Tuesday, August 30, 2016

Fundamental Supply Chain Shifts Kill The Idea of a "Surge"

I have talked a lot about the inventory to sales ratio and how it is such a great predictor of what will happen in the transportation industry. Back in April I was sending a warning sign in my post "Inventories Continue to Grow" and I even signaled this all the way back in 2012 in a post titled "Inventory to Sales Ratio Tells A Grim Story".  It appears the Wall Street Journal now agrees.

In an article today titled "At Ports, A Sign of Altered Supply Chains", they discuss the muted growth (or at least not shrink) of the trucking and ocean business.  The cause?  You guessed it - the fact that inventories are high, the consumer is moving to on line purchasing, and the more disciplined approach to inventory management.  There are some key shifts happening:

  1. Demand Sensing Supply Chains:  These have finally come into their own.  Companies are much better at identifying the purchase trends and immediately shifting inventory purchases to adjust.  If the consumer slows (or moves from apparel to electronics for example), Demand Sensing Supply Chains adjust almost in real time.  Gone are the days of huge inventory buys "just in case".
  2. On Line Purchases and The Death of Excess Inventory: Anyone who has managed inventory knows these key tenets of inventory management:  As you move inventory out and disperse it among stores or other storage points, your forecast accuracy decreases, your errors increase and the likelihood you will "orphan" inventory in the network increases dramatically.

    To solve these gaps in information, you generally overbuy inventory to keep "in stocks" high.The inventory benefits of on line are clear:  Far fewer inventory points (probably 4 at most) result in much higher accuracy which translates into far fewer inventory dollars to service the same consumer base.  This, of course, translates into much less transportation needed.  Those who say it does not matter, we are selling the same amount of stuff, do not know how the "laws of inventory" work.
  3. The Growth of The Supply Chain Data Scientist:  This is an entirely new field in supply chain and is different than just being an analyst.  This is deep diving into data, pulling "fuzzy" data points together and identifying trends.  These people see changes in buying patterns far earlier than ever before and provide that information to management which responds far faster than ever before.  Inventory buys can be shut off in a nano second. 
These factors are resulting in a far more disciplined inventory management process.  We have been in an "over inventoried" position, in the aggregate, for a very long time and I have been predicting this will keep the demand for transportation services muted.  This is what is happening. 

Source:  Wall Street Journal

Wednesday, August 24, 2016

The New Transportation Technology Ecosystem is Shaping

Developing the future is messy.  It always appears it cannot be done and individual technologies, when looked at in isolation, look like they will never work.  However, I submit this is short term and to borrow a Star Trek phrase, is "Two Dimensional thinking".  Let's think about this in "three dimensions - think about the ecosystem and the connection of this ecosystem.

Let's review some key technologies being developed or deployed now:

  1. Electronic logging
  2. In cab cameras that go beyond just filming but rather sends signals to centralized managers who make real time decisions.
  3. "Uber" type applications for booking, managing, and tracking freight
  4. Autonomous vehicles and the "Otto" type technologies. 
  5. On line immediate economy (hour type delivery)
All of these technologies have advocates and enemies when looked at in isolation. However, I submit that you have to think of this in "three dimensions"; you have to connect the dots. All of these technologies need to come together to build the infrastructure of the future for transportation.  They all point to one thing:  A driverless truck.

The core to this is the autonomous vehicle - which probably explains why Uber buys Otto.  But then, once this is solved, there are other things that have to come into place for this new ecosystem to work:  You have to book the freight easily (enter Uber), you will want to see what is happening (especially at delivery and pick up points) (enter cameras), you will need to track where the truck is and what it is doing (enter E-logging).  

The one thing I cannot figure out is how the truck will fuel and perhaps that leads to a futuristic truck stop which caters to the autonomous truck. Perhaps the biggest issue with this entire ecosystem is how will the truck stops like Pilot make money when there is no one to go into the C-Store to buy stuff.  

So, when you look at the entire ecosystem of the future, you can see it taking shape, albeit messy, with all the technologies being developed.  If you look at them in isolation, solving an old problem (i.e., Does E-Logging really solve driver logging or does it prepare us for having no driver?) then you will wonder "why do we need this".  If you look at them together, building the new transportation ecosystem, then you say, "Got it!".

Those who look at these developments individually make me think of Khan and his two dimensional thinking:

Will The On Demand Economy Work in For Hire Freight?

I recently read a very well written article in titled:  Will The Sharing Economy Disrupt Trucking, Transportation and logistics?  It covered the very common topic of the day which  is the "Uberization of trucking".  Will it work?  Can shippers get over the fear of people they do not know actually hauling their freight?  Will it be consistent enough for commercial customers?

All of these questions are great questions and I have always said that all the answer to these questions are simple:  Yes, it will be messy during the transition;  Yes, these issues will all be solved; and Yes, the ultimate solution will not look exactly like we think today but we will move more towards "Uber" than we will stay where we are.

I think this is generally the conclusion of the author however I disagree with him in one major aspect: He still thinks of logistics in isolation of everything else that is involved in getting products to market.  He says:
" But for all the speed and mobility an evolving new model like this brings, there are tried-and-true, iron-clad laws of physics, geography and time that need to be respected by newcomers to the industry."
This hints that the author thinks of the final delivery in isolation but in reality this is just one part of the overall cost.  For example, what if the lack of retail space, the lack of moving product between nodes in a distribution network saves significant dollars. Some of those dollars are reinvested in a higher cost "final mile" solution and some are retained:  The net new cost is less than the old cost.

Think of the significant advantage in cost/sqft on line retailers have relative to those who have to get high cost real estate in commercial locations.  The bottom line is there is a total cost to deliver product from the raw materials, through manufacturing, through distribution and the finally, delivered to the customer.  This cost has to be looked at in its entirety and you cannot just look at one element and say something will not work due to the cost of that one element.  If other costs are reduced or eliminated then perhaps that final mile cost can go up a bit.

Finally, don't think that this is a "law of physics" cost structure as this author thinks.  Once you say "law of physics" it becomes a discussion where one believes the costs cannot be mitigated:

Well, along comes Uber buying Otto.  And, that, as they say, changes everything!

Monday, August 22, 2016

1.4 Million Supply Chain Workers needed - Strategy: Keep the Ones You Have

Get ready!  The "War on Talent" is here and it is here to stay.  Fortune published an article titled "Wanted: 1.4 million new supply chain workers by 2018".  We have always discussed the need to develop and nurture talent and now it is getting even more important.

If you are not focusing on how to develop and retain your great talent, you will be forever out in the market trying to recruit new talent.  And that, most often, is a loser's game.  It is much easier to develop what you have then try to assess and acquire what you do not have.  Here are some of my ideas on how to deal with what is becoming a hyper competitive market for talent:

  1. Cater to Millennials while at the same time ensuring the "gray hairs" experience is utilized.  I hear a lot about the catering to millennials so I will not rehash this.  I do think though companies have to ensure the more experienced workers have a place.  These people carry years of ideas, experiences and knowledge.  Combine that with the skills of the millennials and you have an unstoppable force.
  2. Be customer centric and dare I say - Customer Obsessed.  People love working on customer focused ideas and activities.  People want to grow businesses.  People hate cutting and they hate shrinking.  Be customer obsessed.
  3. Make if fun.  I once had a boss who on day one showed me the company values and he actually went out of his way to tell me that "fun" is no where to be found.  "This is a business", he said. it was that moment, day one, that I started to think this was not going to end well.  People have to enjoy what they are doing.  When you hear people say they are "passionate" what they are really saying is they love the blending of their skills and they are having fun using those skills.
  4. Invest in your people.  If you do not, someone else will and they will be gone.  Yes, you will have the few times where you send someone to training and they promptly leverage that into a better job somewhere else.  But, don't make everyone who is left pay for that.  Invest, invest and invest.
  5. Embrace the "boomerangs".  This is a unique and interesting idea.  Many companies will not entertain bringing a person back who leaves.  I say you should embrace them.  Think of it as an opportunity to say they looked, the grass was not greener and we are welcoming you home.  That will go a long way for your current employees, who probably still have a loyalty to this person and I believe you will have gained an employee for life.   They will have left, learned a lot and now come home.  What great way to acquire talent!
I am sure there are more you may have but just like the easiest customer to get is the customer you already have, the easiest great employee to get is the one who sits right next to you.

Adding to this is an article by Tisha Danehl titled How to Recruit Top Supply Chain and Logistics Professionals.  She has all the right ideas!! 

Sunday, August 21, 2016

What Have We Done to The World?

Recently I posted about socially conscious and responsible sourcing.  Michael Jackson says it much better than I:

Inbound Logistics Discusses Cost

As if on queue, after I wrote my article about recasting your discussion from "cost" control to "revenue" generation, Inbound Logistics published an article titled:  "Keeping an Eye on Cost Management".  The article discussed the 80/20 rule where 80% of a network's cost is baked in to the network design and 20% is about execution.  I agree.

But, again, I must say the article totally misses the point of Customer Centric Supply Chains. You do not design your network to cut costs!  You design your network to provide incredible service to your customers.  Once that is done, you figure out how to do it at the most optimal cost.

Most of the work in network design is working cross functionally with sales and strategy to identify not only what customer needs are today but where will they be in 10 years.  Where is the ball going.. not where is it today.

This is why Amazon is so brilliant in their supply chain strategy - they focus solely on the customer needs, they design to those needs and then they drive out cost.  Further, they are not looking at the needs today but rather the needs 5 and 10 years from now.  How do I know this?  Easy:  Everything Amazon does is first met with disdain, "no one can make money doing that" type statements etc.  When I hear that, I know they are on to something.

Sunday, August 14, 2016

Why Logistics' Leaders Need to Recast "Cost Control"

The best presentation I have seen in a long time was given last year at the CSCMP Annual Conference and it was given by Amazon.  The topic was a general update on their supply chain however a statement was made that has stuck with me.  The speaker was asked how they decide what service to provide given the costs.  His answer was clear:

" We don't trade off.  We provide the service then figure out the cost".

This is the definition of a true customer centric supply chain.  The customer decides the service level and Amazon provides it.  It is then up to the logisticians and engineers at Amazon to figure out how to do this profitably.  

When the cynics asked him how long he can go with losing money, his answer was "We make a lot of money, we just choose to reinvest in the business".  Another great answer and given the results of Amazon in the last few quarters, I think this issue of them making money has been put to bed.  

So what is a person to do who is stuck in an "old school" business where the executives believe the only thing a logistician should do is cut costs?  Here are a few ideas:

1. Recast it into growing revenue.  Logistics systems, when planned properly and executed at a high level do more to grow revenue than most parts of the business - including sales and marketing.  If you own the final mile of the delivery then you definitely have more impact.

2. Invest in quality.  Why do I do almost all my shopping at Amazon?  It is because the quality is near perfect and it is incredibly consistent.  This, again, will grow the business. 

3. Invest in final mile and own as much of it as you can.  Amazon is learning that now with the various ways they are investing in the final mile for Prime.  You can have partners but they have to execute your system.  For example, Amazon delivers on Sunday through the US Postal Service.  However, they use the exact same customer service alerts as any other part of Amazon.  It is seamless to me as a customer.  

I heard another person talk a while ago and it was about the two major touch points for a customer. These are the point of purchase and the first point of use.  Because so much is moving to an order and deliver method of buying, the point of purchase for delivered goods is now both the on-line experience and the final mile delivery.  Make the final mile great.  

Of course, there are other items but these are the big three in my book.  Do this and you will make your logistic's systems revenue generators and not costs to be cut.  If your leaders do not see this, then start planning an exit strategy because they will ultimately lose in the market place. 

Monday, August 1, 2016

Cass Indices for June Report Real Issues with Trucking and Intermodal

The Cass Indices for June reported what observers knew was to be the case:  Once again the trucking "recovery" has stalled and capacity exceeds demand.  Part of this is due to the elevated inventory levels with retailers and part just due to increased capacity.  Remember, items are much smaller today then ever and with advances in packaging, the trucking industry just has too many assets chasing too few loads to sustain a lot of pricing.

For the last three months, the truckload index has decreased 2.3%, 1.2% and 1.8% respectively and the graph shows how difficult this market has become.  We now are looking into 2017 before there is any tightening of capacity and pricing.  I believe capacity will need to exit the market as not only is there too much today but the economy will start slowing and that means just the normal cycle would require removal of capacity.

Interestingly, this comes at a time where trucking costs are rising and as we saw in the Swift 2Q reporting, OR rates are starting to increase (SWFT 2Q2016 OR rate was 92.7% - highest in the last three years). JB Hunt sees margin erosion in the latter half of the year for both trucking and intermodal.  Great if you are a shipper as soon trucking companies will start working to get any contribution to fix but bad if you are an investor or a trucking company itself.

Starting in late 2015 and through this year, the pricing index has gone down and continues to go that direction.

Suffice to say, Intermodal is following the same trends.

So, what is going on here?  Why do we continually get told that "this is the year" and yet for the last 3 years at least, the tightening has never arrived?  I attribute it to three main items:

1. The Economy is not nearly as robust as you may think watching the markets.  Remember, finance (which requires no trucking) has grown to be a substantial part of our economy.  In the past when you said GDP went up x% you could correlate that directly to an increase in the need for transportation of goods.  Today, that is untrue.

2.  Inventory levels remain elevated.  Think of it this way, when inventory levels are as high as they are this essentially means you shipped the product in previous quarters.  This is like "borrowing" against the future.  Made those quarters look good but because there was not enough sell through, the product just sat and now when sales tick up, the inventory has already been shipped.

3. Miniaturization, packaging and digitization of products.  I have always said the shippers would not sit idly by and just watch rates go up.  They have figured out ways to streamline packaging, digitize what they can (including the growth of 3d printing, and make things smaller.  This means less transportation capacity needed.  

Overall, given the way the economy is headed, I would be shocked if 2017 was anything different.  Hunker down, we are in for a bit of a ride here.