There has been a lot of talk in the industry publications about "big data." How can companies use terabytes and terabytes of data to gain supply chain insights… how do you accumulate it… how do you clean it… and how do you analyze it? There is no doubt that more data - properly stored and analyzed - adds value.
But technology, even in small bytes (AKA: small data), can provide insights that we can leverage to add value in the supply chain. Consider the following:
Process Improvement Support. We have a client that ships food grade product directly from manufacturing sites. The client owns some sites and some sites are "co-manufacturers." In the past, one challenge has been implementing a reliable process for quarantining product until all of the testing has been completed. Ten years ago, it was simple. The manufacturer wouldn't ship it. In today's leaner supply chains, it is important to keep the product moving. So, the product often gets to the distribution center while it is still under quarantine. Mid-tier companies use all kinds of processes - email, spreadsheets, shared documents on cloud drives - to address this issue, but we have to be able to work with a client to actually deploy our WMS solution out into the field (with proper security controls) to permit the clients' QA staff to control the release of product. That can be a QA staff person working for the client or the manufacturer. This provides far clearer process control and auditability of the process. In addition, it allows the client to have a "safe" product enter the supply chain for shipping to customers more quickly. This is a great example of small data being used to lower inventory costs, improve quality assurance, and increase speed to market. In this case, the "technology" is more about better communication and driving visibility everywhere for supply chain insights.
Data Mashup. Big data solutions often involved data from many different sources, all brought together in a large data warehouse. However, there are plenty of opportunities for small data. Consider something as basic as production data by associate tied to the associate's paid time. We recently completed a project that simply brought together a database of what each associate had accomplished and the earned hours for that work compared to what the time card said the associate had worked. It provided huge insight into our production standards, the variability of associate productivity, and the location of our gaps. This solution brings together data from two systems that are otherwise not connected. It only involved a few hundred records -- puny compared to big data solutions -- but it was fairly straightforward to complete. It provided supply chain insights in a way that would have been difficult to get to without at least some technology.
Data Exposure. There is gold in those hills! We have plenty of information today in our current systems. It is not perfect, and in some cases, it is not pretty, but it is valuable and we don't need big data to expose it. We have a client who was very interested in seeing their orders "live" throughout the lifecycle of the order - not a set of metrics at the end of the month. In this case, nearly all of the data already existed in the WMS (e.g. when we received the order, when it was picked, when it was loaded, etc.). This small data solution was a matter of creating some simple filters, putting an extract into a simple report, and then emailing it to the client and the leadership team every few hours. All of a sudden, we could give the client quick visibility into exactly what was happening to the orders. It was not quite in live time, but considering that these orders were shipping across the country from an east coast distribution center, a few hour delay was perfectly acceptable for the purpose.
So, as we continue to refine our approaches, gather more data, and apply ever-increasing sophistication to the technology, here is a simple suggestion - don't let perfect be the enemy of good. There are plenty of supply chain insights to be gained today using the tools we already have in our arsenal.