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Thomas MellaDirector of Customer Success, FourKites

Bottlenecks are the enemy of supply chains. Think of them as points of congestion in a chain of interdependent processes. Everything slows down – or stops entirely – because of a backup in the system. Bottlenecks are, by nature, productivity killers, and they regularly thwart the best-laid plans of even the most meticulous supply chain professionals.

What makes bottlenecks especially troubling is that, in order to recover from one, not only must you fix the root cause, but you must shift into overdrive to work through the resulting backup. It’s because of this that some supply chains seem perpetually riddled with bottlenecks, always scrambling to make up for lost time.

The goal is to eliminate bottlenecks before they ever materialize. But how do you find the time to focus on preventative measures and optimization when you’re constantly scrambling to answer the “where’s my truck” question? With real-time visibility and predictive analytics solutions, supply chain professionals can reclaim time from manual tracking tasks and also gain the ability to foresee approaching bottlenecks. This empowers them to make proactive adjustments to mitigate – or entirely prevent – those problem areas.

Here are some common bottlenecks I see when working with FourKites’ network of leading shippers. I’m also including some strategies for leveraging supply chain visibility to stop those bottlenecks in their tracks (pun intended) before they stop you.

Dock Space

This is a classic example of a potential bottleneck: You only have 50 dock doors and staging lanes, if you’re lucky, and so many hours in a day. Efficient loading dock operations depend upon predictability in scheduling and staffing; knowing when your trucks are actually going to arrive is critical for effective staffing.

Real-time visibility and predictive analytics allow you to gain control of your dock operations. Push notifications, SMS texts and email alerts, for instance, keep warehouse managers and dock teams informed as to the latest expected truck arrival times. And instead of scrambling to do piece picks that keep teams tied up and take up dock space, only to have another truck show up first, warehouse managers can level out and sequence the work for maximum efficiency. Picking, staging and loading the truck that actually shows up next is the goal of most shipping supervisors.

Materials Management and Production

Materials planners are typically working several days ahead of a manufacturing run to ensure all of the necessary materials will be in stock for production. If a required SKU or PO doesn’t show up on time, that delivery bottleneck can bring a production run to a halt.

Real-time visibility can help materials planners make adjustments to keep production lines running, or at the very least mitigate the impact of late deliveries. For example, a materials planner with visibility can set himself up as a “watcher” on critical shipments. If he gets an alert that a shipment is running late, he can rejigger the production schedule. Even better, he can look for a critical SKU that may be on its way to another facility, and reroute to keep production on schedule.

Not enough trucks

This is arguably the core issue – the “bottleneck of bottlenecks” – in freight transportation right now. The capacity crunch makes efficiency and on-time delivery absolutely critical. A truck that’s on time with a receiver/shipper who has been notified prior to its arrival is able to drive more miles and complete more deliveries. As noted earlier, on-time shipments with prepped teams can be processed in and out of facilities more quickly, reducing detention times. This maximizes capacity for shipping in a still fairly tight market.

Bottlenecks can happen in any business. And in the supply chain, as elsewhere, the key is to get ahead of them by managing proactively, rather than reactively. But without visibility, it’s impossible to be proactive. You can’t plan for what you can’t see! Your operations are held hostage to every late or off-schedule delivery.

That’s what makes visibility so powerful. And the more visibility you have, the more ways you can leverage it. In the beginning, visibility eliminates the “where’s my truck” calls and emails, but as visibility is implemented across the organization, it has the ability to make a positive impact on so many other parts of the supply chain – from customer service to warehousing, production and beyond.

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