The term supply chain visibility is so widely used it has almost lost its meaning, so some clarity is important up front. When most people use the term, they mean inter-enterprise, current state or real-time information about the product -- from creation and as it moves and transforms across the chain. Timing is important. Compiling data from latent data sources is not visibility.
Other characteristics of visibility may include a transaction-data-like purchase order and source/destination, or metadata about the product, such as price, rev, part or SKU number. Data about the supply chain -- the supplier, the carrier or customer -- may also be important. This data would be application- and user-specific to support the specific process needs.
Today we have the ability to access a wider range of data about the supply chain provided by streaming location-based data such as GPS/GIS and temporal data -- weather, temperature and social events. This is important to understand how current conditions interact and effect the operation of the chain or the product.
Through real-time event architected systems, you'll learn information about what is happening now that might negatively affect the people, facilities or products. This provides the value of supply chain visibility or the ability to respond and mitigate negative effects or seize upside opportunities.
The supply chain visibility information pipeline
Visibility is all about sharing information. The central issue is people -- often of diverse business, demographic or national cultures -- working to find shared value. As we know, no information system can operate without people. Implementing any system requires change management. If systems are in place and people don't use the data, it's of no value.
Certain cultures are very pro-technology, in general, such as Korea or Japan. Or they may be highly regulated, such as the EU, and require companies to meet product data and traceability standards.
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Implementing supply chain visibility becomes easier here. Passing information about products globally is more a matter of priorities and investment, which is not the case when sharing "official data" about people. As social technologies become more prominent, this may change over time.
To note as well, supply chain has a "dirty underside" of fraud and theft. In these environments, owners or workers are resistant to implementing visibility solutions. We always recommend inspections and background checks of trading partners before engaging in business of any type.
In some work situations, implementing advanced technology such as RFID to track cartons and containers is resisted. For example, labor unions may have objections to certain technologies, fearing they will replace workers.
Benefits of supply chain visibility
On the upside, productivity and data accuracy can be enhanced significantly to benefit workers. I have worked in several plants where there were multiple languages being spoken and it was hard for workers to communicate their needs or work status. If one worker speaks Laotian and the other Spanish, they cannot explain their challenges or requests for more material to support their work centers, report quality issues or route parts to another process. Simple scanning technologies can allow the systems to operate and the workers to communicate their needs.
As countries like China also become concerned about product quality and purity, they have shown a greater interest in implementing standards and technology for product trace and visibility. Global regulations in many industries have various requirements for data collection and reporting. Though collected, often this data is not being made available for a visibility system.
In conclusion, cultural acceptance or resistance to visibility can be national, social or organizational. These are reflected in the existence -- or not -- of local regulation or industry standards efforts. Within supply chains, visibility and data sharing is more about current priorities as well as assessing the technology and its value. For worker, consumer and resource protection, supply chain visibility may be something we want to embrace. From preserving scarce resources and providing worker safety to making sure the products we use are safe, the trend is moving toward both visibility and transparency.
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