Posted On January 9, 2023
It’s on the minds of supply chain managers and teams the world over: visibility.
A buzzword in the industry for years, visibility is the difference between a high-functioning supply chain and a deteriorating one.
But before you can evaluate your supply chain visibility, you have to understand what it is.
What is supply chain visibility?
In the simplest terms, visibility is the ability of companies to track products and goods anywhere in their supply chain, from raw materials to the end user. Supply chain visibility is most commonly talked about in reference to either the transportation process or inventory optimization.
In transportation, supply chain visibility starts when a shipping label is made. Customers receive periodic updates about where the shipment is and when it will arrive. With the rise of e-commerce, most consumers are familiar with this type of supply chain visibility—and expect it from the companies they engage with.
But some companies go even farther and begin providing visibility updates even earlier in the process, as soon as a purchase order is created. In those cases, customers might get updates about their shipment being picked from the shelves and packed before it ever gets a shipping label for true end-to-end visibility.
In an even broader sense, supply chain visibility can incorporate all the data analytics surrounding a supply chain, from transit time and customer demand to supplier performance and invoice accuracy. The more a company can access and analyze its supply chain data, the more opportunities there will be to prevent supply chain issues, improve customer service and gain a competitive advantage.
Why visibility and supply chain analytics are the key to strong supply chains
The shipping industry hasn’t historically been known for its cutting-edge technology. But technological advancements in recent years have led to big improvements for manufacturers, retailers, carriers and customers alike.
Why is supply chain visibility important?
Stronger supply chain performance
With access to more supply chain data and real-time knowledge about their entire supply chain, companies are able to improve operational efficiency across departments, not just on the loading dock. Benefits range from more successful supply chain planning to lower costs and healthier profit margins.
Improved carrier performance
Better visibility is important for carriers as well, helping them minimize misrouted freight and maintain customer expectations.
Higher customer satisfaction
When customers are given more information about their orders, and shipments are less likely to be lost or delayed, they get a better customer experience. As a result, customer satisfaction with the manufacturer, wholesaler or retailer increases.
Signs your supply chain visibility isn’t enough
Most business shippers understand that having supply chain analytics and visibility into their supply chain operations is important—but evaluating a company’s supply chain visibility isn’t always a simple or straightforward task.
Flat World has consulted with hundreds of companies on ways to improve their supply chain performance. Here are common signals that indicate a company needs to look into visibility and analytics alternatives:
Sign #1: Important parties aren’t automatically updated.
In domestic shipping especially, automated updates are table stakes for any transportation management system (or TMS), notifying buyers about where their shipment is in the shipping process. Your TMS and supply chain analytics tools should allow your company to automatically email (or otherwise notify) customers with a tracking code once a shipping label is created. Additional updates include carrier pickup and estimated delivery date, as well as any delays.
For international shipping, these updates are more challenging. A cargo container might be in transit in the ocean for multiple weeks, in which case there might be long gaps of time between updates. There also aren’t usually automated updates available for when cargo clears customs or is transloaded from one shipment mode to another, although sometimes these updates can be sent manually.
In both international and domestic cases, the goal is to prevent the shipper or customer from having to search for the information themselves. Which leads to the next sign.
Sign #2: People in other departments can’t access shipping data.
Imagine a customer calls your company wanting to know their shipment status.
They reach their sales rep—but the rep can’t access the same software the warehouse teams use to pick, pack and ship out goods. So the call is transferred to customer service, or potentially even the warehouse. It takes several minutes for a customer to get an answer, and several employees have to devote time to the issue. It’s the exact opposite of operational efficiency.
Many companies assume the only people who need access to relevant data are the finance and warehouse teams. But numerous departments benefit from being able to quickly pull up shipping data. It’s just as important that internal teams can access supply chain updates as it is that customers can.
Sign #3: You can only access data through one view.
The supply chain leaders examining a company’s data are often looking to answer unique questions. A customer service rep might need to find a list of delayed shipments while an accountant might want to be auditing records to determine whether the company was overcharged by a certain carrier. And the COO might want a high-level view of the month’s supply chain data to track operational performance.
The key to making sure each of these players is able to access the right information? Dynamic data views and personalized dashboards.
Most supply chain analytics solutions include a dashboard with important statistics and information. But for many companies, one dashboard isn’t enough for all the internal business processes relying on the data. Instead, look for a tool that allows users to customize data views to analyze data however they need.
Sign #4: Your receiving dock isn’t ready when shipments come in.
Any supply chain technology worth its salt will make critical supply chain events easier—like loading and unloading shipments.
Especially for larger cargo and industrial shipments like raw materials and oversized goods, accepting a shipment requires careful planning and coordination. Teams need to make sure there’s enough space and staff available, and that no other incoming shipments will be overlapping with the delivery window, causing chaos and confusion. A modern supply chain should have the visibility needed to ensure your loading and receiving docks are always aware of—and prepared for—what’s happening next.
Sign #5: You’re not confident the data is accurate—or real-time.
You could have mountains of supply chain data. But if it’s not correct, it’s useless.
In many cases, shippers are beholden to what information the carriers and vendors provide. And until recently, most shipments weren’t tracked with APIs, or application programming interfaces that connect multiple software platforms. Luckily, emerging technology like Pipeline has made it easier for carriers to access the most recent and accurate shipping updates at any time.
It’s challenging to determine how accurate your information is, but your supply chain consultants can take steps to solidify the authenticity. If you’re concerned, ask your logistics partner about whether they run queries to compare analytics in various data sources.
Sign #6: Your technology doesn’t align with your supply chain processes.
For most businesses, one of the easiest ways to grow profits is by improving and streamlining operations. Automating tasks—or simplifying them to take less time—can shave off seconds, minutes or even more from repeat processes. If your teams have to hop from platform to platform to coordinate shipments, pull information and analyze performance, that wasted time is essentially wasted spend.
Ideally, your company should utilize a single platform that can pull in data for all the carriers and shipment modes it uses. With one central source of information, supply chain processes become easier and more efficient for everyone involved. If the platform can automate tasks, even better.
We’ve seen time and time again how adding a supply chain analytics layer to a company’s tech stack can have a huge impact on efficiency, accuracy and the bottom line. If you’re curious whether your supply chain visibility is up to par, Flat World can conduct a free audit of your supply chain data to find opportunities for improvement or confirm that your existing solutions are working. Contact us to get started.