My Supplier Said to Me: New Specifications?

On the tenth (work) day of Christmas my supplier said to me “oh… well, uh, when were those specifications issued?” 

Changing specifications are just a fact of life in the world of manufacturing. In the software world we used to say, ‘requirements are like water; they are not firm unless frozen.’ Screw holes are moved, bolt patterns change, and weight is reduced. This is part and parcel of manufacturing. If your supplier makes and delivers batches of the same part throughout the year it is almost guaranteed that at some point that they will have to deal with a specification change. 

How you communicate that change matters almost as much as the change itself. To keep up with the fast pace of change in today’s business world, we must transform the way we think about supplier communications. No longer is it about just managing suppliers. The goal here is collaboration, not just obedience.

When there is a change in specification, proactive communication is critical. Communicating ahead of time gives your suppliers plenty of notice to make changes between production runs. This cuts down on waste and stress for everyone involved. 

Collaborating with suppliers to work for the greater good of all instead of just tolerating each other helps to develop strong relationships with your suppliers. The long-term benefits of these relationships are increases in quality, efficiency, and customer service, and who doesn’t like better customer service? 

The reality is that to be successful, your suppliers need information from you. When they are successful you are successful

But what about when non-EDI trading partners need to receive updated specifications? What about when a supplier communication needs to include documents that don’t exist in classical B2B EDI? One of the main barriers to achieving true b2b collaboration is that without B2B eCommerce infrastructure, important supplier communications are easily lost. ‘When did you issue those new specifications?’ the supplier asks. ‘Well before you started the current batch. We can’t accept these’ you respond. Now begins the reject process…

The Family Supply Chain & B2B Collaboration Technology

The family supply chain has suffered a great deal during the Coronavirus pandemic of 2020. Since the beginning of the safer at home orders, grocery store shelves, once completely full, now (at the time of this writing) have empty spaces where items necessary for the health of our families used to be. Even meat disappeared for a week or so here in Middle Tennessee as people began panic buying. Of course, this was a logistics-based problem as food suppliers simply could not send their product out quick enough to meet the demand. Now there is another looming meat shortage, but this time it is a production issue.

As workers test positive for COVID-19, meat processing plants are forced into temporary, sometimes indefinite, shut-down that disrupts the family supply chain. Retailers, as the main interface between consumers and the distribution chain, have the responsibility to solve this problem through supplier diversification. Now, the technology exists to allow retailers to deal directly with famers and farm cooperatives without a huge amount of cost or complexity on either side. Though a supply chain disruption of this nature has serious consequences for families, families do not have to feel the disruption at all.

Halting Production in the Family Supply Chain

In an article from CNN Business, Dianne Gallagher and Pamela Kirkland write the following: 

Some of the country’s largest abattoirs (processing plants or slaughterhouses) have been forced to cease operations temporarily after thousands of employees across the country have tested positive for the virus… Pork processing plants have been hit especially hard, with three of the largest in the country going offline indefinitely— Smithfield Foods in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, JBS pork processing in Worthington, Minnesota and Tyson Fresh Foods in Waterloo, Iowa. Together, the three plants account for approximately 15 percent of pork production.

The result of the lack of supply output from meat production facilities is a lack of demand for animals from farmers. Consequently, farmers are euthanizing animals and disposing of them instead of sending them into the supply chain for consumption.

According to Successful Farming, Tyson foods ran a full page ad explaining that “as pork, beef, and chicken plants are forced to close, even for short periods of time, millions of pounds of meat will disappear from the supply chain.” To be clear, we are facing a production shortage coupled with massive amounts of waste within the family supply chain. There has to be a better way. Setting aside for a moment the impact on the business community, meat production directly impacts families’ ability to survive.  

The Retailer’s Role in the Family Supply Chain

The retailer is the intermediary between the distribution chain and the consumer. The retailer is who the consumer is trusting to be able to provide for their family. In the eyes of the consumer, the weight of a food shortage falls on the shoulders of the retailer to solve. How do you mitigate a shortage during a crisis? Excellent question. The answer is the strategic diversification of the supplier network.

If the source of the problem lies with production facilities, then go around them. Engage farmers directly. To be clear, this would not be intended to be a permanent replacement for processors and distributers. It would also require farmers to prepare the meat for processing and retailers to process meat in-house, but as a temporary solution it would solve a shortage and keep from wasting incredible quantities of livestock. The family then reaps the additional benefits of investing in the local economy, and by way of removing the middlemen, enjoying a lower priced product.

I want to emphasize this again. Processors and distributers are extremely important; they provide a livelihood for many people. However, if the family supply chain is in jeopardy due to the closure of a production facility, then the retailer has the responsibility to procure another source of supply. 

B2B Technology and The Family Supply Chain

Assuming the other challenges with this solution can be resolved, and I believe they can be, there is another glaring issue that would keep retailers from dealing directly with farmers: technology. Most big box retailers use some type of EDI system in conjunction with their ERP system to send purchase orders, shipping notices, and receive invoices. The electronic business documents are the core of the B2B commerce. In order for retailers to do business with a supplier, the supplier needs to have the technology in place that works with the purchaser’s ERP system.

This presents the main issue: connectivity. Often, the technology required to connect with a retailer is beyond what a farm cooperative has the capacity for. It is expensive and has a very steep learning curve that cannot be overcome within the time needed to respond to a critical disruption in the family supply chain, or at least it could not be in the past.

Now, the technology exists that can easily address these issues and make electronic B2B trading and collaboration a reality for even the smallest of businesses without the significant investment or steep learning curve. 

A Shameless Plug…

At TTP Solutions LLC, we built a product called™What does it do? It allows a business of any size to connect with any EDI and ERP system as a standard electronic trading partner without the associated cost and complication.

How does it work? It runs in the browser as a monthly subscription service and allows the farmer, or any other type of supplier or electronic business partner to send and receive critical electronic business documents in a way that is secure, automated, and without a steep learning curve. From the perspective of the retailer purchasing from the farmer as a supplier they can send a real EDI document from their ERP system making the supplier 100% compliant to the buyer’s EDI standards.

The farmer or farm co-op can receive and reply to the purchase order with a business document from their phone, tablet, or computer to send a shipping notice or engage the next step of the process for each retailer whom they are supplying. This kind of solution is low cost, low risk, easy to implement, and exactly what is needed to mitigate a supply shortage caused by a temporary production shutdown. 

Mitigating the Shortage

These are crazy times. COVID-19 is playing all kinds of havoc with the economy worldwide (Click here to read a few thoughts about globalization). This is just another supply chain issue that the virus is bringing to light. Though production at large meat processing facilities will slow or shutdown as workers become ill with the virus, that does not mean there has to be a shortage. The responsibility to make sure that the family supply chain is unaffected by the lack of processing at the current time belongs to the retailer.

Thankfully, by engaging farmers directly and implementing web based B2B commerce technology, we can overcome this problem. Perhaps this production issue will be the necessity that gives birth to invention and revolutionizes the family supply chain for the benefit of the consumer. Whatever the future outcome may be, there is no excuse for the family to suffer this supply chain disruption because the technology and resources to mitigate the shortage are easily accessible by those who have the responsibility to solve it.

Developing A Work From Home Workforce

Are you stuck in work from home mode due to Coronavirus? It is the new plague. Everything is changing; nothing will be the same. Okay, maybe that is slightly melodramatic. Be that as it may, we are living in historic days. What is particularly interesting to see is how the workforce is responding to the challenges that accompany global pandemic. Everyone who is not considered a part of the essential goods and services workforce must stay home and figure out how to deal with the economic consequences of that later.

Many schools and businesses have moved all or part of their operations to online. While there are many job functions that cannot be performed remotely, there are many people performing their jobs remotely who until now have been told that they cannot, and yet here we are. Suddenly we find ourselves in the midst of the need to work in an alternative workspace, that is to say outside of the traditional office, and that we are more than capable of doing so.

There is a missing, critical piece for the long-term sustainability of this new working from home culture: business process. COVID-19 will fade into the pages of history, but not without altering the course of history. In the business world, this means that the alternative workspace is here to stay whether we like it or not, and well-defined and enforced business process is critical for maintaining a productive, well-connected virtual office.

Working From Home    

Working from home has been an item on the docket of discussion among management theorists for years. Articles such as The 10 Best Jobs Working From Home are a dime a dozen. Everyone wants to work from home. IT shops are already growing accustomed to the practice, commonly allowing workers to work from home a few days a week or to only be present at the office for important meetings. As technology continuously matures, the need for a traditional office environment diminishes every day. Now we humans are dealing with the novel COVID-19 virus.

Universities are going to a completely online model of classes to finish the spring 2020 semester, state agency offices are vacant, and tv personalities are running talk shows from their living rooms on national television. Any job that requires network access is being done remotely. Yet, managers have been saying for years that we cannot work from home because they need people in the office.

Under the dictatorship of Corona, they are discovering that we are quite adept at doing our jobs remotely – the same jobs that we are not supposed to be capable of doing away from our cubicle. The standard workspace is changing, and it will never be the same. 

Business Process & Long Distance Collaboration

There is one critical piece that makes the difference between business continuity and long-term sustainability. That piece is well defined and enforceable business process. Without the support of process definition and enforcement alternative workspace cannot be a sustainable working environment. Offices have traditionally been designed for people to do work individually while dependent upon the close proximity of coworkers. Now we have Zoom, SharePoint, and any number of remote desktop connection applications that support distance-based collaboration. Still, companies fear that by going to a completely remote workforce, the quality of work will be substandard. Why? Work is a process, and your work relies on the work of others to complete the process. When work becomes location independent, managers have less control over the introduction of process variation causing the quality of work and productivity to plummet.

Consider the following tasks that are essential to your everyday business operations:

Signature based approvals
Paid time off requests
Contract changes 
Employee reviews
Employee onboarding/off-boarding
Salary and promotion changes 
Contract compliance 
Legal reviews 

This is not a comprehensive list by any stretch of the imagination. All of these, however, are examples of business processes that can benefit from process definition and enforcement. Without it, they become the source of operational bottlenecks. The benefits of removing process variation through automation result in transparency, accountability, increased quality and productivity, reduced stress, and the right kind of flexibility to allow for the alternative workspace to be effectively incorporated into your organization’s standard operations. 

A Strategic Issue

Our eyes have been opened by the COVID-19 virus to see the reality that our jobs can be performed well from outside of the office. As this chapter of life closes and we continue on to whatever the new normal may be, managers are simply not going to be able to justify the necessity of a cubicle farm and a room full of employees the way that they could before the virus in most cases.

The truth is that it was not necessary before world-wide pandemic, but the fear of change kept businesses operating the way they always have been. Things have changed. Now that a large corporate office has proven to be optional in the grand scheme of things, office space is going to become more collaboration focused. The workday will become more task oriented than time oriented. Alternative workspace will be the new normal for many work roles that traditionally have been tethered to the office. Companies that do not follow the new normal will lose their high-quality workforce.

This is a strategic issue that corporations need to be considering now. The implications for employee morale, efficiency, and even the cost of maintaining workspace are huge, but without the proper systems to support productive alternative workspace and remove process variation, the necessary move away from the traditional office environment is not a long-term sustainable option.

Concluding Thoughts

Eventually, this virus will leave, or it will become a normal part of life and will not be so scary anymore. Some of the new practices will stay. This could be a good thing. Families are spending more time together, people seem to be more thankful for the provision of basic necessities, and traffic is not nearly as intense as it was just a few months ago.

Alternative workspace continues these benefits even after the virus is no longer a threat. Working from home is more possible now than ever before, but we must have well-defined, enforceable business process, or working from home will not work.

One thing is for certain, the workforce will not be the same. Executives are in a position now where they have to deal with this as a strategic issue, not just a tactical issue. To answer their implied question, yes, you really can work from home, and with the help of great business process, alternative workspace becomes a strategic solution that is sustainable long-term and is mutually beneficial for everyone involved.

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