Supply Chain Lessons from “Avengers: Age of Ultron”

Optimize supply chain; save humanity.

Ultron-esque
Supply Chain Ultron. Getty Images

When Iron Man, Captain America, and the rest of the Avengers again erupt onto the big screen, we’re going to feast on a cornucopia of high-stakes action, eye-popping special effects, and superhero-sized angst. From all accounts, saving the world over and over again can grow tiresome. And, just like those of us punching clocks at our 9-to-5’s, Earth’s Mightiest Heroes can get a little glassy-eyed with the repetition of their daily workflow.

Oh, and by the way, the flick looks way cool.

Here are the four things we know about “Avengers: Age of Ultron” – 1) It looks way cool (did I mention that already?).  2) It will make more money on its opening weekend than Tony Stark has tied up in all his many iron suits – and deservedly so. 3) It will be dissected every which way to Asgard and back. 4) Just about the only way the movie hasn’t been analyzed is through the prism of a supply chain. Until now.

So, yes, the Avengers inadvertently created a super being bent on destroying all of humanity. Supply chain is here to help.

Lesson #1.  Automating your processes. Without needing to type the words “spoiler alert” – here’s what you ought to know going in. The Avengers, tired of doing the same job over and over again, need a break. Tony Stark decides to replace the “protecting the Earth” part of their job with automation. This is like when you realized you could replace all that scrolling and pecking through an Excel spreadsheet with a macro.

But make sure your formulas are correct. Seems like Tony should have maybe asked Ultron to protect “the people of Earth” instead of just “Earth” (see below). 

What this super-error highlights is the need for auditing and reconciliation of your automated processes.  When you installed your resource planning system, what parameters did you use to establish lead times, re-order points, safety stocks, etc.?

Don’t let your automation go unchecked. Be sure to review how it’s performing on a regular basis and continually align it with your business objectives. If you don’t, well, let’s just hope you have a super team of supply chain pros on speed dial. 

Lesson #2.  Integrated, cross-functional teamwork. And speaking of a super team, two of the most iconic images from the first Avengers movie were the swirling shot of the Avengers ready to do battle in New York and the team shoulder-to-shoulder staring down Loki. The lesson of Part 1 was – united we stand, divided the world falls to the Chitauri. Oh, and it helps to have a Hulk to smash things. For Part 2, it looks like that lesson of teamwork comes into play. The early trailers showed mostly individual shots of our heroes in various states of distress. But – just like in your company – a cross-functional, optimized team is what’s needed to get the job done. 

Supply chain has an impact across the broad spectrum of your company’s business functions.  Sales wants to sell something? Supply chain has to deliver it. Finance wants to value your company? Supply chain dictates the cost of goods and inventory value. R&D wants to develop a new product?

 Supply chain can tell them if it’s produce-able to meet finance’s margin targets and marketing’s timelines. Just like assembling Avengers, the right cross-functional teamwork within your company can save the day.  

Lesson #3.  Inventory optimization/reduction. Do you know what you have in your warehouse and what it’s costing you? If you’re Ultron, apparently, you can replace “warehouse” with “Planet Earth” and “What it’s costing you” is peace. So what’s a super sentient, all-powerful being supposed to do – when your sole purpose is to keep the peace? And the cause of all the non-peace in the world is that pesky little human infestation. Getting rid of them is obviously Job One. People of Earth, you are slow-moving/obsolete inventory and Ultron, your supply chain manager, needs to scrap you out of the system.

 

Just like Ultron, you can optimize your supply chain by identifying obsolete inventory and scrapping it.  You’ll also need to put processes in place to prevent obsolete inventory from creeping back into your supply chain. But if you are Ultron, maybe I could implore you to take another look at your inventory and see that we’re not completely obsolete (although some us are a little slow-moving).

Lesson #4.  Designing your supply chain. Listen, I’m a grown man with a job and a family and I just don’t have time to compare a comic book series (no matter how awesome) to a superhero movie (no matter how way cool). Let’s just say that in the comic book Henry Pym built Ultron and it looks like Stark built it in the movie. What does this have to do with supply chain? Excellent question. I’m going with “the comic book looked one way and the movie looks another way.” Now, what does that have to do with supply chain? Because you, supply chain pro, get to decide what your supply chain looks like. If you don’t want Ant-Man designing your robot, so be it. Your job is to optimize supply chain (i.e. delivering your customer what it wants, when it wants it – and do that by spending the least amount of money possible). Your job isn’t to maintain the status quo. 

Don’t take it from me; emulate Joss Whedon. Whedon provided customer satisfaction, on-time delivery, and excellent quality by taking an existing universe and redesigning it. Do you have silos instead of an integrated supply chain team? Then put planning, purchasing, customer service and your logistics team in the same bullpen. Too many suppliers? Consider a supplier rationalization and the cost savings you can get from that activity. Warehousing costs through the roof? Put your 3PL function out for RFQ. 

Study your metrics, understand how your supply chain impacts your overall business and build a supply chain that reduces costs, maintains 100% accuracy and delivers on time to your customers. And if you ever – ever – get tired of saving the day, please build your super robot with an easy to reach on-off switch.