What is a Supply Chain Control Tower?

The term supply chain control tower is being used more frequently.  Some think it is being overused.  What is a supply chain control tower? From my perspective it must be a holistic supply chain solution. What does that mean? For me, it means the following ten things.

control tower

  1. A control tower covers an end to end supply chain process.  For a manufacturer, that might span from source to make to deliver. If you just have visibility to transportation processes, like what you can get in a transportation management system for example, then “control tower” is not the right term. “View” or “cockpit” becomes a better term.
  2. Event management is important, but it is not enough. So for example, if you can see that a delivery will not arrive on time, that is a starting point. But really the control tower should have visibility to how exception events affect the existing supply chain plans as well. For example, knowing that an inbound shipment for a factory is not going to arrive on time, has all sorts of implications for what can be made and what should be made. To answer those questions, one needs to be able to view the impacts on planning.
  3. Exceptions have customer service and financial implications. A supply chain control tower needs to be able to make those implications visible.
  4. Resolving exceptions can mean running various planning scenarios. One should be able to run those scenarios fairly seamlessly. In other words, one should not have to be jumping between multiple systems, swiveling your head back and forth, and in general have a hard time keeping track of what you are doing. Scenario impacts on service and finance should ripple up through the systems and be readily visible.
  5. The data needs to be timely. Not all exceptions need to be generated on a real-time basis. In fact, too many alerts can overwhelm users ability to effectively respond. So alerts should go first to the managers in charge of that part of the process and those managers need the ability to help configure how and when and what alerts they see.
  6. The data needs to be clean and accurate. This is easy to say, but can be hard to accomplish. Visibility into where empty rail cars are and when they will arrive at a loading facility is said by shippers to be very bad, for example.
  7. The views need to be intuitive. For tracking deliveries, Google map views are good. For tracking surges in demand, different views are needed.
  8. It needs to be a collaboration platform. Events may need to be escalated. Further, to resolve an exception situation can require working with other people both in and out of the organization. The discussion of participants, and their decision on what will be done, who will do it, and when, needs to be documented in the system.
  9. Ideally, a control tower needs to provide visibility not to just what is happening, but what could happen that would adversely affect the organization. In other words, it must elevate supply chain risks.
  10. Analytics need to evolve to include more predictive capabilities based on machine learning and artificial intelligence.

The architecture for a control tower matters.  Supply chains change, partners come and go, the control tower must accommodate changes to the existing processes. It needs to be a flexible solution. In many cases a Public Cloud architecture will be advantageous.

No supply chain control tower has all of what I’m describing. In particular, supply chain risks have not yet been well incorporated into supply chain control towers.

But what I can say, is that I have been looking at various iterations of supply chain control towers for years. Some of the solutions are starting to look very, very good.

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