The following posting can also be viewed and commented upon on the Kinaxis supply chain Expert Community web site.

Every now and then, it is important to take a step back from our everyday supply chain and procurement activities and reflect on the big-picture.  Such reflection could well uncover a brewing crisis before it becomes unwieldy, or worse, before it becomes a significant setback to business.

As I analyze various trends in cross-industry supply chain and financial performance, I have been reflecting upon why this post-recession recovery transition period has been demonstrating so many conflicting trends.  Large global manufacturing firms, for the most part, have generated rather impressive profitability results in the face of unprecedented business conditions.  Many months of cost-cutting in direct labor, overhead and supply-related costs have provided a far lower threshold to profitability, but a far leaner and vulnerable supply chain.  Some firms have taken a further step to attack any fixed cost associated with their supply chains, outsourcing the bulk of activities to contract manufacturers or key suppliers.

The end result is that many of these global manufacturing firms are amassing large amounts of cash.  The most recent analysis pegs that cumulative cash balance number in excess of $8 trillion, and Wall Street analysts are salivating on the potential for an upcoming period of increased acquisitions.  Others speculate why additional hiring has not begun.  However you view this situation, there are more fundamental stakes in play, and they directly concern supply chains.

This week, the Financial Times published an article , Industrial’s success squeezes suppliers (free preview account may be required), which perhaps gets more to the big-picture, namely that while the larger firms have been practicing financial engineering, they may well have done so at the financial risk to their smaller suppliers.

During the darkest days of the recession and continuing into this current transitionary period, smaller suppliers were forced by supply chain dominants to dramatically cut back on costs and capacity. In many cases, suppliers were mandated to absorb longer payment cycles on their accounts receivable.  Some suppliers have survived the crisis, others have not.

Now, continued uncertainty relative to the longer-term direction of the global economy has caused many of the survivors to be extra cautious before investing in added resources and/or capacity.  Those suppliers who are experiencing significant increases in demand are finding it rather difficult to borrow money to fund expansion.  The Financial Times reported last month that U.S. small businesses are having to pay more relative to the Federal Reserve’s benchmark borrowing rate then at any time in the last 25 years.

In essence, large firms have placed more strategic and tactical importance on supplier capabilities, yet still demand the same upside and downside agility as if they still owned these capabilities in-house.  In the FT article, the CFO of Caterpillar notes that this year, some Caterpillar facilities have ramped from near zero to as much as 70 percent with very little notice being provided to suppliers.  Japanese manufacturing firms who had previously built “kiretsu” partnerships with suppliers that included joint-financing assistance, are now aggressively outsourcing large portions of manufacturing to contract manufacturers.  In its article, FT concludes that “big manufacturers may well take the lesson that careful stewardship of the supply chain is important at all stages of the cycle.”

Perhaps we should not call all big manufacturing firms to task for transferring the bulk of supply chain capability to smaller suppliers without some strategic assistance.  Some firms have indeed reached out, but I suspect that the numbers are small.  What is becoming clearer, however, is that dependency on suppliers, whether large or small, is the ‘new normal’ and larger firms have higher stakes in the long-term success of these suppliers.  Perhaps some of the key parts shortages being experienced in the high tech and other industries may have root cause to the current conditions.  In any case, there is, at least in my mind, some basis for the effectiveness of “kirestsu” types of supplier partnerships.  The ‘big-picture’ is that some new form of partnership model is required, one that requires the involvement of business, financial and/or other parties.

The months of severe recession and cumulative cost cutting has shifted the supply chain risk profile.  Today’s volatile and uncertain global economy requires capabilities in supply chain agility. While technology can help with agility, strategic and partnership strategies related to suppliers may be a missing component in today’s environment.

Is your organization actively addressing this situation?

Bob Ferrari