Evolving Supply Chain Operations with Automation
In This Case Study
Organizations around the world rely on the supply chain capabilities of World Wide Technology (WWT). With more than 4 million square feet of warehouse and integration space spread across three continents, the global solutions provider helps some of the world's largest private and public organizations deploy new technology.
Since the company was founded in 1990, WWT has reached a rare level of organic growth. What started as a small startup with no outside investment has turned into a $14B company with more than 8,000 employees and an expansive portfolio of services that touch every aspect of IT and the business.
Committing to enterprise-wide automation
With the goal of doubling the business every five years, executive leadership decided it was time to take an inventory of business processes across the organization.
"Given our historically rapid, organic growth profile, it was always challenging to take a holistic, proactive look at business processes," said Tom Strunk, CFO/COO of WWT. "How could we get end-to-end visibility of processes? How could we have more accurate and accessible data? Were there ways we could better integrate systems? These were the types of questions we wanted to answer."
In 2019, WWT launched its business process improvement (BPI) initiative with five main objectives:
- Implement simplified, standardized, automated and scalable processes and technologies.
- Deliver a predictable and consistent experience for employees.
- Deliver a frictionless experience for clients.
- Facilitate seamless partner engagements.
- Continue to grow with existing resources.
While BPI cut across every aspect of WWT, its impact was especially felt in the company's largest business unit: supply chain operations.
Unraveling a custom approach
To say WWT supply chain operations are complex would be an understatement. Staff are tasked with coordinating offshore logistics, supporting high-volume orders, assembling solutions that comprise products from suppliers on different continents and integrating legacy supply chains.
Supporting more than 2,000 clients globally and partnering with more than 100 technology manufacturers, about 270,000 lines of purchase orders are open at any given time.
Part of what has made WWT supply chain operations world class is the commitment of team members to do whatever it takes for the client. Interestingly, it's this commitment that created inefficiencies over years of growth.
Dave O'Toole has spent the past 20 years serving as the director of WWT supply chain operations.
"We were moving so fast that we were creating unique processes for every client," O'Toole said. "Our willingness to do whatever it takes for the client was actually driving a significant amount of additional processes and system needs."
If supply chain operations could standardize based on business patterns rather than creating a unique process for every client, it could reduce customer and employee friction.
"We realized we needed a more flexible and nimbler workforce that could easily move from one customer to the other because they're fundamentally leveraging the same systems and data in the same way," O'Toole said.
It was clear that before the team figured out how to automate processes, it would need a clear line of sight into all the different ways in which teams were interacting with clients. And the only way to do that was to bring people together.
Driving out duplicated work
In all, 50 stakeholders gathered for six weeks to gain visibility into how different groups were interacting with clients. There were representatives from inside sales, finance, order management, purchasing, logistics, manufacturing, program management, account managers, accounts payable and accounts receivable, company accounting roles, and treasury.
"We needed representatives from all these groups that interact with our customers, because every touch point could create variations to processes," O'Toole said. "It's really process engineering, walking through step by step to tease out all the variations and identify patterns."
Stakeholders were surprised to learn just how many ways WWT teams engaged with clients. When they began to dig deeper, they discovered a multitude of duplicated efforts. For example, a team serving public sector clients and a team serving regional enterprise clients were creating custom solutions to work around the same challenge.
When all the processes and challenges surfaced, it turned out that any client engagement could fall into one of seven business patterns. More importantly, by working off these business patterns, 50 unique and oftentimes duplicative processes could be eliminated. Standardization would also lead to more accurate and accessible data for continuous improvement.
Fifty people coming to mutual decisions and forging a path forward within six weeks might sound like a dream for many organizations. Getting executive buy-in upfront was key, according to O'Toole.
"If you don't have executive alignment, these things could easily take years to get to the point that we did," he said. "For any transformation effort, the first thing you got to do is get executive buy-in otherwise you're pushing a rope up hill and we had plenty of ropes to push up hill."
Prioritizing projects based on data
Stakeholders created a long list of potential automation projects, some short term, some long term. What they found was that suggestions often stemmed from emotions. Those leading automation efforts had to get stakeholders to shift to a data-driven mindset.
Before any automation project got the green light, stakeholders had to demonstrate the severity of an issue with hard numbers.
For example, logistics perceived an aspect of inventory transfers to be a huge problem, but the data told a different story. As it turns out, the difference in throughput if IT were to fix the issue would have a negligible impact on operations.
"We'd go evaluate an issue, see what it would take to resolve from a technology standpoint and then agree whether to move forward or put it aside and never come back to it," O'Toole said.
By working in rapid cycles and agreeing to let data drive decisions, stakeholders were able to quickly prioritize automation projects that would build momentum in the short term while moving the needle on long-term goals related to company growth.
Armed with a standardized approach to business processes and the identification of automations that would net the most impact to the business, it was time to execute.
Implementing automation at scale
Since starting down the road of improving business processes, WWT supply chain operations have implemented many automations. Here, we focus on four scalable automation solutions that have improved experiences for WWT employees and clients.
Driving efficiency with bots
Gaining visibility into any one supply chain has been difficult since the COVID-19 pandemic. In the case of WWT, visibility into multiple supply chains is needed to deliver fully integrated solutions on time.
WWT has enterprise data integration with a few longstanding partners. But as the company has grown, so has its number of partners.
In many cases, partners ask WWT purchasing staff to visit their websites for the latest information on product availability. Others periodically send an email with updates. Some don't provide any information. This inconsistency led to staff spending large parts of their days hunting down information manually.
Supply chain operations turned to robotic process automation (RPA) to drive efficiency while making life easier for employees.
Dave O'Toole, director of WWT supply chain operations, on the benefits of robotic process automation.
IT developed bots that crawl partner website for purchase order information and then automatically update WWT's enterprise resource planning system. Running behind the scenes, these bots update about 20,000 lines of purchase orders every day.
The automation has freed up thousands of hours annually, allowing team members to focus on higher-value activities.
"Instead of trying to gather all of this data, our people can work on the critical items that are getting in the way of our ability to execute," O'Toole said.
Improving lead time accuracy with machine learning
Staff members knew that vendor lead time information was less than ideal, but there was no way they could analyze all the data points related to lead times manually.
IT developed a machine learning program that analyzes what a vendor is quoting as a lead time, product availability information and what WWT historical data implies to generate the most accurate lead time for clients.
Justin Handy, lead business relationship manager for IT product management, on the value of machine learning.
Justin Handy is a lead business relationship manager for IT product management who oversaw the technical execution of automations for supply chain operations.
"In some cases, a vendor lead time is more accurate; in some cases, WWT's calculated lead time is more accurate," Handy said. "The longer it runs, the better the program gets. It's giving our customers a better experience and it's actually helping us get smarter about uncertainty."
Collapsing toolsets to create simplicity and visibility
Purchase orders have gone up close to 90 percent year over year for supply chain staff. Over time, this caused WWT buyers to pivot between seven toolsets throughout their days to keep up. For example, a buyer might have one window open for Oracle ERP, another for a custom application and another for running reports.
Automation again came to the rescue. By integrating key data elements from multiple systems and reports on the backend, IT was able to create a single, actionable management dashboard.
While this gives buyers some time back, the real win is a return to simplicity. When buyers open the new dashboard, they are confident that the vast number of things they must track are organized, accessible and managed how they see fit.
Shifting data processing for time savings
Sometimes it's the little fixes that can make a big difference.
For years, members of logistics complained about the amount of time they spent waiting for package labels to generate. On the surface, the complaints seemed like an exaggerated annoyance, but the data proved otherwise.
It turned out that team members were in fact spending an average of two minutes waiting for a label to print. The problem was that data processing was occurring on the label server. This was fine 15 years ago when there was significantly less data to process, but the label server could no longer keep up with the complexity of orders.
"It's an example of the business shifting underneath us," O'Toole said. "That's why it's so important for us to gather data based on our business in real time."
IT created an automation for label data to be sent to WWT's Oracle database for processing. Data now flows through the label server versus being processed by it, allowing labels to be generated within seconds.
Reducing printing from minutes to seconds has netted a 21 percent improvement to receiving lines per hour for logistics staff.
There are many more ways in which automation is being applied to WWT supply chain operations. At its core, however, automation is just as much about a change in approach as the benefits of specific projects.
Instead of working in silos, duplicating efforts and focusing on emotional reactions to problems, supply chain operations is increasingly moving in one direction.
"At a macro level, it was really about changing the way we work together," O'Toole said. "We're working vertically through the business and then horizontally across IT to support the business. That's what's really netted the results from a scaling perspective."
Oftentimes automation can get a bad rap for replacing peoples' jobs or adding more complexity. But usually this happens when there's not a push and strategy for enterprise-wide automation.
O'Toole said the fact that executives were 100 percent bought into optimizing supply chain operations through automation was key to building momentum. Now, the opportunities for using automation to work smarter just keep coming.
"We're all focused on the same clear initiatives which is allowing the momentum for automation to continue," O'Toole said. "The business will continue to shift underneath us but now we can pivot and adjust and not get distracted. Instead of fixing all of yesterday's problems, we're looking at what we need to do based on where we're going as a business."