User Experience as a path to efficiency
Efficient supply chain management relies on two key success factors: the capabilities of your IT systems in dealing with information, and people.
SCM tools helps the supply chain people in making a decision on how the supply chain should be managed. I do believe the link between these two factors is the interface of the tool, its «look and feel», i.e. the user experience. Adversely, a bad user experience will lead for sure to bad performance.
Question the data relevance
In the last five years, I have been working on the implementation and the upgrade of supply chain planning tools. I have worked with companies from various sectors such as automotive, food & beverage, chemical industry, consumer goods, just to name a few. The common point between all these projects is that all users truly believe that they use a specific type of information which is crucial for their industry/process and which must be included in the process design of the project. Supply chain planning is a process that involves most of the key players of a company.
When implementing an APS solution, if we listen to everyone, we need to input in the design a lot of information… I have also noticed that often, projects members (who are not necessarily end users of the solution) fear to miss a piece of information, so instead of questioning the real utility of a data, they would rather just include it in the screen.
For instance, in a demand planning solution, the planner must consider information coming from strategic planning, inputs from sales and marketing, promotional data, current open orders, sometimes EDI data from partners, lifecycle management inputs, altogether with some figures issued with statistical forecast.
Hopefully, most of the APS solutions allow to customize the process in order to take into account each and every piece of information provided by the various actors in the process. And here lies the pitfall of these highly customizable solutions: since it is technically possible to include all the various information within the screen design, all the various data get finally displayed within the screen!
A design that should aim to simplify the experience
Talking with end users at later stages of implementation projects, or while doing consultancy for upgrading existing solutions, I realized that tools that were configured to display an extensive amount of information were either not used at all, and in the best-case scenario partially used. I have seen screens where five different tabs were displayed, most of them made of more than twelve different types of data, on a five years horizon.
This is way too much, and most of the time the user simply ignores most of the information and focus on the one key data required to fulfil the task. It is believed that the human eye cannot see more than seven different rows in a tab. More than seven types of information, the user’s gaze will focus on a limited portion of the screen. For instance, I have seen tabs where the final forecast was displayed after statistical forecast (plus the forecast method used), top-down data inherited from strategic planning (altogether with pro-ration coefficients), figures on the impact of seasonality, some inputs regarding promotional events, and various rows related to collaborative forecasting from marketing and from sales. The tab being displayed next to another providing information on forecast accuracy and variability of the demand.
In the end, the planner only focuses its gaze on one information: is the forecast accuracy high enough so I can just validate current set-up as is?
The five “S”
The information is complex by nature, the aim of IT SCM tools should be to simplify access to it. By displaying too much information, the decision-making process for the end-user becomes confusing and finally suffers from misunderstandings or even lack of readable information!
So, what is the solution? Well, keep it simple! A well-known methodology applies here: the five Ss.
Sort: Retain only information that is key in the decision-making process.
Simplify: purpose of each screen should be clearly identified. Do not mix several purposes altogether within one single screen. If you fear lacking some specific details, there must be a way to implement a side report that will pinpoint that specific piece of information.
Scrub: when designing the screen, think ergonomic and user experience. Use graphs: they will illustrate a whole set of data in just one glance.
Standardize & Sustain: do not request upgrades for the system that will bring confusion!
I applied this methodology when implementing a demand planning solution in a well-known food industry company in Australia. The new tool aims to support their S&OP process. For the demand management and forecasting part of the process, they chose a preconfigured solution. Developed to fulfil the requirements from a large panel of industries, it was clear that not all functionalities of the pre-configured solution were relevant to the Australian business.
Therefore, I spent some time with the project team identifying which were the key information that had to be displayed, in addition to useful information that should be kept in the process but displayed on user request. Information that did not apply to their process was simply removed from the screen.
Another example of using the five S methodology was at a leading tier-one supplier in the automotive industry. The procurement plan was managed in a screen that was displaying nearly all the information the planner needed in one single grid. With nearly fifteen lines to review, it was too confusing for the end user. Speaking with internal IT project managers, procurement managers, and the end users, I split the one single screen into five pages, each page focusing on only one aspect of the procurement plan. Information related to the SKU on one page, related to the suppliers on another, emergencies on another, etc… I also included relevant graphical representation, allowing quick understanding in just one glance. Feedback from end users was tremendous: they could now get answers and take appropriate decisions very fast, and with full confidence.
When not overwhelming users with too much information, they are able to review all the necessary data required in the decision-making process, after ensuring that all critical aspects are well understood before taking any action. In the end, by delivering ease of use and simplicity into the user experience of SCM tools, we upgrade the level of performance of supply chain management activities.