Achieving Competitive Advantage through Collaboration with Key Customers and SuppliersBy: Don Johnston
An Evolving Operational Focus
Operations were seen as a series of puzzles with single best solutions. The realization that optimization of parts did not optimize the whole led to new focus - operational management went up a level from looking at individual tasks to looking at whole processes. During the 1960s, Japanese manufactures obtained competitive advantage by optimizing operational efficiency, which meant lower prices, flexible production capabilities and a reduction in lead times. Operational considerations became a key theme in strategic discussions.
During the 1990s, companies like Dell took this further. The computer market was changing faster than any other market had done in history. Dell began managing operations by synchronizing functional activity into a single corporate heartbeat. An order instantly drove procurement, which drove production and then distribution. The result was a further drop in lead times, inventory requirements, and operating costs along with flexibility. Operational efficiency was Dell's sole source of competitive advantage and it reaped enormous market share gains.
Collaboration - The Next Step
The answer lies in another step up in the way we view corporate operation. We need to look beyond the borders of the firm in our search for operational efficiency. Optimized company operations can only be achieved through alignment and coordination with the agents up and down stream. Collaboration with suppliers and customers is the essential vehicle of the 21st century for achieving competitive advantage from operations.
The benefits of Collaboration
The answer is simple - relaying end user demand signals and likely future order quantities to suppliers up the chain. This is the single biggest benefit of collaboration and it comes at virtually no cost reducing much of the variability from the forecasting calculation. A supplier's response will be a much closer fit to market demand if information about likely order quantities is shared. Typically, inventory levels can be reduced by two thirds, service levels sky-rocket while lost revenues evaporate, and supply costs are cut by a quarter when demand information sharing is implemented correctly.
2. Efficiency through alignment
3. Joint exploration of strategic options
The greatest barrier to successful collaboration is the conventional mindset of a combative relationship with suppliers. Negotiations are perceived as a zero-sum margin tug-of-war, with the relative power balance determining the result. This precludes a focus on win-win value driving activity. Suppliers and customers end up perpetually wasting and reworking because they see opening a constructive dialogue as weakness or even as surrender. Many executives fear a loss of flexibility through higher switching costs from greater collaboration. The truth is that most firms' key supplier base has not changed dramatically over the last 2 years, so collaborative activity would have been massively beneficial as the payback period can be. Still, this does not irreversibly affix firms together - competitive pressures still work to drive down prices and provide the incentive to offer the best value.
Another fear is that companies would give away their competitive advantage to customers or suppliers if they collaborate. The reality is that core competencies do not vanish through sharing demand information, or through bridging operational rifts. The reason that there are few truly vertically integrated industries is testament to this - core competencies dilute and effective organization is impossible over too lengthy a chain. Such anxiety may be unfounded, but the fear is real and debilitating. This is why companies should commit progressively and in parallel, reaching a point acceptable to both parties; from information share, to operational alignment, through to symbiotic strategic planning. As a further development, (depending on the concentration of the end user markets for a product), a company can then extend its collaborative relationships further up and down the supply chain to suppliers' suppliers, customers' customers and beyond.
As with preceding operational evolutions, collaboration will doubtless be pioneered by some companies and shunned by others. Far from the micro/technical operational thinking of the past, collaboration offers a strategic perspective, divergent options and colossal profit, and capital efficiency benefits. Until it becomes universally adopted, collaboration is the most promising source of competitive advantage from operations available today.
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