Acting like Napoleon

Napoleon Bonaparte is widely regarded as one of the greatest generals in history. Many point to his victories at Austerlitz, Wagram, Ulm and Jena as great case studies of his strategic acumen. But what made Napoleon so successful in his craft? One could argue such innovations as the self-contained military corps gave Napoleon a great advantage over his opponents. Why? Because these corps could maneuver and react faster than their opponents – be more responsive on the battlefield to changing events. How does this relate to the extended supply chain of the modern enterprise? The lessons in flexibility and responsiveness are vital to enterprises being more responsive to the constantly changing stream of events that impact the supply chain.

The enemy
What Napoleon understood, was that no plan survives the first contact with the enemy, but the speed at which you can identify out of plan events, understand how they will impact your ability to achieve your end game and what course of action you can take to ensure you still achieve your goals is what brings you a greater success rate than your competitor.

Supply chains today are stretched, that is not a news a flash. With extensive off shoring, with the desire to run lean, with the constant pressure to wring out any amount of waste you also have a supply chain much more sensitive to any disruptive events.  Event to events that appear are trivial on a global scale. Today’s supply chains must have the ability to shorten the time it takes to identify a potentially disruptive event, understanding how it will impact the extended supply chain and then how to best take corrective action.

So is this a new concept? Not exactly. Businesses and supply chains are like generals, as Napoleon demonstrated. They are all striving for the ability to more rapidly sense events, understand their potential impact and then take action. The issue is more about adoption and ability to actually address these needs with technology.

The puzzle
About a decade ago, we thought that the ability to optimize and create highly tuned plans would allow supply chains to perform at an optimal level. We could model for any occurrence, leverage mass quantities of historical information and connect all our systems to produce a well-tuned operation. Technological advances gave us the promise of highly sophisticated and accurate planning. Of course we learned that this approach was not without flaws, while planning continues to have a seat at the supply chain table it is only a part of the puzzle. Then came the wave of striving for better execution, simply stated we wanted to ensure our inventory moved through the supply chain as smoothly and efficiently as possible. Whether that meant better transportation or warehousing, improved factory production or optimized execution at the store shelf level, the promise of better execution became the path to greater supply chain performance.

Yet, like Napoleon, the reality is that supply chains must take all these into consideration and add another element – the ability shrink the time between seeing a disruptive event and changing your course of action to either rectify the situation or seize new opportunity before your competitor. We could “plan” well, we could “do” efficiently, now we need to improve our abilities to “check”  “understand” and “act.”

End-to-end visibility
This is where solutions like Business Process Management (BPM), Complex Event processing (CEP) and RPM (Responsive Process Management) fit into the equation. With the ability to leverage events, transactions and processes under one umbrella supply chains can achieve rapid respond and react to events.  Of course what supply chains need first, is better visibility into the entire process to detect problems as well as opportunities in real-time –the capability to “check” on the extended supply chain. This process is complicated due to the number of systems required to manage your business. No enterprise is a one-stop shop when it comes to their technology infrastructure. Even companies that claim they are a, “choose a vendor name,” shop, they have different instances of that software and will most likely have legacy, home grown or an other vendor’s applications somewhere in their extended enterprise. If you wanted seamless end-to-end visibility you could take out all these instances and different systems and turn to one provider…but that is not reality. Nor is it wise to think you have the time or treasure to do so, the systems these companies have been leveraging have been functioning effectively at some degree. What allows these enterprises to take their business to the next level is finding a way to gain visibility, while maintaining their existing infrastructure.

But visibility is only the first step. What good is seeing events in real time if you cannot understand how these events impact your business? One needs to grasp how these events are impacting your business in the present, not ex posto factor. Therefore it is important to have what is a short window correlation. For example, when you have thousands of events occurring every second you cannot afford to wait until you have collected, mined and analyzed all that information. What information or impacts you might glean from the analysis might no longer be actionable or worse, the events could have led to other unintended consequences. We need to “understand” how the events we have observed will impact our business.

Ability to act
Finally to stay competitive, an enterprise needs to reduce their reaction time to an out of plan event. Even better if the enterprise can anticipate the occurrence and take corrective action before it is too late – the ability to “act”. An ability to correlate events and potential outcomes in the moment is vital to making the visibility actionable. Which is our third requirement – action.

Seeing what is happening in real time is important, and being able to correlate how these events will impact the enterprise is another necessary attribute. However, the ability to take action when necessary is critical – and that is what makes RPM the most powerful solution for the supply chain professional. Now, enterprises can see, understand and act on events as they are happening in real time.

This brings us back to Napoleon. His genius was rooted in his uncanny ability to read a situation, calculate potential results in the midst of battle and then take action to correct his strategy or take advantage of an unexpected opportunity. With the right solutions, businesses and supply chains can do the same.

Guy Courtin, Industry Marketing Manager Supply Chain at Progress Software