Supply chain lessons from Japan

March 18, 2011

The devastating earthquake and tsunami in Japan have again raised the issue of supply chain robustness to disruption risk, and in particular, are they too fragile? (3/15/2011) asserts that  “Strategies that look rational for individual manufacturing companies… can create big macro-level vulnerabilities…”

The reality is that it is too costly to source every component from multiple locations throughout the world just to hedge natural disaster risks. But that doesn’t mean that companies should turn their back to the problem. The best companies follow a few intuitive steps to make their supply chains more robust. I’ll offer two.

First, map your supply chain. If you know your Tier 1, Tier 2 and Tier 3 suppliers, then you won’t have to spend one week figuring out whether you will run out of a part. Most companies know their Tier 1 supply chain, but do they know the other tiers? Do they keep track of changes to the supply chain? This information is crucial because the company that is first to work the phone to find alternative  supplies is most likely to be able to secure those supplies.  This information also gives you information that you can use to make downstream adjustments to your production. For example, should you eliminate an overtime shift or not? Should you redirect scare parts from one plant to another? Those are difficult decisions to make and are made much more complicated if you don’t even know if you have a problem – why shut down a plant for a potential part shortage that may not materialize?

Second, before disaster strikes, map out vulnerabilities. Some components can be sourced in many locations. Some components have several months of buffer inventory. You don’t need to worry about those. But if the amount of buffer inventory is limited and it is sourced in a few locations, especially a few locations that happen to be close to each other, then you need to consider finding alternative sources or alternative parts. Maybe the conclusion is that the company needs to bear the risk – there are no effective alternatives. But maybe the conclusion is that a substitution to a less risky part is actually feasible.  Finding this substitute is less costly before the disaster. There have been reports of companies that are scrambling to qualify additional suppliers, but that could have been done before disaster struck.

Finally, one risk that will hit many companies, even if they don’t have a shortage of parts, is the risk of exchange rate fluctuations – the Yen has just hit a post WWII high against the US dollar.


Do we need a Manufacturing Czar?

September 9, 2010

President Obama has named Ron Bloom as a special advisor to tackle the problem of declining manufacturing in the United States (see NY Times 9/10/10):

The President said “We’ve got to get back to making things.” Do we?

Here are the arguments why the decline in manufacturing is a problem:

  • Without manufacturing we won’t be able to take advantage of emerging markets in green technology “I don’t want to see new solar panels or electric cars or advanced batteries manufactured in Europe or in Asia. I want to see them made right here in the U.S. of A. by American workers” says President Obama.
  • Without manufacturing there will not be research and development in the U.S. (which are presumably higher paying).  The argument is that R&D and manufacturing have to be co-located.
  • If R&D declines because of a lack of manufacturing, then innovation will decline and innovation is the engine of productivity growth.

And what are the causes of the problem:

  • Unfair trade practices by China and others.
  • Private equity only invest in firms that manufacturer in China because the U.S. is not “where you make things”.
  • Large U.S. companies don’t want to promote domestic production because they now produce everywhere.

So what do they plan to do about the decline? Here the specifics are thin. They have ruled out subsidies. They will focus on trade diplomacy and improved export-import financing.

Unfortunately, for Mr. Bloom, I strongly suspect he will not be able to reverse the trend, nor do we want him too. But if he wanted to reverse the trend, he is not pulling the right lever.

To fix a problem requires identifying the cause. There are two reasons why manufacturing has declined in the U.S. First, although not mentioned in the article, transportation costs have declined.  If it costs a lot to move parts and finished good around, you need to do things locally. When you can start shipping and training and trucking things for cheap, your options as to where to manufacture expand. Second, things are much more modular than they use to be. Henry Ford’s designers had to be very close to the manufacturing process because I suspect design was an iterative process – design something, try to make it, redesign it, try to make that, etc. Now, computers, telecommunications and precision machinery means that for many things the design and the production can be decoupled – an Apple engineer can dream up the next Iphone in her office and send the specs over to China without fear that what she created will be costly to make.

So if the causes are cheaper transportation and let’s call it decoupled R&D, then what could be done to reverse the trend? We wouldn’t want to ban computers to prevent the former. But maybe we should make transportation more expensive. At least that would have an environmental benefit. But if it is expensive to move stuff from China to the U.S., then it is expensive to move it from the U.S. to Europe, i.e., it cuts both ways. Which brings me back to an earlier point – should we care? Our decline in manufacturing has also occurred during a period of increased productivity and standard of living. Where is the evidence that we have been hurt by the decline in domestic manufacturing?

And let’s consider the geo-politics of trying to break manufacturing ties with other countries. If we purchase nothing from China and China purchases nothing from us, will they be more or less inclined to use their military? (For that matter, how about the U.S.’ inclination to use its military.) The answer seems clear – as long as countries are linked together via trade, the world will be a safer place.

America should promote innovation and we should make things in America that make sense to make here (like cars). But we have better things to worry about than manufacturing’s declining percentage of the economy.

Volcanos and other risks

April 21, 2010

Predictably, there are stories in the news about how the volcano in Iceland is disrupting world supply chains  (e.g., BBC story on Nissan and BMW).

One of the trends over the last 20 years is to source globally and to source from fewer suppliers. The reasoning is good. By sourcing globally you find the supplier with the lowest costs and best skills/technology. By sourcing from fewer suppliers you avoid variation in your products and you are better able to concentrate improvement efforts, both in the design of the component as well as in the manufacturing process. But the strategy also means that you become more vulnerable to idiosyncratic risk.

As risks go, this one is relatively mild (that a volcano erupts under a glacier sending ash into a big cloud that blankets Europe).  Assuming the volcano stop spitting ash into the sky soon, the consequences of this disruption are rather limited – about 7-10 days of lost production. This is a significant disruption, but nothing compared to the disruption that would occur if your supplier’s facility were buried in ash. Put another way, the risks to really worry about are ones that disrupt your supply chain for a much longer period of time – hurricanes, floods, earthquakes, lightning/fire, and domestic unrest all come to mind as potentially more severe in the sense that they can knock you out for months. Thus, I would be much more concerned about sourcing from a supplier in Indonesia (earthquake and volcano prone) than a supplier in Ireland.

The first step to managing these risks is to identify them – you can’t manage what you don’t know. (Or put another way, it is harder to manage “unknown unknowns” than “known unknowns”.)

The second step is to establish a monitoring system – when would you know if a supplier in your network has been disrupted? We all heard about the volcano in Iceland, but when would you hear if a key Tier 2 supplier had a fire in their facility? The sooner you know, the sooner you can get to step 3…

The third step is to have a contingency plan in place. Do you have potential second sources of supply? What assistance can you provide to shorten the length of the disruption?

To conclude, disruption risk is real, but it doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t source globally for a limited set of suppliers.

Ford to build one Focus

January 10, 2010

Ford is trying to do it again. Do you remember the Escort? It was suppose to be the “world car”, but apparently there was only about one part that was common between the U.S. and the European versions.  But that was then and this is now. Ford is (and they are serious this time) committed to developing *one* Focus for the world (see NY Times, 1/9/2010)

The strategy is based on the premise that preferences are converging around the world and so the one world car strategy is feasible. Not only is this probably correct, it probably has been correct for quite some time – customers have always wanted a safe, inexpensive, fun to drive, fuel-efficient, stylish, reliable vehicle.  Car manufacturers like Toyota and Honda understood this (though Toyota has waivered from this strategy in recent years).  Mind you, the Focus is probably too much vehicle for the newly not-so-poor of India and China. But for the market that wants this size of a vehicle, it may indeed be possible to provide them with one vehicle around the world.

If the market will accept this approach, then there is a lot to be gained through operational efficiency. Ford could amortize the development and tooling costs over more vehicles. Multiple factories could produce the vehicle, thereby sharing production know how.  Procurement should be simpler and scale should give bargaining power. Finally, it may even be possible to share capacity across markets, assuming the car will be built in multiple markets as well.

And it is worth noting that they will not insist on “any color, as long as it is black”. The plan is to allow some market localization of interiors in such a way that it would not significantly alter the production process. Furthermore, there will not be a single marketing campaign, but more like 5-6 themes that are designed to the particular needs of the target market.

If this strategy will work, then it probably is due to a commitment by senior management, in particular, the CEO, Alan Mulally.  He came from Boeing and noted that Boeing used one door on all of their planes sold throughout the world. Why should Ford need to design doors, steering wheels, etc, for each market? Very good point. Let’s hope the strategy works for them this time.

China passes US in auto sales

January 8, 2010

I remember when Nixon resigned, where I was when I learned of the first Space Shuffle disaster, and my shock and disbelief when I saw the pictures of the Twin Tower burning (I turned on the TV only after the 1st one had already fallen) and now we have China passing the US in auto sales (NY Times 1/08/10).  OK, maybe this is not as important as some other events, but in the operations management world, it is a biggie…. or is it?

China sold 13.5 million vehicles (including 650,000 heavy trucks) whereas the US sold 10.4 million, the lowest level in 27 years. I suspect the US will be able to regain that title in the next year or two as our market rebounds to the old/normal levels, but that will only be a temporary “victory”. However, we probably will “own” the “number of autos per capita” stat for a long time, and I am sure that the total carbon emmission of our 10.4 vehicles swamps the carbon output of China’s 13.5 million. So there is hope for those who need to feel good via stats.

In the end, the most important part of this news item is that if you want to be a world player in the auto industry, then you better be a player in China.

Volatility in autos – and the demise of brand loyalty

October 22, 2009

Any casual observer to the auto industry can sense that brand loyalty has been declining. But the following graphic, posted in today’s NY Times ( illustrates how dramatic the decline has been:


So what does this mean for strategy? Clearly, this has interesting implications for marketing (does it mean you have to do more advertising or less?).  But it also has interesting implications for operations. Logic suggests that if brand loyalty decreases, market shares should be more volatile – customers will move quickly to products they like and then just as fast they will move away to another brand’s products. It would seem that this places an extra premium on flexibility – it should become (or has become) harder to predict a model’s market share, and so flexible capacity is needed to manage the unavoidable demand-supply mismatches.  Throw in uncertainty in the economy, fuel prices, and the diffusion rate of green transportation and you have a very challenging environment ahead – as if we didn’t know that.

Production smoothing on a grand scale

February 1, 2009

It was just reported that the US GDP fell at an annual rate of 3.8% in the fourth quarter of 2008 but it would have fallen 5.1% had it not been for the inventory adjustment – demand “fell off the cliff” but firms kept producing, thereby causing inventories to rise.  One might interpret this as a nice demonstration of the production smoothing strategy on a grand scale – it is costly to shut down production, so keep producing and build inventory with the assumption that eventually demand will exceed your production and you can then draw down your inventory.  Production smoothing is particularly effective for coping with seasonal demand because then the firm has a good sense that demand will indeed return during the high season.  Now it is a little bit different. The drop in demand is not seasonal but systematic and it is not clear when demand will level off or at what level it will converge to. In particular, if the economy is still producing above the new long term rate of demand, then further adjustments to production will be needed.

The depth of the downturn may hinge on firms’ willingness to hold inventory. If they want to reduce their current inventories to their levels over the past five years, then they will need to really slam on the break (in effect, we have already produced for future demand and to return to equilibrium requires stopping production so that demand can catch up).  However, if firms are willing to hold on to their additional inventories, then the adjustment need not be so severe – in that case all that is necessary is that the firms align their current production with their current demand rate.

These issues are exhibited on a more “micro” scale at Chrysler. They stopped production in December 2008 because their inventories were higher than they could manage (or wanted) and continuing to produce would have only increased them further. They only just resumed production. If their current production rate equals their current demand rate, then their inventory level will remain unchanged. If they want to reduce their inventories, then they will have to produce at a rate that is lower than demand for some time.

So this raises the question of whether inventories are stabilizing or destabilizing to an economy.  You can tell a story for either one, and some additional data collection is needed to resolve the conflict.

Wall Street Journal, Jan 31, 2009, Economy Dives as Goods Pile Up

Is JIT dragging us down?

December 26, 2008

We all know these are tough economic times, but do we know why the economy is struggling so mightily? One theory is that JIT (and other lean manufacturing practices) are to blame. See, for example,

The metaphor is simple, animals with stored fat are more likely to survive in times of scarcity than thin animals.  Alternatively, think of a group of hikers on a glacier. JIT means they all tied together with very short ropes so when one falls, they all fall in quick succession.  Are these metaphors correct? Is lean manufacturing the cause of our woes? There is reason to believe it is in fact the scapegoat.

Consider the auto industry and GM in particular.  Their demand is now much lower than their capacity.  (Actually, it has been for a long time, just now there is a very large discrepancy.) If they maintain production at their capacity, then their inventory continues to build, converting cash into inventory. This can work for a little while but eventually you run out of cash, risking bankruptcy.  This is the problem they currently have.  The alternative is to stop production, but then you pay your workers to do nothing, so you still burn through cash but then have no product to show for it. This is very costly – in theory, inventory can eventually be converted into some revenue.  

Now consider the role of lean production in this mess. If you turn back time to one year ago, had GM been less lean, then they would have had less cash and more inventory.  Consequently, they would have had less of a buffer to weather the current storm, so their problems would have hit earlier or would have been more severe.  If they had been even leaner, then they would have had less inventory at that time and more cash, thereby giving them a bigger cushion to survive the downturn.  Based on this reasoning, their current problems are as bad as they are because they weren’t lean enough, not the other way around. 

It is possible to defend JIT in another way – if JIT were the problem, then we would expect the leanest of the auto manufacturers to be suffering the most.  Toyota and Honda are among the leanest, and they are suffering, but not by as much, which is again consistent with the notion that during this crisis, being lean is a help and not a hindrance. Maybe the better metaphor is the following.  Two people are thrown overboard a cruise ship and nobody notices, so they need to fend for themselves. They see an island in the distance and start to swim for safety.  Who is more likely to make it, the fit and lean person or the “master of the buffet” person?

Honda’s Flexible Plants Provide Edge

October 5, 2008

This has been a tough year for most auto makes :  so far this year sales are down 24% at Chrysler, 18% at GM, 15% at Ford and 7.8% at Toyota.  But U.S. sales at Honda are up 1.7%.  There are two reasons for Honda’s success. (1) Honda’s product mix depends less on SUVs and pickups than the others (i.e., fuel efficient models make up a larger portion of their portfolio). (2) Honda has some of the most flexible plants in the U.S. To illustrate that flexibility, Honda is able to switch from producing  Civics to CR-Vs with only 5 minutes of downtime!  Honda has achieved this flexibility through many different decisions.  For example, the Civic and CR-Vs were designed to be manufacturered in the same sequence of steps, so the same step (such as a door installation) can occur at the same location on the assembly line.  Honda did have to invest $400m several years ago to improve its flexibility.  That looks like a good investment in the current climate.  

Wall Street Journal, Sep 23, 2008 – Honda’s Flexible Plants Provide Edge

Environmental Kaizen

August 12, 2008

Kaizen, or “continuous improvement”, means constantly working towards improving processes, no matter how small the improvement.  The idea of kaizen has famously been applied at Toyota to their manufacturing process but the concept has also been applied by GM to make their manufacturing plants more environmentally friendly.

GM’s Lansing Delta assembly plant in the the world’s only to have received Gold Certification from the U.S. Green Building Council’s Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) system. They achieved this goal by making many small (and some large) improvements to their processes. For example, they use bright lights were tasks are needed and dim or no lighting where light is not needed (such as where robots are working).  The restrooms use rainwater collected from the roof and the roof is painted white to reduce heat absorption. (Both the light and rainwater examples emphasize that an important resource should be used only where needed.) But more important than any single idea, the implementation of Kaizen changes how employees view their environment and motivates them to generate further ideas.

Automotive News, August 11, 2008 – GM Factory a Model of Sustainable Manufacturing