Digital Supply Chains: Part Two – Supplier Management, Field Service


What does it mean to have a ‘digital supply chain’? Here we look at some real-world examples in the areas of supplier management, field service, and MRO (Maintenance, Repair, and Operations).


( This article is excerpted from the complimentary report:
Getting Real with Workflow-Enabled Digital Supply Chains
, available for download here. )

In Part One of this series, we looked at the attributes of a fully digital supply chain and how an incremental approach offers a practical path to get there. Here in part two, we look at some real world examples in Supplier Management and Field Service/MRO, to help you think about what you might be able to do in these areas.

Digital Supply Chain Workflow Examples

There are many companies already doing digital supply chain workflows. In this and the next two installments of this series, we cover various supply chain domains with real world examples to help you think about areas that might work for your firm. These are set up so you can skip to the supply chain domain and examples that are most relevant to you and your business. The domains covered in this article are:

In the next two installments we will cover:

  • Delivery Management
  • Supply Chain Risk Management
  • Contract Management
  • Procure-to-Pay
  • Quality Management
  • Product Information — Item Onboarding

Note: Almost all examples described in this paper are using the Nintex Workflow Platform.

Supplier Management

Many supplier management functions are document- and workflow-intensive processes, for both the supplier and buyer. These include supplier discovery, vetting, onboarding, supplier risk and compliance management, supplier performance management, and overall supplier information management. For example, supplier onboarding, risk and compliance, as well as supplier performance management, often involve sending out questionnaires and surveys, and requests for various certifications to suppliers. Typically, these requests need to be repeated for each supplier at regular intervals, such as once every 6 or 12 months. Further complicating this process is the fact that different questions need to be asked and different certifications requested, depending on the type of service/product being provided, regional considerations, and potentially other factors (such as size and/or diversity status of supplier). Doing this manually is tedious and error-prone. There are best-of-breed systems solutions that help automate these processes, but for many organizations those systems may be overkill. A workflow platform can be considerably more affordable and quicker to get started, allowing the company to focus initially on the most important and/or labor-intensive categories of suppliers. Below are real-world examples of implementations of workflow-enabled supplier management processes.

Automating Supplier Information Updates and Job Tendering

A major water utility used to manually send out emails once a year to their database of approved contractors. The response rate was very low and follow-up was spotty. Bounced emails often went unnoticed and suppliers who were out of business stayed on the list. The utility set up an automated workflow that sends out emails each quarter, asking suppliers to confirm or update their information and upload their insurance and other certificates. They also built a workflow for sending out tenders and receiving responses whenever they needed a contractor, for example to pour concrete or build a fence. By automating both of these workflows, their database of contractors is much more up-to-date and the average time for tendering a job went from two weeks down to one day. The company already had a workflow platform in place for other uses, so the incremental cost of adding this was very low, with almost no IT involvement required.

Mobile Onboarding and Transactions in Person

An IT financing company based in Australia replaced their convoluted manual process for onboarding suppliers, channel partners, and customers with a mobile forms/workflow-based approach. Using e-signatures, they can create and get signatures on the contract and then finish onboarding the customer or supplier right there in their meeting with them … or within minutes of reaching an agreement on the phone. On the customer side, this increased the close rate. On the supplier side, it shortened the onboarding time dramatically.

Collecting Data for Supplier Performance Scorecard

A large provider of engineering, procurement, and fabrication services for petrochemical refineries and facilities was using a manual customer satisfaction form to help evaluate their own performance on each major project. This form had questions on quality, delivery, customer support, and value (performance, reliability, overall buying experience). The form was based on information gathered from customers and internal departments.

Their project performance problems were often caused by supplier performance problems, so they started maintaining a Supplier Scorecard in an Excel spreadsheet as well. The spreadsheet had information about each supplier’s safety record, quality, delivery, pricing, and customer service. That data was collected from different parts of the company: pricing from the supply chain group, delivery performance from managers out in the field, safety and quality from the safety and quality group, and customer service from different parts of the organization. This whole process was cumbersome, slow, and inconsistent, due to the manual approach. So, they moved the supplier scorecard onto a SharePoint list and built a workflow to get it filled in. Now data collection is much more efficient and any delays in collecting the data get noticed and fixed quickly. The data is also more accurate, since it does not have to be rekeyed or cut and pasted from the forms used to collect the data.

Onboarding Suppliers and Maintaining the ASL (Approved Supplier List)

The supply chain group at an oil and gas firm maintains their Approved Supplier List including, for each supplier, various contacts’ information, descriptions of services provided, commodity types, product lines, and which locations they were approved to serve. Collecting and maintaining all that data was very labor intensive. The information was often out-of-date and/or incomplete. So, the company built a workflow that automatically sends out emails to gather the required information from the supplier and different groups within the company. This includes collecting the required documentation and certifications (such as ASME certifications (U, R, S, and V stamps), GOST certification, CE mark), descriptions of special processes, the supplier’s own self-assessment, the company’s assessment and audit of the supplier (done by someone in the purchasing group as part of their responsibility to vet new suppliers), a signed Non-Disclosure Agreement (as needed), and other forms. Now the data is much more up-to-date and complete and a lot of low-value manual work has been eliminated.

Field Service and MRO (Maintenance, Repair, and Operations)

When services are performed in the field, or maintenance and repair is performed in a factory, there is typically a lot of associated paperwork. This is needed to create a record for things like: the request for service, measurements taken in the field, results from diagnosis of the problem, list of parts and supplies needed for repair, description of the repair or maintenance work done, parts replaced, and configuration changes made. There may also be a need for signoff from the customer to confirm that the work was completed to their satisfaction. The customer signoff triggers invoicing and helps reduce disputes about the service performed.

Automating these processes with workflow technologies can make a huge difference in efficiency, process consistency, completeness of records, auditability, and nonrepudiation of signoffs on work completed. Workflow-based forms can help technicians more quickly and reliably record measurements from instruments in the field,1 streamline and standardize the submitting of service requests, ensure that the right people are notified immediately at each key stage throughout the process, prefill forms with information that already exists (such as using GPS on a mobile phone to fill in the location of the service), provide service and repair instructions to technicians, provide a consistent way to record the results of services calls, and ensure that the invoicing process starts as soon as possible after the service has been completed. Once a workflow platform is in place and consistently collecting data, it opens the possibility to mine that data for opportunities for continuous improvement of service processes and performance.

Inspecting and Treating Live Christmas Trees on a Farm

At a Christmas tree farm in Denmark, workers inspect the trees once a week, reporting on the health of the tree and whether any specific actions are needed, such as applying pesticide, or trimming, or other types of maintenance needed. The farm’s old paper-based system was prone to errors, such as entering an incorrect tree ID which resulted in tree technicians wasting a lot of time looking for the right tree, as well as loss of revenue because trees became diseased or misshapen due to the missed treatment. The farm started tagging each tree with a unique QR code, which is scanned by the inspector as they fill in an electronic form on their mobile device to identify the treatment needed for that tree. The service person receives an accurate list of the locations and necessary treatment of each tree. Now the sequence of trees being treated is being optimized. By having the service person scan the QR code again at the time they treat the tree, it closes the loop, ensuring that the correct treatment has been provided to the right tree. This saves time for all and reduces the number of trees lost due to poor care.

Processing Work Orders in Sugar Farms and Factories

A major sugar manufacturer has plantations and processing plants throughout southeast Asia.
Most of the workers in their fields and factories are service contractors, supervised by a small number of company employees. The service contractors’ work is driven by work orders—for example, a work order might specify planting certain acres of cane, or cooking X tons of molasses, or pumping stagnant water out of specific locations in the fields, or harvesting specific acres. There are about 200-400 work orders per day at each farm. The work orders are created in the company’s SAP system. These were being printed and sent out to the contractors in the field or factory. Once the work was completed, these forms (work orders) were marked up by hand, specifying what work was actually completed, and brought back in the evening. The information on the form was keyed back into the SAP system, to update it to reflect the actual work completed. Too often, the service contractors claimed they had done the work, but actually had not. So, site supervisors randomly select a few of the orders to go inspect, taking pictures, to ensure that work has been completed as specified.

The company decided to implement a mobile workflow platform, using the contractors’ own cell phones. Now the work orders are sent out electronically to supervisors and workers. Workers enter the required information about their work when they complete the job. When requested, they attach photos of the work. The workflow platform then automatically updates the SAP system. This results in higher compliance rates, time saved from filling out and rekeying the data from paper forms, and a system that is more accurate and up-to-date.

Collecting Data on Irrigation Equipment Tests and Repairs

One rural government agency is tasked with checking the irrigation water meters on local farms. They use a third-party service provider to test each pump and meter to ensure that they are working properly, reading the flow accurately, and that the farm is not using more irrigation water than allotted. In the past, they would record information on a paper form, such as the owner of the farm, address, make, model, and serial number of the pump, size of the pump and pipes, and data from the tests they ran. They also install a tamper evident seal to ensure that the meter is not tampered with before their next visit.

Now they have a mobile app on their phone, built on the workflow platform that they already owned. The app records the GPS coordinates when the service provider is at the pump, then the workflow prepopulates most of the information. The service technician runs the tests, takes photos of the pump and meter, and then submits the electronic form right there at the pump site, as soon as they are done. The workflow then initiates some calculations to check if the meter is within accuracy and/or if there are other problems with the pump. If it is outside of the threshold of tolerance, the agency staff are automatically notified and an email is sent to the service provider requesting them to recalibrate the pump. The service provider uses the app to indicate when the meter has been recalibrated. The agency is notified upon completion. This creates a much more reliable system for keeping track of faulty meters, as well as saving a considerable amount of administrative work for all involved.

From Paper to Workflow to IoT-enabled Monitoring for Tasks, Safety, Cleaning, Temperature, and General Operations at Restaurant Chain

A large European operator of managed pubs and restaurants was using paper-based forms for pre-opening and closing checks; health and safety checks; cleaning schedules; the general manager’s checklists; corrective actions lists; and many more administrative tasks. This resulted in 3 million pieces of paper per year being filled out and manually audited by managers. This was very time consuming, error-prone, and resulted in a long lag time between reporting and fixing problems. Last year they moved onto the Nintex mobile workflow and forms system, saving over 20,000 person-hours per year of non-value-add labor and enabling much earlier awareness of problems needing resolution.

This system is used when onsite employees check the temperature in their walk-in refrigerators. That needs to be done several times a day, to make sure any deviations from the correct temperature are discovered before any spoilage happens. The new system has streamlined the process, but it is still a labor-intensive activity that interrupts important work and takes employees away from serving customers. So, they are doing a proof-of-concept test, using a temperature sensor that continually monitors the temperature. If there is a prolonged temperature excursion outside of the mandated range, it kicks off a workflow that alerts someone on site to go look at the problem and automatically adds a case (support incident) to their Salesforce system. The onsite worker then uses the mobile workflow app to report the results of their investigation into the problem, which drives the next steps through resolution. This will save an estimated additional 20,000 person hours or more of labor per year and provide more timely fixing of any temperature deviations, further reducing the chances of spoilage.

Collecting Environmental Measurements in the Field

One environmental agency has permanently deployed scientific instruments to monitor water quality in rivers, lakes, and beaches throughout their jurisdiction. These devices measure pollution levels, turbidity, and other environmental measurements. Environmental engineers go out in the field and collect data from the devices, which they used to enter onto a paper log. When they returned back to the office, the engineers had to enter the data into the system. Now they use workflow-enabled mobile devices to enter the data directly while in the field. The engineers like this, because they would rather be out in the field doing meaningful work that uses their education and skills, rather than sitting back in the office doing data entry. It also means that the data is being acquired and available for analysis in near-real time, rather than waiting a day or two for it to be entered into the system. This improves public safety, prevent­ing gaps in detection of dangerous conditions for swimming, fishing, and drinking water.

In Part Three of this series, we will look at further examples of supply chain digitization in delivery, contract management, and procure-to-pay (P2P).


1 Even better is remote collection of data from machines in the field, which can generate alerts and trigger actions in a workflow system. — Return to article text above

To view other articles from this issue of the brief, click here.

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