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By late August 2020, UK workers had experienced a couple of restriction-eased months on the first coronavirus lockdown. At this time, the term ‘hybrid’ was being banded about as how the future of work for so many might look post-covid – a combination of office and remote working.
But for the buyer, the hybrid term doesn’t just resonate in relation to when and where to work, but how the buyer role itself is defined.
According to Joanna Gould, Purchasing Manager at PP Control & Automation, her team of buyers are using their experience to navigate an extreme landscape of supply chain volatility whilst also having to master the art of customer service and the skills required for customer-facing roles.
Enter the ‘buyer come customer service’ blend. But first, the context and the journey behind this newly defined role…
The seismic shock to the UK’s trading system since Brexit and covid-19’s impact on supply chains has provided the perfect storm of volatility.
Events over the past two years have taught us that an over reliance on traditional supply chain conviction needs a rethink. Driving efficiency, shortening supply chains, and creating lean manufacturing processes supporting JIT (just in time) models have helped manufacturers grow but it’s a model that doesn’t make as much sense in a world that no longer tacks international trade to GDP growth or finds additional trading opportunities regularly.
The global market is now a place where instability and volatility are replacing predictability and reliability as both common and normal. Joanna illustrates this notion:
“Even before the pandemic, there were issues arising that saw volatility becoming slowly more common. Brexit, of course brought with it much uncertainty, which is as much disruption as any supply chain needs, but at that point existing practices such as Kanban were still working well to drive lean manufacturing and help procurement make informed buying decisions.
“But adding a global pandemic to also redefining our place in the global market was a big shock to the system, as it would be to any system, no matter how well planned and executed they were previously.”
Purchasing and procurement teams across the entire industry were feeling the strain. How to respond and then recover became top priority. Kanban systems, just in time systems and any others that worked well previously would need to be adapted. Supply chain agility would be key.
Procurement teams today need to be more agile and have more transparency in their supply chains. Certain tools will be needed to ensure a more prepared model for any unpredictable disruption in the future. Joanna continued:
“We had to respond, and time was of the essence. We’ve always promoted the benefits of agility throughout the organisation and now it was time for me and my team to illustrate what it means to be agile and evolve not just our systems and procedures, or the technology we use, but also what it means to be a buyer in this new reality.”
Joanna oversaw a few key adjustments to reporting on delivery performance, including more detailed OTIF (on-time and in-full) delivery metrics to measure whether the current supply chains were delivering the expected items, in the quantity ordered and at the time expected by the customer. In a short space of time, the procurement team could apply a trend analysis to identify potential risks.
A similar approach to MRP (Material Requirement Planning) reports saw the introduction of trend analysis using data comparing planned lead times and adjusted lead times, which would give clear sight of items above or below demand.
Engaging with suppliers on optimum MOQ (minimum order quantities) and to agreed pricing, plus transparency on potential problem areas were all aspects of the new norm.
Supplier agreements were revisited to improve the company’s position on stockholding, with liability given to suppliers to hold material to then be taken within approved timescales.
This is just the tip of the iceberg in terms of adjustments and new systems introduced, but it was all designed to give the purchasing department more useful data to make more useful buying decisions and attempt to get in front of any rising issues.
What came out the back of these changes was somewhat of a hidden benefit. Joanna explains:
“We were introducing reports that would ultimately help buyers make better buying decisions, but to get the best possible data into these reports would mean closer collaboration with other departments.
“It opened a much clearer communication channel with production and engineering because to get a full picture, we needed updates daily, we needed to introduce shortage reports and gain sight of problem parts data.
“We had a better understanding of the current WIP status and the latest on forecasts. And working closely with engineering meant we could offer unique solutions to component supply issues, such as redesigns or alternate manufacturing methods.”
This closer collaboration ultimately relates to speed. With sight of potential issues and risks early on, Joanna and her team can respond quicker. Joanna explains what this means:
“Supply chain agility means how fast a supply chain responds to the changes in their environment, but also how to respond to a customer’s preferences, and even how to gain a competitive advantage. Learning quickly when things move out of the scope of the plan is also important, and we ask where the vulnerabilities were and how can we ensure a more agile response in future.”
The closer collaborative approach to managing supply chains between purchasing and production was a game changer. It wasn’t just internal communication that improved, it delivered an altogether new approach for the role of the buyer, as Joanna explains:
“At times, the role of procurement has been seen as transactional, to meet necessary compliance, adhere to governance, or cut costs. However, that all changed when disruption bedded in.
“It forced us to think more inventively around the problem and we made the decision to split the purchasing team up whereby buyers get assigned and dedicated to specific production cells, or ‘mini factories’ as they’re referred to.”
With a buyer dedicated to each mini factory, they’re managing an exclusive supplier base designed to feed specific production needs to fulfil output. Daily progress meetings to solve any issues that could prevent delivery delays or working with production on forecasts to ensure material is available to execute plans are now much closer managed. Joanna continued:
“Our buyers now have a stake in the success of those areas, are better immersed in the supply chain and take full ownership of it for those customers. The way in which they have all exhibited true responsibility and accountability has been amazing to witness.”
This newfound accountability inherited by the purchasing team has built closer working relationships with customers too. Buyers are no longer just managing supplier networks, they’re also customer-facing, participating in customer meetings, and collaborating with customers to help source alternative components, relaying constraints and how they can be overcome to execute forward planning.
Greater communication with customers regarding order coverage and forecasts has also enabled the preparation of supply chains for a longer period. Many customers still only order to JIT but the team has full visibility of their forecasts to execute on the material and parts required.
Most manufacturers are still in a recovery phase and it’s crucial to act on the experiences of the COVID-19 crisis, and other global disruptions, to reshape sourcing and procurement functions.
The team at PP C&A has positioned itself to emerge stronger, with functions addressing key topics including enhanced visibility of supplier networks to identify risks and capacity constraints, strengthening collaboration to leverage cost optimisation potential, rebalancing stock levels and making sure to be close to its customers and understand how their needs will shift.
Buyers at PP C&A aren’t the people behind the scenes, they’re now the face of the business. Something Joanna thinks makes a lot of sense in this current economic reality. Joanna concludes:
“Today, customer demand is constantly changing so being close to customers and understanding how their needs may shift is a buyer’s prerogative.
“Supply chain optimisation and management, and the likely rises in demand when disruption eases are front of mind for every manufacturer, so it makes perfect sense that during these times, it’s the role of the buyer, of purchasing and procurement departments to be the face of the business. We hold a newfound importance and I think we’ve carried it well.”
For Joanna and her team, the lessons learnt during an unprecedented time have helped build resilience and actually unlocked several ways to manage supply chains for the better. Even when a sense of normality resumes, the systems introduced to manage disruption today will be key to unlocking opportunities tomorrow.
For more information on how PP C&A can help machine builders and OEMs break the cycle of disruption and gain a competitive advantage, download the free Resilience book. You can also catch up with a recent blog about how creative thinking has unlocked opportunities for machine builders disrupted by supply chain constraints.
This book collects a series of published content on the topic of supply chain disruption from leading voices at PP Control & Automation and the wider UK manufacturing community. It details not just the disruption at play, but also the opportunity to break the cycle and take back control. Together, we’ll come out the other side buoyant with greater resilience than ever before.
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