While it’s likely few people outside the supply chain industry would have given much thought to the sector before 2020, it didn’t take long for COVID-19 to change all that. Across Africa, informal merchants and massive logistics companies alike battled to navigate the unpredictable supply and demand brought about by the pandemic. We all felt the effects of the supply chain under strain as suddenly even some of the most basic and essential goods were difficult to come by.
And the challenge is not over yet. With recent announcements around a COVID-19 vaccine from Pfizer and other pharmaceutical companies, conversations around finding solutions to this global manufacturing and distribution event have come to the fore. It’s clear that only by protecting and reinforcing the supply chain network will the world be able to carry out this monumental task.
As a starting point, there is much to be learnt from major players in the logistics industry who continue to successfully handle complex challenges introduced by the pandemic.
Leaning into their tech infrastructure, global companies like DHL are able to process large volumes of orders, anticipate spikes in demand for goods and optimise routing across their warehouses to collect and pack goods more effectively across sizeable footprints.
On the outside looking in, digital transformation stories like DHL may appear beyond reach for companies who do not have the same access to resources. However, logistics and supply chain experts are of the opinion that employing tech solutions in an organisation’s day-to-day operations need not be a complex undertaking.
One example of this is automating routine tasks like data capturing with the help of a simple piece of software. I will use the example of my son to illustrate this. During his summer job, he would spend the morning plugging in data from one system into another. After a couple of days on the job, he said to his line manager that he could write a macro in Microsoft Excel to automate the process. Within a few days, he had fully automated this routine morning task with a simple macro and was moved around the company to apply the same process in other departments.
Taking the robot out of the human and putting it in the machine is what robot process automation (RPA) is all about. Using simple automation for routine tasks gives staff the freedom to attend to other responsibilities that require human talents that can’t be replicated by machines, such as creativity.
Digital transformation in other sectors, like the supply chain, does not have to begin with the complete overhaul of an organisation’s operations but can start with looking at what’s readily available and how these tech solutions can be used more effectively. As an example, Kenyan meat producer Farmer’s Choice used to write down the weight scores of its animals, but this, with the help of Microsoft technology is now captured electronically directly from the scale.
As a result, the company has experienced fewer errors and the weight recordings are available in real-time. Building on this, Farmer’s Choice is now able to provide accurate tracking and recordkeeping to its suppliers. This kind of visibility across the business through incorporating relevant tech solutions means staff are able to monitor fluctuating inventory levels – a capability that has become invaluable for many supply chain businesses given the unpredictable spikes in demand in recent months.
Ideally, data should lead to information. This then turns into knowledge and from there you gain wisdom. Companies need to create and nurture an environment where people aren’t handling data and information, and are rather focused on knowledge and wisdom.
Companies looking to optimise their operations through digitisation should take stock of all the tech solutions that are readily available in an organisation, and whether or not they are being used to their full potential. Important is to determine what is working and what’s not. From there, businesses should standardise what they can, and replicate processes and strategies that are successful. This overview provides a good foundation to introduce new and exciting solutions in the future.
In addition, one of the most important ingredients is leadership. You need people who are able and willing to push for digitisation. The right attitude at a C-suite and executive-level means greater support and investment in the people throughout an organisation, leading to impactful digital transformation.
Technology should be a means of achieving greater flexibility and agility – something the supply chain cannot be without. Being open and ready to respond to the needs of customers, requirements of governments and expectations of consumers is what will differentiate businesses from one another and maintain continuity in an unpredictable world.
Kendi Nderitu is the Country Leader at Microsoft Kenya.