The best companies create supply chains that can respond to sudden and unexpected changes in markets. AgilityThe ability to respond quickly and cost-effectively to unexpected change.—the ability to respond quickly and cost-effectively to unexpected change—is critical because in most industries, both demand and supply fluctuate more rapidly and widely than they used to. In fact, the best companies use agile supply chains to differentiate themselves from rivals. For instance, Zara has become Europe’s most profitable apparel brands by building agility into every link of their supply chains. At one end of the product pipeline, Zara has created an agile design process. As soon as designers spot possible trends, they create sketches and order fabrics. That gives them a head start over competitors because fabric suppliers require the longest lead times. However, the company approves designs and initiates manufacturing only after it gets feedback from its stores. This allows Zara to make products that meet consumer tastes and reduces the number of items they must sell at a discount. At the other end of supply chain, the company has created a superefficient distribution system. In part because of these decisions, Zara has grown at more than 20% annually since the late 1990s, and its double-digit net profit margins are the envy of the industry.
Agility and resiliency have become more critical in recent years because sudden shocks to supply chains have become more frequent. The terrorist attack in New York in 2001, the dockworkers’ strike in California in 2002, and the SARS epidemic in Asia in 2003, for instance, disrupted many companies’ supply chains.
Agility and resiliency help supply chains recover more quickly from such sudden setbacks. When, in September 1999, an earthquake hit Taiwan, shipments of computer components to the United States were delayed by weeks and, in some cases, by months. Most computer manufacturers, such as Compaq, Apple, and Gateway, could not deliver products to customers on time and incurred losses. One exception was Dell. The company changed the prices of PC configurations overnight to steer consumer demand away from hardware built with components that were not available to machines that did not require those parts. Dell could do this because it had contingency plans in place. Not surprisingly, Dell gained market share in the earthquake’s aftermath.Lee (2004, October).
Supply-chain agility and resilience no longer imply merely the ability to manage risk. It now assumes that the ability to manage risk means being better positioned than competitors to deal with—and even gain advantage from—disruptions. Key to increasing agility and resilience is building flexibility into the supply-chain structure, processes, and management.Sheffi (2005, October).