Complex supply chains have become an inevitable reality of modern business. No matter the industry, companies face greater pressure to get products to customers faster — with increased reliability and sustainability.
But even with strides in technology, achieving full visibility at every step of the manufacturing process creates major challenges. According to a 2017 survey from the logistics company GEODIS, only 6 percent of 623 surveyed businesses felt they had complete visibility into the supply chain.
“Being able to put a product in front of your face and say this product was made here with fair wages, … is becoming more important to consumers,” says Mary Kate Love, Program Director of the Point A Center for Supply Chain Innovation. “So you can see how [lack of visibility] can quickly become a problem.”
Announced in 2018 and run by the paper manufacturing company Georgia-Pacific, Point A brings innovators from different companies together to solve supply chain issues. During the process, members collaboratively launch pilots that aim to increase visibility and efficiency.
“[The supply chain] is definitely an area where it does not make sense for one company to tackle it alone,” Love says. “Not only are 150 heads better than one, … but also 150 heads that you don’t typically work with [are] going to bring you to a solution we don’t think you could have gotten inside of your own four walls of your own company.”
As of April 2019, Point A has 26 members — including corporate partners, consulting firms, start-ups, and universities. Current1 participants include Siemens, SAP, Georgia Tech, and Idom, a European engineering and manufacturing firm.
During an interview at Point A’s Tech Square offices, Love discussed barriers to supply chain efficiency, Point A’s innovation process, and creating a safe environment for collaboration.
The Supply Chain: A System Ripe for Disruption
According to Love, making supply chains more efficient and cost-effective can create major savings for the manufacturing industry. If a company devotes two-thirds of its money to supply chain processes, she says, a pilot that saves just one percent can generate “massive savings.”
Additionally, increased visibility can also help companies avoid costly recalls of their inventory. As an example, Love points to instances where all packages of romaine lettuce — across brands and farms — have been recalled due to E. coli.
“[Imagine] if you could trace back and understand where did the lettuce come from, why is this a problem, at what point in the supply chain did this lettuce go bad, and how can we correct this next time?” Love said. “You would save a massive amount of money, time, and even brand reputation.”
Fast fulfillment has become increasingly important to customers. In the age of Amazon, Love says consumers expect to receive products on their doorstep in two days, for no additional cost. Successfully meeting these expectations can help companies retain customers.
Love also recognized that an aging workforce, the skills gap in manufacturing, and a need for sustainability as other supply chain related obstacles.
“All of these changes are happening and we think the winners are the companies and the people that can respond quickly to change[s],” Love said. “You can get stuck in your day-to-day work that you forget to lift your head and…see what’s going on in the market… We believe that we need a place like Point A that’s very collaborative in nature in order to access all of the innovation happening in supply chain.”
The Innovation Process
When tackling complex supply chain problems, Love says companies may feel tempted to focus on applying new technology before clearly identifying the problem. Instead Point A begins with a focus area — a broad topic like traceability or sustainability.
“A lot of time what happens is people will get so obsessed with the technology that they’ll go down a path and create [something] that’s not solving an actual problem,” Love said. “So…we go through an entire workshop to define and refine the problem.”
After identifying a topic area, Point A kicks off a program with five steps: discovering, ideating, forming, doing, and realizing.
The discovery phase focuses on education and understanding the problem. According to Love, her team will look for subject matter experts to host webinars for members. After the webcasts conclude, Love crowdsources the companies’ pain points and common challenges in the space.
Next, the cohort begins ideation. Love says members define the problem at this point and envision a future where the challenge were solved. Only in stage three, forming, do members begin brainstorming specific solutions and formalizing smaller pilot groups.
“[In]…the doing phase, we have a project team, we have an [intellectual property] plan, and we’re going to kick off a…a three month pilot project,” Love says. “The doing step involves a project team kicking off a specific scope of work to co-create a solution.”
The final phase, realizing, wraps up the pilot process. If a project is successful, Love says, the companies make plans to sell it in the market. However, even failures play a vital role for Point A members.
“If a project was not successful, let’s share it amongst our members so [they] can learn, ‘this was our problem, this was our approach. It didn’t work and here’s why,'” Love said.
Point A’s first wave of this innovation process began in the first quarter of 2019. Focusing on how to increase traceability and visibility in the digital supply chain, members are currently forming teams and beginning the pilot process.
Creating a Safe Environment for Collaboration
“We are really focused on creating an environment where our member companies…feel comfortable to and are protected in order to have conversations with one another and share their solutions,” Love said. “It’s not the easiest thing…to get people to work like that, because you make money off of selling your solution.”
In order to create the same protections for all participants, every member of Point a must sign the same NDA and membership agreement. While many legal teams are initially apprehensive, Love says, the Point A staff walks through the agreement and explains the purpose to skeptics.
In order to get buy-in, Love said that her team had to build “a really good process that enables people to work with one another but has the right legal protections at the right time.” In order to test different scenarios, her team journey mapped and story-boarded the Point A experience.
“[We made] a spreadsheet of more rows than I care to admit of what the process [was] gonna look like, [and] if you were a member, what are your concerns,” she said. “So going in to crazy detail in the process, role playing it out, drawing it out, and blocking out days at a time from 8 [a.m.] to 6 p.m. to really do this with the team.”
As a result of this design process, Point A should feel like a neutral space for collaboration where no one company is favored. The space reflects that spirit of neutrality. Even though the center is operated by Georgia-Pacific, the space avoids plastering the company’s logo all over the walls.
“We kind of describe ourselves as Switzerland,” Love said. “Point A will never own IP. And myself as a point a employee, I need to make all the members happy, not just one member, not just Georgia-Pacific. We really try to embody transparency between us and our members… The end result is this really solution oriented collaborative space.”
Finding the Right Partners
According to Love, finding the right participants affects the likelihood of successful, collaborative solutions.
“[A member] has to be the right kind of person, who’s high level enough to kind of oversee [the supply chain], but also close enough to the problems in the organizations and really able to roll up their sleeves,” she says. “If you get the wrong people who are trying to sell a solution, and take back what they heard in a meeting, and go pitch that, [the process does not work].”
According to Love, the first group of Point A members came together through personal connections or word of mouth. The Metro Atlanta Chamber of Commerce also helped her team forge connections.
Members of Point A, Love says, either lead the supply chain or have an understanding of innovation.
“You can…envision this…like all of the puzzle pieces coming together, and the puzzle pieces are capabilities coming from our members,” she says. “If we go through a workshop, and we’re defining a problem, and…we think we need [different] capabilities to solve that problem, it’s our job at Point A that if we don’t have any members that have those capabilities to bring [in members] and companies that have those [skills].”
According to Love, Point A is divided into three tiers of membership. Charter members — the highest tier — pay $100,000 annually. Participants in this category get a seat on the Point A’s Advisory Board, the group that works closely with the Point A staff to strategically guide the vision, mission, and priorities of Point A. Corporate and advisory memberships cost $50,000 and $10,000 dollars respectively. The advisory tier is intended for start-ups and small companies.
Love also says members must also decide up front how long they want to participate in the program.
“Members sign on for either three, five, or seven years,” she said. “Innovation requires a commitment to the future and working together for success.”
The Supply Chain of Tomorrow
As Point A’s works through it’s first innovation cycle, Love and her team continue to visualize a more accurate, efficient supply chain.
“We envision a future where there can be a single source of truth amongst suppliers and vendors at every point of the supply chain,” she says, “In order to see how many peaches were delivered on X date, I just open up the same database that you open up, and we can see the exact same information, and we know it’s true.”
Love forecasts a supply chain enabled by new technology and automation that can track products in real time. In the future, autonomous vehicles may also provide last-mile fulfillment to your doorstep at times that reduce traffic.
“If we make a more efficient supply chain, … we can make life a lot better for a lot of people,” love says. “[T]he supply chain affects everyone, every single day. You might not think of it, but everything on this table went through some type of supply chain in order to get into our hands… So it’s really exciting to think about the impact we have.”