Three ways to strengthen supply chain relationships with technology


By Ryan Closser Director of Project Management, Network Collaboration at FourKites.

No matter what industry you’re in, having strong business relationships – between the back-office and frontline workers; between partners and suppliers; and even among employees and team members – is always critical to success. However, with remote work on the rise and disruptions becoming commonplace, it’s also harder to achieve than ever before.
Technology can be a saving grace in the constant fight to keep your company connected during difficult times. Just ask Zebra Technologies, one of the world’s premier providers of hardware, software, services and solutions that digitise and automate workflows.
Zebra’s leaders recognise that supply chain is a relationships business, and maintaining those relationships in the face of today’s challenges means equipping yourself with accurate data and knowledge of what’s really going on at all levels of the supply chain.
In a series of recent interviews, they shared some of their strategies for staying flexible and managing an effective supply chain organisation in the face of shipping disruptions, a labour crisis and more. These were the takeaways:

Tip 1: Get the Full Picture

A problem many major shippers have repeatedly faced in recent years is the reliability of transit times (or lack thereof). “We’re constantly in this flux of readjusting the transit times each month due to multiple black swan events,” says Kim Segel, Zebra’s Director of Global Transportation. “However, even when we re-evaluate, we experience bottlenecks that we just can’t foresee. It’s impossible to know when there will be congestion, a shutdown, or an extreme labour shortage.”
What do you do when you’re plagued by uncertainty? Get a better handle on the things you can control. Many companies today fixate on their downstream supply chain budget, while savvy companies spend their time investing in technology closer to their sphere of control. This allows them to boost productivity, increase supply chain agility and become shippers of choice for their various supply chain partners.
These advantages, in turn, allow these companies to maximise productivity for their front-line workers, improve year-round supply chain resilience and drive their micro-fulfillment strategy forward — building a supply chain that not only generates value, but becomes a competitive advantage as well.

Tip 2: Emphasize Transparency

Another key to maintaining strong supplier relationships with transportation partners and other key stakeholders is transparency at all levels of the organization. Many companies still operate with a legacy mindset that causes them to keep all of their cards close to their chest. In today’s shipping environment, this can at best curtail potential collaboration opportunities, and at worst alienate potential partners.
This doesn’t mean you have to give away the farm, throw the baby out with the bathwater, or commit any other tired old faux pas when it comes to sharing data with supply chain partners and personnel. What it does mean is that data-sharing and collaboration should be treated as a two-way street.
“We make sure that we have open lines of communication with our suppliers and partners and we need visibility to goods at every stage of the fulfilment process,” says Mike Hafner, Zebra’s Vice President of Global Outsourcing. “Of course, we want to be able to deliver all products by the requested dates, but when unforeseen circumstances create a delay, we make sure to explore all our options and work with our suppliers and partners on delivering an alternative solution or timeline. That transparency in communication goes a long way with building and maintaining trust.”
When this is done properly, what emerges is a joint partnership – and business network – that is far stronger than the sum of its respective parts. When businesses maintain healthy, transparent relationships with transportation partners, they often enjoy benefits like advance notice of downstream problems, greater insight into potential solutions and quicker resolution times.

Tip 3: Boost Agility

One more way to keep your supply chain partners happy with you is to become more agile – and one of the best ways to boost your agility as an organisation is through better availability of actionable data.
“From a DC perspective, the data we now have access to via the supplier collaboration tool and FourKites allows us to do what-if modelling faster and easier,” says Deanna Self, Zebra’s Director of Operations, North America and Latin America. “For instance, if we have to make a change in sourcing, or if an air freight lane has no available space, we can determine what impacts alternative options have on costs and how service will play out so we can make the best choice for our business and our customers.”
“We are constantly re-evaluating our shipping strategies, and just because we’re shipping one way today doesn’t mean we’ll stick with that mode tomorrow. There are a lot of dynamics at play.” – Kim Segel, Director of Global Transportation, Zebra Technology
Despite the complexity of its global supply chain, the company makes relatively little use of the full truckload (FTL) mode in moving goods from distribution centers to Zebra’s customers, as noted earlier this year by Rob Armstrong, Senior Vice President of Integrated Marketing and Channels at Zebra. Instead, Zebra is a heavy user of rail, ocean, parcel, and increasingly, air.
Especially in the midst of port crises all over the world, air freight presented an opportunity for Zebra to remain agile while still fulfilling customer expectations. At the height of the port crises, the company was relying almost exclusively on air freight.
For Zebra, the high cost of air freight was offset considerably by the fact that the company does not keep a large amount of inventory on hand at any given time. In many cases, products are headed back out the door soon after they arrive.

Tip 4: Go Beyond Wages

We’re in the midst of one of the great labour revolutions of our time. Not only are we facing the mass retirement of the Baby Boomer generation, but we’re also witnessing a mass shift away from traditional jobs and careers and toward remote work. As the Great Resignation has made clear, companies that don’t adapt to these changing realities are going to get left behind.
It’s not enough to just raise wages. Companies need to meet both current and prospective employees where they are – and more importantly, help them get to where they want to be. For Zebra, this means moving away from a recruitment mentality and instead adopting a mindset of continuous retention and elevated productivity. It also means emphasising not only wages, but also training, upskilling, career flexibility and the workplace environment itself.
Technology can help achieve these goals. Tools like robotic process automation (RPA) can reduce the burden of low-value, repetitive work and free up workers to carry out the interesting, critical problem-solving tasks that human beings do best. Technologies that provide real-time visibility, meanwhile, can help ensure that workers at cross-docks and distribution centres (DCs) aren’t wasting their time waiting to unload shipments that are hours behind schedule, or attempting the impossible task of keeping things on track without accurate information.
“Imagine how onerous it can be to have to rely on various carrier websites and daily tracking and exception reports to get a pulse on your supply chain, especially when there are constant shifts,” says Segel. “Before we integrated FourKites, we were constantly sending emails and making phone calls to obtain shipment statuses and updates, which were not always reliable. Since bringing this tool online, we are dramatically more efficient and effective in our logistics management.”
All of this together is integral to Zebra’s ability to deliver a high degree of satisfaction, not only to clients and end-customers, but also to employees, partners and suppliers as well.
Technology was never meant to replace humans, rather it is a complement to our workforce and a way to make work more enjoyable and effective. Its whole purpose is to help people make better decisions, take the right actions, and be agile and efficient no matter how many curveballs are thrown.
So, instead of seeing technology as a worker substitute, embrace it as a force multiplier. Consider all the ways it can be used to empower workers, strengthen relationships and make your workplace somewhere that people truly want to be.

And that, as always, is the key to achieving business success today, tomorrow, and 10 years from now.

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