How to Understand Supply Chain Data

Written by: James Ponds

Supply chain data can give you more insight into how goods and services flow through your organization and among your business partners. Knowing how to collect and analyze data can help your company manage costs, reduce risks, and better respond to the ebb and flow of demand. Here's a guide to understanding supply chain data so that you can make the most of it.

Communicate with Stakeholders

As you develop your data analysis plans, it’s important to communicate with partners throughout your supply chain. What kinds of data will you need? How will data be reported and what metrics will be used for evaluation? How will managers use the information to make decisions and improve processes? Strong communication throughout the process can help people understand the business goals and facilitate cooperation.

Verify the Right Data is Being Digitized

As you evaluate your comprehensive picture, you should look for gaps and inconsistencies. Perhaps some details have to be entered into databases manually or are recorded in different formats across departments. Additional data may need to be digitized into a more consistent framework. Barcodes, Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) tags, sensors, and other Internet of Things (IoT) technologies can be implemented for additional collection.

In the healthcare industry, an important way to track medical devices is the Unique Device Identification (UDI) System. UDIs enable companies to track devices throughout their various stages, from design to manufacturing to distribution to hospital use. They appear on packaging, labeling, and sometimes directly on devices, and they’re designed to be readable by humans and digital devices. UDIs can be used in many ways to trace device whereabouts, identify issues, and facilitate recalls.

Ensure Data is Consistent and Compliant

While capturing data is crucial, it’s also important that the data is consistent across your trading partners and compliant with international standards. Some high-level questions include how your trading partners track items in your supply chain and how they store that data. Using different tracking conventions or disparate types of databases makes it difficult to analyze and prioritize information. While getting all partners to use the same frame of reference can present challenges, it’s a key part of building a cohesive story that leads to substantive improvements.

Many industries, including healthcare and retail, use Global Trade Identification Numbers (GTIN) to track devices and products. The GTIN standards are part of the Global Data Synchronization Network (GDSN), which is a registry monitored by a non-profit organization called GS1. Companies and their partners use the identification numbers to track trade items throughout the supply chain. The framework is also applied to medical devices. GS1 UDI enables one frame of reference and data pool for tracking devices through their unique identifiers.

Build a Comprehensive Picture

Make sure the data you are collecting supports your strategic goals and can be understood by decision-makers. Assess the best ways to report the data, such as performance dashboards, supplier scorecards and materials management reports so that managers can follow up on issues and make sound decisions. Determine whether any alerts are needed, such as a problem with quality or a sudden fluctuation in demand.

In addition to producing routine scorecards and dashboards, your company can use data to diagnose issues, reduce costs, and provide predictive analysis. For example, data can reveal factors that contribute to a quality problem, show where costly duplication is occurring, or predict when an issue might occur based on historic trends. You can build in contingency plans, such as building in extra checkpoints and exploring alternative suppliers, if you anticipate a potential issue.

Assess and Adjust Plans as Needed

Consult with managers to see if their questions are getting answered or if further adjustments are needed. Get input from various stakeholders in the supply chain process. Consider setting up ongoing meetings to support continuous improvement. Business goals and processes are apt to change so periodic check-ins can ensure that data analysis continues to be effective.

Aligning your information and stakeholders throughout your supply chain can provide a significant return on investment. Whether it’s procuring supplies efficiently or tracking down quality issues, the right data can answer key questions, reduce risks, and optimize processes.

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