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Basic Concepts of Supply Chain Management


Concept of supply chain management

Supply chains encompass the companies and the business activities needed to design, make, deliver, and use a product or service. Businesses depend on their supply chains to provide them with what they need to survive and thrive. Every business fits into one or more supply chains and has a role to play in each of them. The pace of change and the uncertainty about how markets will evolve has made it increasingly important for companies to be aware of the supply chains they participate in and to understand the roles that they play. Those companies that learn how to build and participate in strong supply chains will have a substantial competitive advantage in their markets.

Nothing Entirely New…Just a Significant Evolution The practice of supply chain management is guided by some basic underlying concepts that have not changed much over the centuries. Several hundred years ago, Napoleon made the remark, “An army marches on its stomach.” Napoleon was a master strategist and a skillful general and this remark shows that he clearly understood the importance of what we would now call an efficient supply chain. Unless the soldiers are fed, the army cannot move. Along these same lines, there is another saying that goes,“Amateurs talk strategy and professionals talk logistics.” People can discuss all sorts of grand strategies and dashing maneuvers but none of that will be possible without first figuring out how to meet the day-to-day demands of providing an army with fuel, spare parts, food, shelter, and ammunition. It is the seemingly mundane activities of the quartermaster and the supply sergeants that often determine an army’s success. This has many analogies in business.

The term “supply chain management” arose in the late 1980s and came into widespread use in the 1990s. Prior to that time, businesses used terms such as “logistics” and “operations management” instead. Some definitions of a supply chain are offered below:

  • “A supply chain is the alignment of firms that bring products or services to market.”—from Lambert, Stock, and Ellram in their book Fundamentals of Logistics Management (Lambert, Douglas M., James R. Stock, and Lisa M. Ellram, 1998, Fundamentals of Logistics Management, Boston, MA: Irwin/McGraw-Hill, Chapter 14)
  • “A supply chain consists of all stages involved, directly or indirectly, in fulfilling a customer request. The supply chain not only includes the manufacturer and suppliers, but also transporters, warehouses, retailers, and customers themselves.”—from Chopra and Meindl in their book Supply Chain Management: Strategy, Planning, and Operations (Chopra, Sunil, and Peter Meindl, 2001, Supply Chain Management: Strategy, Planning, and Operations, Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice-Hall, Inc. Chapter 1).
  • “A supply chain is a network of facilities and distribution options that performs the functions of procurement of materials, transformation of these materials into intermediate and finished products, and the distribution of these finished products to customers.”—from Ganeshan and Harrison at Penn State University in their article An Introduction to Supply Chain Management published at (Ganeshan, Ram, and Terry P. Harrison, 1995,“An Introduction to Supply Chain Management,” Department of Management Sciences and Information Systems, 303 Beam Business Building, Penn State University, University Park, PA).

    If this is what a supply chain is then we can define supply chain management as the things we do to influence the behavior of the supply chain and get the results we want. Some definitions of supply chain management are:
  • “The systemic, strategic coordination of the traditional business functions and the tactics across these business functions within a particular company and across businesses within the supply chain, for the purposes of improving the long-term performance of the individual companies and the supply chain as a whole.”—from Mentzer, DeWitt, Deebler, Min, Nix, Smith, and Zacharia in their article Defining Supply Chain Management in the Journal of Business Logistics (Mentzer, John T.,William DeWitt, James S. Keebler, Soonhong Min, Nancy W. Nix, Carlo D. Smith, and Zach G. Zacharia, 2001, “Defining Supply Chain Management,” Journal of Business Logistics,Vol. 22, No. 2, p. 18).
  • “Supply chain management is the coordination of production, inventory, location, and transportation among the participants in a supply chain to achieve the best mix of responsiveness and efficiency for the market being served.”—my own words.

There is a difference between the concept of supply chain management and the traditional concept of logistics. Logistics typically refers to activities that occur within the boundaries of a single organization and supply chains refer to networks of companies that work together and coordinate their actions to deliver a product to market. Also, traditional logistics focuses its attention on activities such as procurement, distribution, maintenance, and inventory management. Supply chain management acknowledges all of traditional logistics and also includes activities such as
marketing, new product development, finance, and customer service. In the wider view of supply chain thinking, these additional activities are now seen as part of the work needed to fulfill customer requests. Supply chain management views the supply chain and the organizations
in it as a single entity. It brings a systems approach to understanding and managing the different activities needed to coordinate the flow of products and services to best serve the ultimate customer. This systems approach provides the framework in which to best respond to business requirements that otherwise would seem to be in conflict with each other.

Taken individually, different supply chain requirements often have conflicting needs. For instance, the requirement of maintaining high levels of customer service calls for maintaining high levels of inventory, but then the requirement to operate efficiently calls for reducing inventory levels. It is only when these requirements are seen together as parts of a larger picture that ways can be found to effectively balance their different demands.

Effective supply chain management requires simultaneous improvements in both customer service levels and the internal operating efficiencies of the companies in the supply chain. Customer service at its most basic level means consistently high order fill rates, high on-time delivery rates, and a very low rate of products returned by customers for whatever reason. Internal efficiency for organizations in a supply chain means that these organizations get an attractive rate of return on
their investments in inventory and other assets and that they find ways to lower their operating and sales expenses.

There is a basic pattern to the practice of supply chain management. Each supply chain has its own unique set of market demands and operating challenges and yet the issues remain essentially the same in every case. Companies in any supply chain must make decisions individually and collectively regarding their actions in five areas:

  1. Production—What products does the market want? How much of which products should be produced and by when? This activity includes the creation of master production schedules that take into account plant capacities, workload balancing, quality control, and equipment maintenance.
  2. Inventory—What inventory should be stocked at each stage in a supply chain? How much inventory should be held as raw materials, semifinished, or finished goods? The primary purpose of the inventory is to act as a buffer against uncertainty in the supply chain. However, holding inventory can be expensive, so what are the optimal inventory levels and reorder points?
  1. Location—Where should facilities for production and inventory storage be located? Where are the most cost efficient locations for production and for storage of inventory? Should existing
    facilities be used or new ones built? Once these decisions are made they determine the possible paths available for product to flow through for delivery to the final consumer.
  1. Transportation—How should inventory be moved from one supply chain location to another? Air freight and truck delivery are generally fast and reliable but they are expensive. Shipping by sea or rail is much less expensive but usually involves longer transit times and more uncertainty. This uncertainty must be compensated for by stocking higher levels of inventory. When is it better to use which mode of transportation?
  1. Information—How much data should be collected and how much information should be shared? Timely and accurate information holds the promise of better coordination and better decision making.With good information, people can make effective decisions about what to produce and how much, about where to locate inventory and how best to transport it.

The sum of these decisions will define the capabilities and effectiveness of a company’s supply chain. The things a company can do and the ways that it can compete in its markets are all very much dependent on the effectiveness of its supply chain. If a company’s strategy is to serve a mass market and compete on the basis of price, it had better have a supply chain that is optimized for a low cost. If a company’s strategy is to serve a market segment and compete on the basis of customer service and convenience, it had better have a supply chain optimized for responsiveness. Who a company is and what it can do are shaped by its supply chain and by the markets it serves.

How the Supply Chain Works

Two influential sourcebooks that define principles and practice of supply chain management is The Goal (Goldratt, Eliyahu M., 1984, The The goal, Great Barrington, MA: The North River Press Publishing Corporation); and Supply Chain Management: Strategy, Planning, and Operation by Sunil Chopra and Peter Meindl. The Goal explores the

In the real world scenario

Alexander the Great based his strategies and campaigns on his army’s unique capabilities and these were made possible by effective supply chain management.

In the spirit of the saying, “amateurs talk strategy and professionals talk logistics,” let’s look at the campaigns of Alexander the Great. For those who think that his greatness was only due to his ability to dream up bold moves and cut a dashing figure in the saddle, think again. Alexander was a master of supply chain management and he could not have succeeded otherwise. The authors from Greek and Roman times who recorded his deeds had little to say about something so apparently unglamorous as how he secured supplies for his army. Yet, from these same sources, many little details can be pieced together to show the overall supply chain picture and how
Alexander managed it. A modern historian, Donald Engels, has investigated this topic in his book Alexander the Great and the Logistics of the Macedonian Army (Engles, Donald W., 1978, Alexander the Great and the Logistics of the Macedonian Army, Los Angeles, CA: University of California Press).

He begins by pointing out that given the conditions and the technology that existed in Alexander’s time, his strategy and tactics had to be very closely tied to his ability to get supplies and to run a lean, efficient organization. The only way to transport large amounts of material over long distances was by ocean-going ships or by barges on rivers and canals. Once away from rivers and sea coasts, an army had to be able to live off the land over which it traveled. Diminishing returns set in quickly when using pack animals and carts to haul supplies because the animals themselves had to eat and would soon consume all the food and water they were hauling unless they could graze along the way. Alexander’s army was able to achieve its brilliant successes because it managed its supply chain so well. The army had a logistics structure that was fundamentally different from other armies of the time. In other armies, the number of support people and camp followers was often as large as the number of actual fighting soldiers because armies traveled with huge numbers of carts and pack animals to carry their equipment and provisions, as well as the people needed to tend them. In the Macedonian army, the use of carts was severely restricted. Soldiers were trained to carry their own equipment and provisions. Other contemporary armies did not require their soldiers to carry such heavy burdens but they paid for this because the resulting baggage trains reduced their speed and mobility. The result of the Macedonian army’s logistics structure was that it became the fastest, lightest, and a most mobile army of its time. It was capable of making lightning strikes against an opponent often before they were even aware of what was happening. Because the army was able to move quickly and suddenly, Alexander could use this capability to devise strategies and employ tactics that allowed him to surprise and overwhelm enemies that were numerically much larger.

The picture that emerges of how Alexander managed his supply chain is an interesting one. For instance, time and again the historical sources mention that before he entered new territory, he would receive the surrender of its ruler and arrange in advance with local officials for the supplies his army would need. If a region did not surrender to him in advance, Alexander would not commit his entire army to a campaign in that land. He would not risk putting his army in a situation where it could be crippled or destroyed by a lack of provisions. Instead, he would gather intelligence about the routes, the resources, and the climate of the region and then set off with a small, light force to surprise his opponent. The main army would remain behind at a well-stocked base until Alexander secured adequate supplies for it to follow.

Whenever the army set up a new base it looked for an area that provided easy access to a navigable river or a seaport. Then ships would arrive from other parts of Alexander’s empire bringing in large amounts of supplies. The army always stayed in its winter camp until the first spring harvest of the new year so that food supplies would be available. When it marched, it avoided dry or uninhabited areas and moved through river valleys and populated regions whenever possible so the horses could graze and the army could requisition supplies along the route.

Alexander had a deep understanding of the capabilities and limitations of his supply chain. He learned well how to formulate strategies and use tactics that built upon the unique strengths that his logistics and supply chain capabilities gave him and he wisely took measures to compensate for the limitations of his supply chain. His opponents often outnumbered him and were usually fighting on their own home territory. Yet their advantages were undermined by clumsy and inefficient supply chains that restricted their ability to act and limited their options for opposing Alexander’s moves.

issues and provides answers to the problem of optimizing operations in any business system whether it be manufacturing, mortgage loan processing, or supply chain management. Supply Chain Management: Strategy, Planning, and Operation is an in-depth presentation of the concepts and techniques of the profession. Much of the material presented in this chapter and in the next two chapters can be found in greater detail in these two books.

The goal or mission of supply chain management can be defined using Mr. Goldratt’s words as “Increase throughput while simultaneously reducing both inventory and operating expense.” In this definition, throughput refers to the rate at which sales to the end customer occur. Depending on the market being served, sales or throughput occurs for different reasons. In some markets, customers value and will pay for high levels of service. In other markets, customers seek simply the lowest
price for an item.

As we saw in the previous section, there are five areas where companies can make decisions that will define their supply chain capabilities:

Production; Inventory; Location; Transportation; and Information. Chopra and Meindl define these areas as performance drivers that can be managed to produce the capabilities needed for a given supply chain.

Effective supply chain management calls first for an understanding of each driver and how it operates. Each driver has the ability to directly affect the supply chain and enable certain capabilities. The next step is to develop an appreciation for the results that can be obtained by mixing different combinations of these drivers. Let’s start by looking at the drivers individually.


Production refers to the capacity of a supply chain to make and store products. The facilities of production are factories and warehouses. The fundamental decision that managers face when making production decisions is how to resolve the trade-off between responsiveness and
efficiency. If factories and warehouses are built with a lot of excess capacity, they can be very flexible and respond quickly to wide swings in product demand. Facilities, where all or almost all capacity is being used, are not capable of responding easily to fluctuations in demand. On the other hand, capacity costs money and excess capacity is idle capacity not in use and not generating revenue. So the more excess capacity that exists, the less efficient the operation becomes.

Factories can be built to accommodate one of two approaches to manufacturing:

To be continued…

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