Supply Chain Bullwhip Effect: 5 Tips to Avoid Disruption

What is the supply chain bullwhip effect? It refers to increasing swings in inventory — in response to shifts in customer demand — as one moves further up the supply chain. As many organizations have discovered the past year, the bullwhip effect in supply chain quickly turns otherwise accurate forecasts into far-reaching inefficiencies.

Accustomed to seeing ample supplies of diapers, toilet paper, and cleaning products on store shelves, consumers were in for a shock when COVID-19 began to take its toll on the world’s supply chains in early 2020. Although the barest of shelves began to rejuvenate by midyear, there are still some lingering effects (plus the potential for more shortages later in the year and into 2021). 

Blame the bullwhip effect for creating chaos and uncertainty. 

“Supply chains allow companies to focus on their specific processes to maintain maximum probability,” Osmond Vitez writes in The Bullwhip Effect in Supply Chain. “Unfortunately, supply chains may stumble when market conditions change and consumer demand shifts.”

Here’s what companies should be doing now to avoid supply chain disruption in the future. 

5 Supply Chain Takeaways for 2021

Under “normal” circumstances, companies invest in extra capacity, inventory, labor and work shifts to minimize the bullwhip effect or to avoid it altogether. The problem this time around is that otherwise routine approaches didn’t work. Demand sensing, forecasting and other forward-looking predictions were equally as ineffective, and mainly due to the unprecedented nature of the global pandemic. 

Here’s the good news: shippers now have boots-on-the-ground experience with a fairly extreme case of the bullwhip effect. Using their 2020 experience as their guide, companies can now prepare for the next potential disruption with a better understanding of the hefty impacts that it could have on their global supply chains. 

Here are five lessons that all companies should apply toward their future supply chain management: 

  1. Communication, data sharing, and visibility trump all when it comes to minimizing the bullwhip effect. One large national retailer, considered to be a leader in supply chain strategy, opened the lines of communication by allowing suppliers to access their inventory data. The result: increased customer satisfaction, a decrease in inventory and warehousing costs, and more stable supply lines.
  2. Third-party logistics experts have proven their worth. Well equipped to handle the logistics, transportation and technology that go into a well-oiled supply chain, experts like Transportation Insight know both sides of the business (i.e., shipper and carrier), and we can demonstrate and articulate how each node in the supply chain will benefit from a specific decision. 
  3. Scenario planning and simulations actually work. Think of them as the “war games” of your own supply chain, use them to run simulations on historical data across different hypothetical scenarios (e.g., if we can’t get raw materials from country A, how will it impact the rest of the supply chain?). Getting the answers to these questions before a disruption occurs will help you be more prepared in the event of a disruption.
Quickly accessible transportation performances dashboards, such as least cost carrier usage summary shown here, are critical to managing supply chain bullwhip effect.
  1. Use dashboards and control towers to get big-picture views in real-time. The days when a warehouse manager had to wait until the end of the month for a printed performance report are long gone. Thanks to advancements in technology, the same manager can get that information in real-time and then use it for good decision-making. Being able to drill down into order profits, for instance, will help you better understand what you should actually be charging for shipping. This, in turn, helps support good margin management in any business conditions.
  2. Alternate sources of supply are a good thing to have. In surveying 150 senior manufacturing executives, law firm Foley & Lardner found that most expect to make “fairly drastic” changes to their supply chains post-pandemic, including a shift away from just-in-time manufacturing (JIT) and sourcing in China. In Global Supply Chain Disruption and Future Strategies Survey Reportthe law firm says that of those companies that were operating in China pre-pandemic, 59% have either already withdrawn operations, are in the process of doing so, or are considering it. Many of those organizations are looking to reshore their operations closer to home in the U.S., Canada, or Mexico.

Depending on how you approach it, transportation can play a major role in avoiding the bullwhip effect in your supply chain. Through good communication and data-sharing across all supply chain partners, you’ll gain an understanding of both real-time and historical information as it relates to all points in the supply chain. The better decisions you can make, the better the odds of minimizing the bullwhip effect.    

Tame Supply Chain Bullwhip Effect: Manage Demand Waves

We examine the steps you can take to build a responsive supply chain management system in our latest Supply Chain Masters Series digital event. 

Watch the webinar to learn best practices for collecting, retaining and analyzing supply chain data. We also highlight the business intelligence solutions that drive continuous improvement and proactive strategy adjustment. 

Click the link below to learn supply chain strategies that minimize risk and protect your profitability today and tomorrow.

E-commerce Supply Chain: 6 Challenges

The e-commerce supply chain challenges this year will be as long a family’s shopping list.

Here are the top 6 challenges to consider during the holiday peak shipping season.

  1. The traditional holiday peak converges with elevated online demand due. E-commerce sales will match or surpass brick-and-mortar. Consumers have multiple ordering channels to tap. E-commerce supply chain fulfillment and delivery operations need to respond to this decentralized − and unprecedented − demand-pull.
  2. Many supply chains remain out of kilter, one of the pandemic’s many legacies. U.S. inventories are at their lowest levels in five years, according to several analysts. Stock-outs have been common. U.S. imports are spiking. However, those goods may not reach store shelves or distribution centers in time to satisfy peak consumption needs.
  3. Parcel networks have been overwhelmed by demand since March 2020. This has led to inconsistent delivery performance across the board. National and regional parcel carriers have maxed out their fulfillment and distribution infrastructures. Late deliveries mean that consumers will be forced to accept holiday service levels that are beneath their expectations. If there is good news, it’s that e-commerce consumers are aware of the problems and will be more tolerant of slower delivery. What they demand, and should expect, is access to real-time information about any service issues.
  4. Consumers may order goods earlier than usual, allowing the supply chain to spread out delivery timetables to create a “load-leveling” effect. That would be positive news, but it should not automatically be counted upon.
  5. Warehouse space is severely constrained. Retailers with brick-and-mortar exposure need to position stores as “forward fulfillment” nodes. This allows orders to be pulled from store inventory and delivered over relatively short distances. Store networks will also support what is expected to be major demand spikes for in-store and curbside pickups of online orders. Pure-play e-tailers without store networks need to get creative.
  6. FedEx and UPS are levying meaningful peak surcharges on volumes from their largest customers. The U.S. Postal Service imposed the first peak surcharge in its history. Carriers say the fees are needed to offset their higher costs to serve. That is true, up to a point. Demands on delivery networks will be unprecedented, and carriers are pricing their services accordingly. Companies will have to consider this in their free shipping strategies to maintain profitability.

THE CLOCK IS TICKING

Retailers relying on the e-commerce supply chain are racing the clock and capacity constraints during holiday peak season.

Is it too late for shippers and retailers to get their holiday house in order?

Not necessarily, but it will take fast action and deep e-commerce supply chain planning. The challenges, as we’ve laid out, are immense. One key is to get ahead of the “demand curve.” When shippers gain visibility into end demand, they can prepare and execute a plan that enhances customer satisfaction and does so profitably. After all, meeting customer demands while losing money in the process is the hollowest of victories.

Managing the upstream channel is just as critical. Calibrating inventory flows with replenishment needs is a year-round challenge, and especially so during peak. The challenge is magnified this year with the headwind of COVID-19. Retailers need a clear line of sight into supplier production so they can forecast their inventory replenishment. In normal times, lack of visibility can lead to costly over-ordering to ensure adequate buffer stock. This season, however, over-ordering may be an adequate response, given how and where the inventory is positioned. 

During CSCMP’s EDGE 2020 Virtual Conference, Target Executive Vice President and Chief Supply Chain and Logistics Officer Arthur Valdez advised to “not be afraid to overreact.” That may sound counter-intuitive, but it can be an appropriate step during this peak. Target will be investing heavily in transportation services with a focus on improving delivery timing, Valdez said. Again, that appears to run against the grain as transport is considered a cost center. Yet it will be less costly than failing to execute deliveries because capacity is not available. A seasoned logistics partner can map out a strategy to leverage a customer’s existing assets, as well as to bring in outside capabilities that profitably meets customer demands.

This is especially important as shippers encounter an increasingly complex surcharge environment constructed by FedEx, UPS and, to a smaller degree, USPS and regional carriers.  High-volume FedEx and UPS customers could be looking at surcharges as high as $4 to $5 per piece. These are by far the most expensive surcharges we have ever seen. They can spell the difference between peak season success and failure, even if everything else breaks right. Any shipper expecting to tender significant traffic to either or both must be able to navigate those surcharges all within the framework of their logistics execution.

Amid the coming storm, it may be hard for folks to get a good fix on demand profiles beyond the holidays. But it pays to do so. For example, we may see another e-commerce surge early next year as fears of a combined COVID-seasonal flu cycle keep more consumers homebound. Already, we are seeing 2021 budget plans being adjusted to account for the lingering effect of COVID-19. We also expect similar peak season patterns for the next 3-5 years even after a coronavirus vaccine is approved and distributed. A strong logistics partner not only can help you get through 2020. It can prepare you for 2021, 2022, and beyond.

Use Logistics to Compress Cash-to-Cash Cycles

Logistics is the lifeblood of any organization. It connects suppliers, manufacturers, intermediaries, carriers and end customers with actionable data based on historical transaction patterns. Yet too often corporate leaders view logistics as a cost center instead of a competitive advantage. We find the best way to overcome that perception is to connect the dots between our deep skill set and the positive financial outcomes we can deliver for our clients.

When Transportation Insight talks about logistics as a competitive advantage, we refer to the speed to serve as much as the cost to serve. Time is money.  Companies implementing strong logistics strategies typically turn their inventory faster. They need to rely less on safety stock throughout every level of the supply chain, which is itself a cash burn. They keep goods in motion so they reach consumption points faster, and turn capital quicker.

Reduce Cash-to-Cash Cycle, Free Up Operating Capital

For definition, cash-to-cash cycle time examines the number of days of working capital an organization has tied up in managing its supply chain. The faster the cash-to-cash cycle, the fewer days an organization’s cash is unavailable for other investment. According to American Productivity and Quality Center (APQC) research, the top performers have 60-day cycle times. The bottom performers clock in at about 120 days+.

Reducing cash-to-cash cycle time involves eliminating factors (such as inventory) that tie up operating capital. Effective organizations optimize inventory to free up capital while maintaining enough stock to satisfy customer orders. This can be accomplished through a well-designed demand forecasting, comprehensive company-wide inventory optimization strategy, supported by logistics that aligns roles and responsibilities in the supply chain, and identifies processes that can be streamlined.

Streamlining order-to-cash processes can also reduce cash-to-cash cycle time because faster invoice processing and receipt of customer payment decreases the amount of time that an organization’s capital is unavailable.

Make no mistake, there are some logistics people who love inventory because it covers some of the “stumps in the water,” as we like to say. But safety stock exists because businesses struggle to match their inventory needs with final demand. Safety stock is also an impediment to optimal cash flows.

But in a lean world, there is no such thing as “safety stock.” Everything turns in its own time, and on its own velocity. Thus, it is critical to identify and root out supply chain inefficiencies at the front end. Are you optimizing inbound shipping lanes, whether domestic or international? Does your inventory strategy balance your costs with meeting customer delivery expectations? Do you have the technology and expertise to effectively manage your product velocity and shrink the cash cycle?

Companies have multiple customer channels. You may have a traditional B2B channel, an e-commerce channel, or a hybrid. Each channel may have its own dedicated inventory. They also have their own cash-to-cash cycles. They are certainly going to have their own logistical challenges. A capable logistics partner like Transportation Insight can support the unique needs of each channel to achieve the most financially desirable outcomes.

Mastering Logistics to Meet Consumer Demand

There are companies that have succeeded in re-inventing the wheel. Then there are others that prospered by improving on legacy processes. Walmart wasn’t better than any other retailer. It offered the same brand of toothpaste and laundry detergent as others did. Sam Walton’s genius lied in focusing on logistics to get goods to the shelves, and in customer’s hands, faster and cheaper than anyone else.

By putting the right product, in the right place and price, when and where the consumer wanted, Walmart accelerated cash returns for manufacturers and for itself. It also turned out to be a lethal combination-for other retailers.

Mastering the competing dynamics of transportation and inventory requirements can be a complex undertaking. You need to weigh the importance of improved working capital with ensuring that goods are always available when and where your customers need them. This is our forte.

Each day, we bring our data platforms, deep understanding of carrier networks, rate negotiating and auditing expertise, and decades of accumulated industry experience to bear to solve these problems. We are quite candid with customer feedback, and what we hear most from our clients is that we take challenges like these off their hands, provide them with rich analysis, and enable effective decision-making.

For more information, read “Move to the Front” today.