@ Supply Chain Management


Things that make you go hmm… – What is i2 upto?

SupplyChainDigest reports on what i2 plans as its “Next Generation” solution in the supply chain space.
Whatever i2 is pushing is based on its Agile Business Process Platform (ABPP) – so it helps to ask what exactly is the ABPP? ABPP is explained on i2’s website as:

The i2 Agile Business Process Platform is a finely tuned, synergistic development suite designed to support new-generation supply chain management solutions.

Alright, what does that distil down to?

This new-generation platform functions much like a “factory”, in which standardized application components such as data models, business rules, user interfaces (UI), and business workflows can quickly be assembled and then adapted to meet company-specific business and market needs. The platform can bring greater speed, agility, quality, and cost-efficiency to any supply chain.

I have a lot of experience, way back in 1998-2000, working with Labview from National Instruments which is a prototype systems software development tool that I used in the R&D labs. And the above description by i2 sounds a lot like a Labview type of environment within which a business can structure its supply chain planning, design and development processes. More details about the ABPP:

The platform makes up a comprehensive environment for supply chain management application development, including:
Core platform services. Including distributed process modeling, execution and monitoring, business rules definition, and web and rich-content UI generation.
Data services. With extensive supply chain data models and processes for validation, synchronization, staging, and aggregation.
Integration services. From bulk data transport and mapping to web services support for messaging and generic EAI.
Application development. With a proven studio environment for the integrated development, modeling, testing, deployment, and maintenance of new solutions.

Now, that is something to look forward to and I suppose it was bound to happen sooner or later. However, I would like to see how successful i2’s efforts are going to be in bringing a client’s organization up to speed on using even half of the functionalities described above. Will it turn out that i2 itself would have to invest a significant portion of resources to develop templates that will be adapted by the end-user. Or will there be special programmers such as ABAP programmers who do such customization. Time wil tell.
Back to the SupplyChainDigest article:

John Cummings of i2’s chief marketing officer says, “Historically, not enough of customer spending on SCM solutions went to true process innovation. Next generation supply chain is also about trying to change that.”

So here we have the notion that process innovation is going to be spurred within a firm by bringing in a tool from i2. Really? I don’t think so. What could happen is that in firm’s that have truly grasped and implemented process innovation is going to find i2’s tools more than helpful in building up a significant competitive advantage. But the source of that competitive advantage resides in the process innovation that prexisted the arrival of a tool but the extent of success derived would be greatly assisted by a tool such as that envisioned by i2.

John Cummings continues, “If you look at the Plan-Do-Check Act model, we’ve always been able to deliver the “Plan-Do” part, but not necessarily been able to close the loop on that and get to “Check-Act”.

All he is saying is confirming the view expressed above. The success of the PDCA model, a continuous process improvement methodology, is that it is a competency that pre-exists any tool that is brought in from the outside. In fact, I’d think that it is not dependent on any tool. But the next sentiment gets my undivided attention:

Now we like to do what I call “managing while tuning” the supply chain, tuning all the parameters in the planning cycle to make sure you’re getting the right answers.

I’d hazard a guess that John Cummings has a systems background of some sort, either in education or in some previous work experience capacity. “Managing while tuning” is so fine an art which is unfortunately not taught in any school except in control theory and perhaps then only for control systems and not for general systems that abstract control models – such as the activities of the firm. However, in the world at large, we usually “Manage while tinkering” which is just about the opposite of “Manage while tuning” which implies a strong grasp on the fundamentals of how to structure and execute the firm’s activities. But I’m impressed at the sweep of what i2’s tinkering with here.
More from John Cummings:

What struggled a little bit with what to name it, but it

Logistics Cost Survey – 2006

SC Digest released its Logistics Cost Survey for 2006 in March of the year. I’m catching up on it here.

Drucker on Real Transformation

Bill Waddell at Lean Affiliates writes about Principles for Real Manufacturing Transformation:

Sixteen years ago, Peter Drucker’s article, “The Emerging Theory of Manufacturing”, appeared in the Harvard Business Review. That is probably about the right incubation period for the rest of us to catch up to his thinking. Drucker points to four principles that defines what’s needed for real transformation, and establishes the critical role of the chief executive. These principles are:

  1. Integrate the factory into the total value stream
  2. Instill a statistical quality focus across the entire company
  3. Implement a completely new accounting model
  4. Treat the entire business as a system

Remember that Drucker is writing this at about the time that Six Sigma had just appeared on the scene but his recommendation seems to be spot on. Bill goes on to elucidate the differences between looking lean and being lean and how the above principles, proposed by Drucker in his “The Emerging Theory of Manufacturing” are essential to a lean transformation.
1. Integrate the factor into the total value stream: A quote from Taiichi Ohno of Toyota captures the central thought here –

All we are doing is looking at the time line, from the moment the customer gives us an order to the point where we collect the cash. And we are reducing the time line by reducing the non-value adding wastes.

. Bill calls this idea – “from call to cash”, meaning that every activity that occurs in the intervening period and process space is evaluated on the basis of its integrity with respect to the value to customer that each activity confers. Such totality begs for C-level executive involvement, not in sense of micro management but in the authority conferred to such a process overhaul.
2. Instill a statistical quality focus across the entire company: Ever since the surpassing of Newtonian physics, scientists have been engaged in the description of the natural world through statistical techniques. However, the education system relies primarily on the promulgation of facts implying the completeness of the description which actually only statistically implied. Its nice to see that businesses that imbibe this statistical approach to their activities are achieving coherence with the kind of descriptive and prescriptive pattern inference also called science. Though, I think that the day is so far off into the future when accountants shall describe a firms financial activities in statistical terms – what a sea change that would be? The other key takeaway is the relentless focus on quality that such statistical processes describe.
3. Implement a completely new accounting model: Accounting is quite integral to how management decisions are made and how they’re represented to the world at large. However, if even half as much continual transformation and improvement were carried out in the accounting departments as are carried out in the manufacturing department, the manufacturing department might be four times better than it is today. Yes, the ratios of supposed benefit are imaginary. However, that management often makes decisions based on accounting gimmickry is and should be the object of scorn because accounting doesn’t report information in a way that lends itself to decision making. While accounting should be about informing business decisions, I suspect accounting is really about accounting. And that’s Drucker’s view as well though I suppose I am twice as cynical as he is prescient.
4. Treat the Entire Business as a System:The central point here is that the manufacturer within his ecosystem provides a solution over and above providing a product/widget/service. Therefore, a manufacturer is as much part of the solution as he is part of the problem that crops up because of a particular deficiency in the solution that he provides. The expectation of a customer is not how finely finished a product might be (if that were the sole contribution of the manufacturer) but that it meets or exceeds his expectations of product peformance and value.

In the end, abstractions such as performance and value are what the manufacturer or business is aiming at fulfilling. The problem with abstraction is that people abstract without particular attention to reason or logic. One part of the business should be about addressing those abstractions in a value laden way but another part of the business should be about clarifying the abstractions, informing and educating the customer as well.

About me

I am Chris Jacob Abraham and I live, work and blog from Newburgh, New York. I work for IBM as a Senior consultant in the Fab PowerOps group that works around the issue of detailed Fab (semiconductor fab) level scheduling on a continual basis. My erstwhile company ILOG was recently acquired by IBM and I've joined the Industry Solutions Group there.

@ SCM Clustrmap

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June 2006