Technology4Visibility is a hot supply chain topic. Our writers have cranked out articles on the subject, Buzz posts links to visibility articles every week, and I bet you’ve heard from sales guys and marketers pushing their solutions. But what’s it mean when you really get down to it?

Back in the old days when I led a large EDI/eBusiness team, visibility to us meant the ability to locate and see a transaction from beginning to end. For example, for an outbound document we’d want to see it tracked from the ERP module, through our interface, into our translator, in its interchange on the way to the VAN, at the VAN, and receipt verified from the partner. Once B2B business networks were established and the velocity and variety of transaction and communication types expanded, visibility became an even greater need and challenge. But we were only a small slice of the supply chain. Other, more direct participants crave visibility as well.

Let’s start with the consumer, the person the supply chain has been built to support. As we know from the omnichannel articles we’ve read, the consumer wants to be able to locate products and check inventory status in every one of your locations, to see his order no matter how he placed it, check its processing status and expected delivery date/time, how it was shipped, and every other detail related to it. And he wants it available on screen, within your smartphone app, or if he calls your contact center.

Another supply chain participant, the DC manager, wants to know where everything is in the warehouse, when inbound trailers are due, what’s in them, what’s being delayed and why, what POs are being received against, and myriad other details. He also wants to know future scheduling and anticipated product flows, projections about future products/lines being added. For some products, serial or batch numbers are important to identify as well.

Logistics managers, or 3PLs, need to create plans for manpower, equipment, routes and schedules, so they need visibility into order flows, weights, dimensional information, cross-docking requirements, and a bunch of other order information at both general and detail levels.

The product manager wants to know what the consumer is thinking, where commodity and finished goods prices are heading, what suppliers’ capabilities are, where specific orders are in the production process, how forecasted weather will affect demand/production, how much product is available in each and every location, what upcoming seasonal weather looks like, and so on. Oh yeah, for sustainability reporting he even needs to know the working conditions under which certain items are made.

And these are just a few players on the supply chain team. The point I’m trying to make is that visibility can be a moving target. It means widely disparate things to process participants. Some or all of the information may be available in the ERP or external systems, but probably not in an integrated view. My guess, though, would be that there are gaps in what’s visible across your organization.

Yet marketers tout ‘end-to-end visibility solutions’, many of which are offered via ‘the cloud’ or as control towers. But are they really 'end to end'? The supply chain world has become increasingly complicated, and you don’t want to select a solution that has a ‘black hole’ embedded within it that ends up disappointing both your people and end customers. Visibility is a great concept and a worthy goal, but a successful tool has a lot of ground to cover and you need to ensure that all voices are heard in defining requirements.
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