Working on the Chain

With profits down and perils up, companies are focusing on supply-chain management.

Slumping capital markets. Fears of a double-dip recession. September 11. These are reasons enough for companies to start taking more slack out of their supply chains. But new technologies, the continuing evolution of Internet-based commerce, and a much-hyped concept — the “real-time enterprise” — are also spurring managers to make their supply chains as cost-effective, transparent, and responsive as possible. The rewards of doing so can be great: leaner inventories and lower working capital, higher profits and productivity, better customer service, and competitive advantage. Companies like Wal-Mart, FedEx, Dell, IBM, and Procter & Gamble have shown how superior supply chain management (SCM) contributes not just to a healthier bottom line, but also to industry dominance. Their example has even rubbed off on the military: the United States Marine Corps has launched a major campaign to streamline its supply chain operations, based on civilian models.

Meanwhile, the penalties for supply chain malfunctions can also be great, as demonstrated by the inventory glut of 2000-2001, which cost high-tech and telecom businesses billions of dollars in excess supply. Or by the stumbles in recent years of companies like Nike and Hershey Foods, whose flawed rollouts of SCM systems cost them dearly. Or by Kmart, whose belated attention to its supply chain problems was singled out by analysts as a major cause of its slide into bankruptcy last January.

SCM systems have been at the core of many reengineering projects, making them one of the hottest software categories during the past few years. But in 2002, corporate spending on technology has slowed. Recent surveys of CIOs by Morgan Stanley, Meta Group, and Gartner/Goldman Sachs all show that companies have tightened their IT budgets. Boston-based AMR Research reports that the overall SCM market grew 12 percent in 2001, to $5.6 billion; AMR expects 13 percent growth in 2002.

A slowdown in spending doesn’t mean companies have stopped implementing or improving SCM systems. Some are installing “shelfware” — software they bought as part of a bundled offering but hadn’t got around to installing yet. Others are trying to clean up specific problem areas of the supply chain with niche applications. Meanwhile, many applications remain to be integrated with each other and with enterprise resource planning (ERP) systems. As always, ROI is king.

“We’re seeing a push for quicker time to benefit from an investment; we’re seeing a push for investments that build on top of past investments,” says Andrew Macey, director of supply chain for Sapient Corp., a Cambridge, Massachusetts-based consultancy. “Companies that put in large, enterprisewide supply chain software tools, like an i2 or a Manugistics or an SAP, obviously don’t want to throw away that investment. But in many cases they haven’t got what they hoped for, and they are trying to ameliorate that with smaller, incremental investments focused around a particular point issue.”

Supply chain applications come in many varieties from hundreds of vendors, all promising to deliver greater control over some part of the supply chain as defined by the nonprofit Supply-Chain Council’s Supply-Chain Operations Reference (SCOR) model: plan, source, make, deliver, and return. Broadly speaking, applications may be said to fall into one of two types: planning and execution. The latter includes increasingly sophisticated systems for warehouse management, logistics, and event management. Last year, overall sales of supply chain execution software surpassed sales for planning apps, says AMR Research, indicating that companies are increasingly focused on business tactics and cost control.

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