• Alistair Winter

Using data to make a difference in our supply chain

Problem: The plethora of data available to us, not enough time, patience, desire or understanding.


Farming: arable, livestock, flowers, fruit, veg, energy production, all of these are driven by the need to maximise returns and to drive the bottom right hand corner of the Profit and Loss Report. Increased competition, political instability (home and abroad) and rapid inflation in all quarters means that marginal gains and best use of time and effort is more important than ever.


The big wins have mostly been had and we are starting to move forward by looking back in terms of regenerative methods and maximising environmental benefits and peripheral support schemes. There no longer appears to be a normal year in terms of growing or consumption, so forecasts and budgets are harder to predict hence making them ultimately hard to deliver on; soft budgets don't deliver to shareholders and investors, and over ambitious ones are built on sand.


'Marginal Gains', 'Improve a 100 things by 1% not one thing by 100%' are phrases we know and have heard so many times, but are difficult to act upon unless project teams are launched at a financial or time cost, either adding burden to the bottom line or placing extra pressure on already time lean team members. Businesses are resistant to change primarily through fear - this is well documented - the spreadsheet can be trusted (in theory) as it is self built and maintained; the email receipt of information is a near physical acknowledgement of information or message, the ticket book is a physical manifest albeit an expensive one for what it offers.


All of these are effectively comfort blankets which we all crave in pressured environments and it is easy to say, 'it works, don't change'. BUT what if we did change, WHAT could be unlocked, HOW could it offer improvements. To do this, to take a step (no matter how small), the following key things have to satisfied:

  • Trust

  • Simplicity

  • Integrity

  • Return

  • Accuracy

  • Realism

If these could all be answered and relied upon then change is unlocked, surely...


Optimising and use of data appropriately can and will save time but there has to be the initial investment and leap of faith to reap these rewards. We are exposed hundreds of times a day to apps and platforms that can save or burn (not waste) your time, we use these because they enhance our lives through stimulation, time saved or fiscal benefit but they have to work and be reliable.


A recent meeting yielded, "the problem is any app is measured against your banking app, your music app, Amazon, etc - they all work", this comment was borne of frustration but was so pertinent, and reinforced that any supplier/ customer interaction is only as good as its most recent experience good or bad. Unfortunately it is always easier to remember the bad as opposed to praise the good.


So why manage the data well? It has to save time (hence money), be transparent but secure, not glitch or falter, be well and quickly supported. No one wants to wait, remove the spreadsheet because it may be yours, but it isn't secure and a misstruck key will throw formulas, change forecasts and poorly predict outcomes. App users have the tech in their pockets, there is no need to sit down at the end of the day to duplicate work; no need to bring a laptop into a dusty or wet environment, no duplicate/ triplicate books, reduced waste and resources employed. However, digitisation can enable purchase orders and inventories to be automatically updated, historical records at your fingertips, standardisation, automatic updates, offline working - not all platforms offer this but it is so important.


To run and manage the platform to its best benefit, it must be led from a customer and product level; benefit for either can’t exist without the other. A constant loop of feedback, customer service, visible product roadmaps and delivery of what it says on the tin is the bedrock for agri-tech software to adapt and move forward and not get buried or left behind. Listening internally and externally to the business is critical for this and having the belief and temerity to say 'that doesn't work, let's drop it' to continually posing the question of 'why can't it be done'.


In summary, we tend to know what we are doing and have done it well for a while. But by questioning methodology, adopting new practices and really understanding the benefit to time and resources that effectively use the wealth of data that is available to us, could unlock the extra 1%. That small piece of headroom that all contributes to a smoother process and an improved bottom line. Implementation, perseverance and team buy in are critical in adopting any change, but to stand still and do nothing is a missed opportunity.


About the Author

Alistair who has spent two decades in the fresh produce industry and comes from a farming background in Lincolnshire, wants to help improve efficiencies and profitability in the entire supply chain from farm to end customer.


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