Transportation management systems (TMS) have been around for a good 25-30 years, but they’ve struggled with visibility for most of that lifetime. Sure, the TMS industry has long talked about the visibility of their systems. But it’s only been in the last two or three years that we’ve seen measurable leaps forward in visibility capabilities.
Like the Princess Bride scene where one character questions another’s constant use of the word “inconceivable,” the term “visibility” is also up for debate in the TMS industry. Systems that are built on architecture from a decade ago will say they offer visibility, but it’s not the same thing as a modern system that has been reimagined to integrate with your internal systems and external partners, as well as to translate and act on that information. I would argue that TMS visibility doesn’t mean the same thing today that it did just five years ago.
If you’re considering a TMS and you’ve been in the industry for a while, be aware that the meaning of “visibility” has changed – it’s much improved, but much more confusing.
The TMS is now the centerpiece
In the past, a TMS could only accomplish limited visibility within a company’s four walls and loose connections with carriers. But to have true visibility, it must also connect external partners with internal systems like ERP, WMS, carrier and fleet systems. Today, a modern TMS is an operational intelligence platform that connects your infrastructure, spanning the entire ecosystem of customers, vendors and internal systems.
Why the change? This visibility has traditionally been very complicated because it had to encompass an order from start-to-finish; it required the TMS to read and translate all of the different types of data relevant to that order: The different data sources (like ERPs, portals, EDI, etc.); the different languages (e.g. customers talk in orders and POs, carriers send data in shipments and loads, warehouses deal in batches); the different data relationships; and the TMS had to have connections across your internal systems and the external systems of your 3PLs, carriers, vendors or customers. For most TMSs of the past, all of this was either impossible or an extremely expensive project to accomplish.
But because of leaps in technology and know-how, the TMS can be the single point that provides full visibility into the flow of data and the tools to act on the data. Essentially, it acts like a transportation control tower that can enable an intelligent “rally point” to bring together different sources, translate and cleanse that data, and automate or present actions as appropriate.
Visibility drives automation
TMSs with today’s visibility capabilities can respond to exceptions and manage them automatically through process automation. Through data integration and the ability to translate and share information flowing in from customers, vendors, carriers, order management, mobile applications, financial systems, emails, portals and more, your TMS can become a rallying point for all transportation related events and data for true inter-enterprise visibility.
For example, let’s say you have a five-stop load with 30 different orders, and the truck gets delayed leaving the third stop. Your TL GPS tracking system reports the delay, but your TMS needs to determine which orders are involved and alert only the affected customers and their customer service reps so they can take corrective action. Today’s systems can accomplish that. Another example is a delay in the warehouse that causes a missed shipping window. The TMS can automatically find alternatives that still meet the delivery window by different routing/carrier selection.
Because today’s modern TMSs can see into your full universe of data, you can stop manually addressing every exception.
TMS visibility is now actionable
It’s not enough to know something is happening; smart decisions require access to the right information. Today’s TMS gathers, combines and interprets inter-enterprise data from many sources and uses workflow automation to react. It can assess the past, monitor/react in the present and adjust for the future.
In practice, it means that today’s TMS gives you the ability to translate and share information from shippers, carriers, mobile applications, financial systems, emails, portals and more. It provides clearer insight through visibility-driven workflows, and delivers unprecedented enterprise visibility and new opportunities for cost savings, automation and efficiency.
Let’s look at process automation as one example. If your shipment is late to a distributor or warehouse, you have to factor in potential demurrage/detention charges and figure out who’s ultimately responsible for the late shipment. But does it even matter if it’s late? In other words, are you still in the delivery window? (And what rules did your TMS use to create the delivery window?) What is the impact of the delay? Are there other options? When the shipment arrives, does it need a new delivery appointment? Does the customer need to be alerted? A TMS with true visibility can help you answer all of these questions and make the right decision.
A TMS can also help you avoid possible disruptions before they happen by gathering, translating and applying analytics. Get notified of inbound delays and WMS alerts for rescheduled dock appointments; improve communication with partners by only notifying affected parties in a multi-stop load; determine whether inventory stock-outs will affect route plans; and run drive-time simulations across multiple legs and carriers.
With a modern TMS, you have data coming in from customers, suppliers, 3PLs, the warehouse and more. This visibility allows the system to take automatic action where appropriate or alert you when human intervention is needed. But because the world is much more specialized, so are many businesses’ needs. You have developed your own model around your strengths and customer base, so your needs may even be unique. A TMS vendor cannot necessarily understand every unique situation that’s possible in your world, so be sure to map out some specific visibility examples and ask your vendor to walk through them with you. Or take a few real-life examples or pain points to the sale meeting and ask how the TMS would handle your examples. What information could it provide? What decision-making could be automated? How could the TMS help you make the best decision possible?
I don’t think that word means what you think it means
It doesn’t matter how many times a vendor says a TMS has “visibility” if the word doesn’t mean what you think it means. Today’s technology allows for a TMS to be the centerpiece of your transportation infrastructure, driving automation and actionable insights. Make sure you dive deep into the visibility capabilities of your potential TMS. Map out specific examples and walk through them with your vendor to ensure you don’t end up in the inconceivable visibility deception!
JP Wiggins is co-founder and vice president of logistics at 3Gtms, a global provider of Tier 1 transportation management software. There, he manages channels and partnerships. Previously, JP was co-founder and senior vice president of logistics for Global Logistics Technologies (G-Log); co-founder and vice president of product management at dx/dt; and vice president of logistics at Weseley Software.