Lean supply chains

Tim Akerman
Tim Akerman
Categories:   Change Management   Leadership   Lean   Management   Risk Based Thinking  

If the last 3 months have taught us anything about lean and process improvement, it should be that long supply chains are not lean. It is interesting that many of the businesses that should know better e.g. automotive businesses have been caught out with this problem.

One of the key components of a truly lean business is local supply chains. When COVID19 erupted in China, supply chains to many British (and global) firms were disrupted. The loss of capacity directly affected output of suppliers running long supply chains and trying to achieve JIT (Just In Time). The excess inventory in the supply chain bought some time, but very quickly those businesses found themselves with too few parts. The supply chains were not even just in different countries in one continent, they crossed multiple continents. As the crisis in China worsened, back up plans were implemented. Some worked, some didn’t, some businesses had not activated their emergency plans for so long they were no longer valid. Suppliers had ceased trading, disposed of tooling, changed materials, machinery, people, processes, all of which will have required fresh quality assessments. No doubt these were expedited, often by trading risks, the risk of quality failure later seen as a smaller risk than supply failure now.

We now face a nightmare scenario. Low output from extended supply chains and inadequate emergency response plans in the first instance, now the virus has spread to our country. The requirements for social distancing and isolation are now hampering output here in the UK – just as output in China is starting to come back online. The extended reduction in output has significant economic impact, requiring government intervention to prevent industrial collapse.

For now we must all be rational, obey the social distancing and isolation advice to ensure our communities are safe and the vulnerable are protected, but what of the future? I suggest that when we regain stability, British companies should re-evaluate the use of extended supply chains. We should onshore the manufacturing of critical components to insulate the supply chain from a further risk. With increasing severe weather events from climate change, political instability and regional unrest, long supply chains hold high risk. The risk and hence cost is not borne by the company alone, there is government level risk that is being taken through global supply chains. With some organisations transferring profit to benefit from better tax conditions, it is possible that the contributions of a business in a country don’t match the cost of large scale supply chain disruption. Whilst it can be tempting to focus on short term cost saving, the long term economic damage of a significant global event is too high a risk. This too is a feature of lean thinking, organisations must foucs on the long term strategic benefits.

If a business wants to be truly lean this must include long term strategic thinking and as a result localised supply chains wherever possible.