What Is the Right Supply Chain?

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What is the Right Supply Chain for Your Product?

by Marshall L. Fisher

Harvard Business Review

Reprint 97205

Harvard Business Review

MARCH-APRIL 1997
Reprint Number
ARIE DE GEUSTHE LIVING COMPANY97203
WALTER KUEMMERLEDEVELOPING GLOBAL NETWORKS
BUILDING EFFECTIVE R&D CAPABILITIES ABROAD97206
KASRA FERDOWSMAKING THE MOST OF FOREIGN FACTORIES97204
GEORGE S. DAYSTRATEGIES FOR SURVIVING A SHAKEOUT97202
MARSHALL L. FISHERWHAT IS THE HIGH SUPPLY CHAIN FOR YOUR PRODUCT?97205 JOHN CASEOPENING THE BOOKS
97201JOAN MAGRETTA HBR CASE STUDY
WILL SHE FIT IN? 97208
CHRISTINE W. LETTS, WILLIAM RYAN, AND ALLEN GROSSMANSOCIAL ENTERPRISE VIRTUOUS CAPITAL: WHAT FOUNDATIONS CAN LEARN FROM VENTURE CAPITALISTS97207 WILFRIED VANHONACKERWORLD VIEW
ENTERING CHINA: AN UNCONVENTIONAL APPROACH97210
EILEEN SHAPIROBOOKS IN REVIEW
MANAGING IN THE AGE OF GURUS97209

What Is the Right Supply Chain for Your Product?
A simple framework can help you figure out the answer.

Never has so much technology and brainpower been applied to improving supply chain performance. Point-of sale scanners allow companies to capture the customer's voice. Electronic data interchange lets all stages of the supply chain hear that voice and react to it by using flexible manufacturing, automated warehousing, and rapid logistics. And new concepts such as quick response, efficient consumer response, accurate response, mass customization, lean manufacturing, and agile manufacturing offer models for applying the new technology to improve performance. Nonetheless, the performance of many supply chains has never been worse. In some cases, costs have risen to unprecedented levels because of adversarial relations between supply chain partners as well as dysfunctional industry practices such as an overreliance on price promotions. One recent study of the U.S. food industry estimated that poor coordination among supply chain partners was wasting $30 billion annually. Supply chains in many other industries suffer from an excess of some products and a shortage of others owing to an inability to predict demand. One department store chain that regularly had to resort to markdowns to clear unwanted merchandise found in exit interviews that one-quarter of its customers had left its stores empty-handed because the specific items they had wanted to buy were out of stock.

Before devising a supply chain, consider the nature of the demand for your products.

Why haven't the new ideas and technologies led to improved performance? Because managers lack a framework for deciding which ones are best for their particular company's situation. From my ten years of research and consulting on supply chain issues in industries as diverse as food, fashion apparel, and automobiles, I have been able to devise such a framework. It helps managers understand the nature of the demand for their products and devise the supply chain that can best satisfy that demand. The first step in devising an effective supply chain strategy is therefore to consider the nature of the demand for the products one's company supplies. Many aspects are important – for example, product life cycle, demand predictability, product variety, and market standards for lead times and service (the percentage of demand filled from instock goods). But I have found that if one classifies products on the basis of their demand patterns, they fall into one of two categories: they are either primarily functional or primarily innovative. And each category requires a distinctly different kind of supply chain. The root cause of the problems plaguing many supply chains is a mismatch between the type of product and the type of supply chain. Is Your Product Functional or Innovative?

Functional products include the staples that people buy in a wide range of retail outlets, such as grocery stores and gas stations. Because such products satisfy basic needs, which don't change much over...
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