Will that be automatic or semi-automatic to manage your supply chain?

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Years ago when I was in the army, one of the most memorable days of my mostly forgettable BASIC training experience was flipping the switch to automatic. Yes, we’re talking about the M16 rifle standard issue weapon for soldiers. We were trained on this weapon out at the firing range where we learned to hold the weapon steady, breath calmly, and ignore the clamor of dozens of shots ringing out through the earplugs nestled in our ears.

It was cold out in Missouri in the middle of winter, but it was a bit of a thrill to do what I’d done as a kid with toy guns. This was the real thing. Well, sort of the real thing in the sense that the weapon and bullets were real, everyone was dressed in camouflage fatigues with serious looks on their faces, but the targets that popped up anywhere from 50 to 300 meters away were just some special fabric that fell over if a bullet whistled through it. What we learned was that the cowboys shooting from their hips and hitting their targets was a fantasy of Hollywood. Hitting the targets required patience, focus, and a bit of luck. Like most training in the Army, the thought was that if you do it long enough it would become ingrained in your psyche and muscle response. As it turned out, after months of training out at the firing range I qualified as a Marksman, but that was not the big thrill. The big day was actually at night when we were allowed for the first time in months to flip the little switch on the M16 to automatic. Up until that night, each shot was aimed, the trigger squeezed and the result was immediately apparent. Either you hit the target and it plopped over or you saw a wisp of dirt fly up in the air a bit to the right or left. With the switch now set to automatic each second of squeezing the trigger spat out 10+ bullets. Even better was every 5th bullet being a tracer round so they glowed red as they buzzed through the air at 3300 feet per second. I can’t remember if I actually hit any targets that night, but it was so cool to try the automatic setting and live the Star Wars experience for a short moment in time. That was 30 years ago.

Now what does this have to do with managing a supply chain?

Or as my old drill sergeant would have said it… “What the f%$*& do you f$#@&*ing think you’re f%^&@#ing doing, son?! Hear me out. There is so much supply chain related data that we have access to now and even better, we have automated solutions that recommend the best thing to do in a given situation on a given day. That’s a good thing, because we don’t want to go back to managing everything. We need to manage by exception and keep our focus on the big problems. One thing to keep in mind is that many of our automatic solutions turn into black boxes over time. The smart guys that built the solution are long gone and it seems to be working fine, so just let it roll, right? Well, the devil is in the details, and despite the agony of digging through the logic of work done in the past, if the automatic answer is not as good as it could be, there are likely a few tweaks that could be done to the process to make it more fruitful in its results. An example of this is the automatic pull in messages that can be acted upon when the available date of a sales order improves to earlier than its due date. Well, if no orders are harmed by pulling in the sales order to an earlier date, then why not do it? Remember first, that an automatic solution is based on certain assumptions and filters. Does the Automatic solution consider Priorities on the sales order? Perhaps an earlier low priority order can ship on time while a later high priority order will ship late due to constrained supply? Maybe the high priority order, although later, is for a very important customer so we should honor the priority setting and the supply should be set aside for a few days to ship to our valued customer? What do we do? Flip the switch back to Semi-Automatic to manage your supply chain? In this case where constrained supply allows only 1 of 2 sales orders to ship on time, a supply planner should be able to intervene and decide which order to ship. A good supply chain software solution must first identify such cases where the semi-automatic (human involvement) approach is recommended, then be able to quantify the appropriate metric, which solution path is better, and finally notify the right individual to intervene quickly enough to make a difference. Software solutions like Kinaxis RapidResponse can provide the filtering, scorecard metrics, and alerting needed to guide the planner to make the right decisions. Over time, as the calculations that drive this semi-automatic approach are in need of fine tuning, the filters and metrics can be easily changed as necessary. Running most operations in automatic mode is likely a wise choice, but it’s important to understand which parts of the process can trigger the responsible party to intervene when necessary. Automatic sometimes scatters a lot of bullets with a great deal of sound and fury, but semi-automatic usually hits the target every time. Do you prefer semi-automatic or automatic to manage your supply chain? Or, perhaps a combination of both? How has it benefited you? Comment back and let us know!  


- January 22, 2015 at 11:15am
I fully agree with the risk of people living company and taking all their knowledge about the logic used in black boxes they built with them. Usually these are the people that built the material flow from the ground up. To ensure that these knowledge won't be lost, management should early on try to integrate as many, as many interested parties in the process of building the automatic system, so its logic won't be lost.
- February 05, 2015 at 11:52am
Great article, Chris! I think that semi-automatic allows you to remain close to the solution and how it is performing over time (as the environment changes) and be more effective on addressing exceptions or refining the logic parameters. It's like when you have your credit card bill set to pay automatically every month and you opted for the 'paper free' service - chances are higher that if a recurrent membership fee increases or you are charged incorrectly for something you may not realize it in a while!
Christopher Hatcher
- February 05, 2015 at 2:09pm
Francini - I agree 100% with your comments and it's a reminder that we need realtime alerting that wakes us up to the oddball activities that can cause us harm.
Giri Manda
- August 17, 2015 at 1:06pm
Whether to use Semi Automatic or Automatic weapon or no weapon depends on user level/confort who is using. A student will not understand Algebra II without having thorough knowledge of Algebra I. In the same way User should have knowledge of how Semi Automatic Weapon works before knowing how Automatic Weapon works, so when the Automatic Weapon malfunctions, able to use Semi Automatic Weapon It's like Non Optimized Plan vs Optimized Plan. User should be able to run Non Optimized Plan and still perform the Job if Optimized Plan provided wrong results. But it does not mean user has to always use Semi Automatic weapon if there is a Automatic Weapon that has been trusted to work and minimizes the work. Like Auto Landing vs. Manual Landing Pilots still need make decision depending on the conditions.

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