Supply Chain Agility: Benefits and Strategies

Sourabhi Sen | Content Strategist | Nov 9, 2023

The visuals of empty store shelves during the pandemic continue to serve as an important reminder: The ability to quickly adjust supply chains to shifting market dynamics can determine a business’s overall health and impact on lives worldwide. Whether it’s demand reduction (leading to the decrease in air travel during the pandemic); a bullwhip effect (the phenomenon by which a small increase in retail demand begets progressively larger demand disruptions up the supply chain, leading to the infamous toilet paper shortage); or a raw material shortage (leading to microchip scarcity), market deviations are unpredictable. They can also be costly. Supply chain disruptions cost the average organization 45% of one year’s profits over the course of a decade, according to McKinsey research from 2020. Supply chain disruptions in the year leading up to May 2022 cost the average global organization 1.74% of its annual revenue, according to a survey by supply chain technology company Interos.

To keep up with changes and stay financially healthy, businesses need supply chains that can shift on a dime. They must be able to quickly adjust processes such as production and shipping by making decisions based on real-time data about demand, supply, inventory, and more. They also need resources that allow for supply chain adjustments which keep customers satisfied amid disruption and teams able to seize new opportunities as they arise.

What Is Supply Chain Agility?

Supply chain agility is a supply chain organization’s ability to respond efficiently and avoid making knee-jerk reactions to fluctuations in consumer demand as well as the effects of market vulnerabilities such as geopolitical crises, shortages of labor or raw materials, and acts of nature. An agile supply chain can more easily accommodate, for example, sudden demand spikes and major changes in raw material availability.

Structural Agility Versus Operational Agility

There are two broad categories of supply chain agility: structural and operational.

Structural agility refers to the ability to quickly realign procurement, inventory flows, and capacity usage across the supply chain. This requires oversight of raw materials and finished products as they move from suppliers to manufacturers to customers, as well as anticipating demand trends and supply disruptions at a granular level. Automation and seamless data flows facilitate this kind of agility. With structural supply chain agility, organizations can scale production up or down by adjusting assets across their supply chain network. A large retailer, for example, might create structural agility by integrating their inventory management software with demand forecasting to create automated stock replenishment plans. That way, the company can quickly respond to potential product shortages and prevent stockouts.

Operational agility is the ability to optimize processes throughout the supply chain for a swift response to short-term, unexpected demand and supply shifts. This type of agility comes from real-time supply chain planning, vertically integrated manufacturing, and close relationships with suppliers. For example, Tesla has a more vertically integrated supply chain than most other automakers, designing many parts and components in-house—making it less reliant on original equipment manufacturers for parts. Leveraging this vertical integration—as well as in-house software engineers, advanced automation, and direct ties with chip suppliers—Tesla redesigned their vehicles to circumvent the 2020 computer chip shortage. This operational agility helped Tesla increase production by more than 80% in 2021 while many other carmakers waited on their suppliers, which were waiting on chip manufacturers.

Structural agility Operational agility
A company’s ability to adjust its supply chain by realigning procurement, inventory, and capacity across the supply chain A company’s ability to adjust its supply chain by simplifying operations
  • Has the ability to quickly optimize asset and capacity utilization as well as reconfigure inventory flows for timely production
  • Has flexibility to scale production overall and across product lines
  • Identifies and prepares for medium- to long-term disruptions
  • Has the ability to reduce manufacturing cycle and lead times, often by leveraging vendor and supplier relationships
  • Requires real-time insight into operations and swift process realignment
  • Responds to short-term, unexpected demand and supply changes

Key Takeaways

  • Supply chain agility refers to an organization’s ability to quickly adjust its operations, production processes, and inventory management to respond to changes in demand, supply, and the market overall.
  • Organizations with agile supply chains can more easily respond to changes in consumer demand, collaborating with suppliers and departments internally to scale production up or down.
  • Agile supply chains can better manage risk because they have backup plans to account for supply chain failures, such as a raw material shortage or a natural disaster that renders a shipping partner inoperable.
  • Top ways to create supply chain agility include investing in supply planning and demand forecasting technologies, partnering with multiple suppliers, automating warehouses, and optimizing inventory levels.

Supply Chain Agility Explained

Agility is the ability to move quickly and easily. In a supply chain, that looks like quickly reconfiguring people, processes, and goods to handle variations in the market, demand, and supply while capitalizing on new opportunities. While there’s no one-size-fits-all approach to supply chain agility (because organizations vary in size and nature), the goal is to remain informed and flexible in the face of economic volatility. Companies can increase supply chain agility with targeted investments in supply chain management, which is the orchestration of the flow of goods, data, and finances related to a product or service as it moves through the production process from raw material procurement to final product delivery.

For example, Apple diversified its manufacturing partners across geographies so that it could source goods from alternate partners if supply chain disruptions rendered one impractical. That paid off when Apple needed to redesign an iPhone component shortly before launch in 2012. Apple leveraged its Asia-based manufacturing partner Foxconn’s operational flexibility and ability to scale production up and down—Foxconn produces its parts in-house and can hire 3,000 employees overnight if needed—to cost-effectively redesign the phone and its manufacturing process, getting products to customers without compromising quality.

What Makes Supply Chains Agile?

Five dimensions make a supply chain organization agile.

  • Accessibility: access to real-time data about demand, inventory, production, logistics, and other areas related to production and product delivery
  • Alertness: the ability to quickly identify changes in the market, supply, or demand, as well as opportunities (such as the potential to boost revenue) and risks (such as an impending stockout)
  • Decisiveness: the ability to make informed decisions based on that data which help the supply chain adjust to changes
  • Flexibility: the ability to adjust operations to act on a variety of decisions, such as the decision to boost production in response to a demand surge or halt production due to a sudden material shortage
  • Swiftness: the capacity to quickly execute decisions throughout the supply chain network

More specifically, agile supply chains make use of

  • Diversification of suppliers, manufacturers, carriers, and logistics providers across geographies
  • Insight into operations across the supply chain network, with access to real-time data and analytics
  • Prioritization of orders to minimize delays, maximize profit margins, and meet revenue targets
  • Scenario planning, what-if analysis, and predictive planning in robust software systems
  • Swift realignment of production and assets to maintain a steady flow of goods during disruptions
  • Zero latency capacity planning—the ability to make production capacity available as soon as the need is recognized

The Importance of Supply Chain Agility in Ecommerce

The importance of supply chain agility in ecommerce is growing. Consumer expectations continue to shift toward seamless, customized, and contactless buying journeys that span order to fulfillment, which makes ecommerce supply chain management more complex and demands agility. In response, the global ecommerce logistics market is expected to grow at a compound annual growth rate of 22.3% from 2023 to 2030, according to Grand View Research.

To increase customer loyalty and satisfaction, as well as remain financially secure, ecommerce businesses must invest in supply chain agility. They might change their warehousing strategies to store inventory nearer to customers, leverage real-time location systems to track product movements in fulfillment centers, partner with multiple shipping carriers, or create just-in-time delivery options. For example, Uber runs a freight matching marketplace that aims to bolster supply chain agility for ecommerce companies. Uber Freight works with 100,000 carrier partners so that ecommerce brands can change shipping partners quickly and easily if, for example, a natural disaster precludes working with drivers in a certain state.

Ecommerce businesses can also boost agility by implementing supply chain management software that handles online sales, customer relationship management, and payment processing. These solutions provide a deeper understanding of consumer behavior, automate processes such as demand planning, and manage relationships with suppliers, manufacturing facilities, and other supply chain partners across geographies.

10 Supply Chain Agility Benefits

Aside from giving companies a competitive advantage when responding to fluctuations in demand, supply, and market conditions, supply chain agility helps them reduce costs, improve sustainability, and more.

1. Increased responsiveness to customer demands

Supply chain agility requires keeping a constant pulse on consumer demand, both current and forecasted: Do sales show that customers demand more of product X this month? Do broad consumer behavior trends imply that they’ll want more of product Y next year? Agile supply chains have this kind of detailed, real-time insight into demand, usually via software that collects data from every party in the supply chain and uses advanced analytics to create forecasts. Agile supply chains can also quickly ramp up or slow down production in response to demand changes, thanks to simplified production processes, partnerships with multiple suppliers or manufacturers, and relatively low amounts of stock on hand.

2. Improved customer satisfaction

Agile supply chains scale production based on demand shifts. As a result, they improve customer satisfaction with their ability to meet demand. Technology is especially important here. Solutions that leverage machine learning and other advanced technologies in demand planning allow companies to sense demand shifts before competitors do, then adjust production and stock levels to prepare for demand surges. Combined with the ability to fulfill orders quickly—via multiple shipping partners or strategically placed warehouses, for example—this drives customer satisfaction.

3. Reduced inventory costs

Agile supply chains often make use of just-in-time inventory management, which involves ordering only the amount of stock needed to meet current demand. That can reduce the costs of holding inventory in a warehouse, transporting more goods than needed, or discarding unsold or obsolete inventory.

4. Improved supply chain visibility and collaboration

The technology that creates supply chain agility also creates transparency. A manufacturer might use a supplier portal, for example, to manage its multiple suppliers on a single platform so that everyone at the organization can track purchase requisitions, quotes, and goods receipts. The capacity for speedy, efficient data exchange fuels collaboration between departments and with suppliers. For example, if a distributor detects that demand for a product has dropped, it can contact suppliers immediately and halt incoming orders.

5. Increased flexibility in production and distribution processes

Companies with agile supply chains can shift production based on demand changes. A fashion retailer with the ability to predict consumer trends, source new fabrics, and quickly reconfigure production lines can develop and produce a collection with a few months’ notice to capitalize on a predicted trend and unseat competitors. Supply chain agility also means more distribution options—via partnerships with third-party logistics (3PL) providers or setting up new warehouses, for example—that allow companies to quickly change the way they transport products to customers if needed.

6. Enhanced ability to manage risk and uncertainty

Leaders of agile supply chains communicate with suppliers regularly and closely monitor their performance, so they’re alerted to any issues—such as an impending supply shortage—sooner than others and they can more readily determine whether a supplier poses compliance risks. Working with multiple suppliers reduces the risk that an issue with any one of them—for example, a power outage at a supplier’s warehouse—will render the company unable to keep production flowing or deliver to consumers.

7. Improved efficiency of operations

Optimizing processes across the supply chain, a core tenant of supply chain agility, creates efficiency. For many organizations, automation is the key to more efficient supply chain operations, from the back office to the warehouse and beyond. For example, a distributor might use software to automate order processing and warehouse robots to automate order picking so that it can quickly fill orders in case of an unexpected demand surge. Meanwhile, a supplier portal automatically delivers real-time order forecasts to suppliers so they can anticipate and prepare for purchase orders. Robust supply chain software can also help organizations make better use of multiple supplier relationships for maximum efficiency. For example, sporting equipment brand Cleveland Golf increased on-time shipments by nearly 82% using order management software from Oracle, which makes it easy to choose between fulfillment sources for time- and cost-effectiveness.

8. Reduced lead times

Supply chain agility tactics, such as pursuing vertical integration, maintaining a diverse supplier base, and sourcing materials locally, all serve to reduce lead time, the time from receiving orders to shipping products. With vertical integration, for example, manufacturers process their own raw materials or produce their own component parts to reduce lead times for sourcing and procurement. Technology can create supply chain agility and reduce lead times, too. For example, Juniper Networks used supply chain planning software from Oracle—notably the system’s backlog order management feature—to automatically prioritize open orders for fulfillment, model potential transit changes, and more, improving lead time by 20%.

9. Increased cost savings

Supply chain agility boosts cost savings in inventory management, logistics, and other areas. A few examples: An agile supply chain involves more frequent and clearer communication with suppliers, creating the opportunity to negotiate contracts with more favorable pricing. Optimized inventory levels reduce the cost of storing excess stock in warehouses. And working with multiple suppliers, fulfillment partners, and shipping carriers can reduce shipping costs.

10. Improved sustainability

Companies with agile supply chains have optimized inventory production and storage, so they expend only the natural resources—in production lines, warehouses, and other venues—necessary to manufacture and store products, improving environmental sustainability. The logistical efficiency of an agile supply chain also cuts down on unnecessary truck, plane, and boat shipments and the greenhouse gases they usually emit. Sustainability also involves social and economic factors. An agile supply chain improves social sustainability, for example, by providing manufacturers the ability to switch suppliers if one proves to use unethical labor practices. An agile supply chain’s prioritization of efficiency means that economic sustainability, or the ability to drive growth while minimizing environmental and social impact, also improves.

7 Supply Chain Agility Strategies

Seven strategies are particularly helpful in boosting supply chain agility. With these strategies, companies don’t simply survive unexpected changes in supply, demand, and the market; they continue delivering products and generating revenue amid these changes.

1. Demand forecasting

Companies can create agile supply chains by investing in demand forecasting software that involves predictive analytics, the application of AI, statistics, and modeling techniques to analyze vast data sets. Inventory management and demand planning software with predictive analytics produce more accurate forecasts for consumer demand as well as more general consumer behaviors and stock replenishment needs. With these forecasts, businesses can fine-tune manufacturing resources and inventory levels to meet demand, avoiding both stockouts and excess stock.

2. Synchronized production and scheduling

Production scheduling involves maximizing efficiency in the manufacturing process by synchronizing a company’s stock needs with its capacity in terms of machinery, labor, raw material lead times, and more. It involves carefully planning which orders to fulfill, in which sequence, to minimize machine downtime, waste, and delay in delivering finished goods. Companies that have tightly synchronized their production and scheduling can adjust production schedules for quick responses to demand changes. For example, when hit with an unexpected shortage of a particular widget, a manufacturer can swiftly reallocate its machinery and labor resources to work on products that don’t require those widgets.

3. SKU reorder points

The SKU reorder point is the point at which a business must reorder inventory of a particular item to avoid stockouts. Calculating SKU reorder points makes the supply chain more agile by ensuring companies order only the stock they need, and only when they need it, so they aren’t caught with too little or too much stock amid demand shifts. The formula to calculate the SKU reorder point is the following:

SKU reorder point = (average daily sales x lead time in days) + safety stock

Automating this calculation with software that incorporates past and real-time sales and supplier data allows for even faster, more effective reactions to changes, such as holiday demand spikes for a specific product.

4. Real-time data

Companies with an agile supply chain communicate with their suppliers and partners in manufacturing, logistics, and distribution easily and often—ideally through a cloud-based supply chain management platform—and share real-time data throughout the network. This quality of data and type of connectivity allow all parties in the supply chain to proactively make decisions that affect them collectively. For example, imagine a manufacturing facility’s production and packaging of a commodity will be completed in three days versus the forecasted two days. Its software system automatically triggers an alert as soon as the deviation is detected, and logistics providers are notified to pick up commodities for shipment at a specific date and time.

5. Warehouse automation

Automating warehouse processes helps the supply chain react faster to changes in supply and demand. A cloud-based warehouse management system can automate order processing—which includes picking, packing, and shipping—while Internet of Things (IoT) technologies such as smart shelves and sensors automatically track inventory levels and movements. Meanwhile, autonomous mobile robots automate tasks such as order picking and unloading shipments. Automating these types of warehouse processes might, for example, help a distributor ship its average order 24 hours faster. That way, if demand suddenly spikes, the distributor can meet it while a competitor with slower, manual warehouse processes misses out on the revenue opportunity.

6. Geographic warehousing

By analyzing revenue, customer, and SKU data, companies can configure their supply network and warehouse facilities to best serve the most profitable customers and products, a strategy known as geographic warehousing. For example, if 500 SKUs in a product set of 1,000 SKUs tend to sell to 10 of a distributor’s largest customers in a specific state, then it might expand warehouses in that region. It can then deliver to those valuable customers even when bad weather shuts down air freight because the warehouse is close enough to deliver by truck.

7. Third-party logistics

Companies can build supply chain agility by tapping into the resources of third-party logistics (3PL) providers, which offer outsourced warehousing, fulfillment, and transportation services. For example, a retailer with four warehouses might partner with a 3PL that operates 15 warehouses across the United States. The retailer gains the ability to ship from alternate locations in the event of demand surge in the Southwest or inclement weather in the Northeast.

Leverage Oracle’s Supply Chain Agility for Your Business

With Oracle Fusion Cloud Supply Chain & Manufacturing (SCM), businesses get control of and insight into the entire supply chain—including orders, manufacturing, logistics, and delivery—to create a connected network that stays ahead of market changes. Oracle Fusion Cloud Supply Chain Planning helps organizations respond quickly to changing demand and supply, while Oracle Fusion Cloud Manufacturing lets them take advantage of technologies including IoT and predictive analytics to scale production up and down, get real-time insight into inventory levels, and prevent machine failures to reduce costly unplanned downtime.

Supply Chain Agility FAQs

What is an example of an agile supply chain?
GE Power has an agile supply chain because leadership can scenario plan for potential shortages of raw materials or manufacturing capacity, then make changes to the production process before any changes affect product delivery. The team also used supply chain planning software to shorten the demand forecasting process from about five days to half a day, so they now adjust supply to the most current demand levels instead of planning production based on outdated data.

Why is an agile supply chain important?
An agile supply chain is important because it allows companies to respond to changes in supply and consumer demands and remain profitable in uncertain economic times. From a consumer’s perspective, agile supply chains promptly bring essential products to market at an affordable price, despite any production delays.

Why do businesses need agility?
Businesses need agility to adjust to unexpected external and internal changes, remaining financially healthy. Without agility, a business can’t adapt to the challenges of the ever-evolving market and could become financially insolvent.

Deliver bottom-line results faster with a supply chain command center

Supply chains are now at the core of any business decision. With increasing supply and demand variability, supply chain leaders need to make big decisions faster than ever before. To stay competitive, you need to quickly detect, decide, and execute on any business condition.