficiency increases and strong returns on investment. If you made the resolution to dive into the new smart technology wave in 2016, these 5 tips may help guide you to a successful supply chain technology project:

1. Understand the impact of change

I minored in change management during my master’s degree and have to say that the material we covered in those courses has proven to be the most helpful thus far in my career. Let’s face it: many people are not too fond of change, and some people despise it. You have all probably heard the phrase, “You can’t teach an old dog new tricks”. As seen in the headlines above, there are a lot of “new tricks” to be learned in the supply chain industry. In the end, this phrase is not a jab at the older generations, but anyone who has been doing something the same way over a longer period of time. Breaking habit is tough to do, and this must be kept in mind before plunging head-on into a tech project.

Business, leadership and change thought-leader, Dr. John Kotter, developed an 8-step process for leading change. This process can provide managers with a great starting point in their project management preparation:

  • Create a sense of urgency – get people excited about change
  • Build a guiding coalition – get the right people on board at an early stage
  • Form a strategic vision and initiatives – the vision helps steer the change effort
  • Enlist a volunteer army – ensure even more change agents join the movement
  • Enable action by removing barriers – monitor threats e.g. development of small groups that oppose change
  • Generate short-term wins – open line of communication regarding even small accomplishments
  • Sustain Acceleration – build on the small wins and push further change
  • Institute change – make change the new norm, associate new behaviors with company success

For those of you contemplating a major tech project in 2016, I recommend looking into Dr. Kotter’s book as you prepare for your upcoming changes. Understanding the soft-side of change, namely employee reaction to the proposed technological advancements, will help ensure a more successful tech project.

2. Identify and prioritize needs

Many supply chain managers already know where improvements need to be made in their operating processes. Typical focus areas include better service levels, reduced inventory, more accurate demand planning, more efficient transportation, increased transparency, better procurement processes, and so on. With these needs in mind, a supply chain manager may start surfing the web in search of an all-purpose cloud supply chain software solution. At the same time, management would like to see an increase in efficiency in the picking process and is considering smart glasses as an option. One of the worst things that can happen is to lose focus and try to accomplish too much at once. This could lead to stagnation and even a worsening of the overall situation. More importantly, employees may become overwhelmed with too many major changes taking place. Prioritizing supply chain areas of improvement will help focus the project.

3. Set goals

A project will not be successful unless compelling goals are set. There needs to be a long-term focus that includes several intermediary goals (short-term wins), which can be achieved along the way. These goals should not be grabbed out of thin air, but rather discussed and analyzed with all relevant departments across the supply chain spectrum. The best demand planning software in the world can only do so much if not all supply chain functions are on-board. When setting goals for your supply chain technology project, it is important to make sure they are SMART, a mnemonic acronym first coined by George T. Doran in the November 1981 issue of Management Review. SMART goals are:

  • Specific
  • Measurable
  • Attainable
  • Realistic
  • Time-related

The last point is especially critical. Creating a deadline for the achievement of various steps along the way will help ensure the progression of the project.

4. Choose the right partner

A quick Google search of the keyword, “supply chain software” delivers 93,900,000 search results, along with 10 Google Ads on the first page alone. Needless to say, there are a lot of companies out there offering supply chain software solutions. There are also a lot of experts voicing their opinions on these various solutions. Information overload!

When choosing a partner, service provider or consultant for a technology project, it is important to ensure all parties are on the same page regarding the goals that are to be met. There should be good chemistry between the two sides. A high level of openness and honesty must be achieved during the selection process.  Most importantly, the tool or technology offered must be able to sufficiently help the company achieve the goals identified at the beginning of the process.

5. Evaluate and adjust

As with any project, it is important to monitor the progress that is being made on a regular basis. Are the goals being properly pursued? Does there need to be a shift in focus? Are deadlines being met?  Can we attribute positive results to specific project initiatives and build momentum for the project? These are all questions that must be asked (and answered) throughout the duration of the project.  

Closing thoughts

It is important to keep in mind that technology projects typically involve long-term commitments. Without proper buy-in from decision-makers and several key change agents, your supply chain technology project is destined to fail. In my opinion, it is possible to teach “old dogs” new tricks, but only with proper leadership and change management skills. As stated previously, the new technology that was promised to us is ready and waiting to be implemented. Make 2016 the year your supply chain decided to surf the smart technology wave!

What tips do you have for driving successful technology projects in the supply chain industry?

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