Management tools are a dime a dozen. And yet, contrary to popular belief, most of them are good and helpful if used correctly and in an adequately defined context.
In “Tool Box Talks” we introduce you to common and less well-known tools and show you how you can exploit their potential for your enterprise, with today’s focus on the PDCA-Cycle.

What is the PDCA Cycle and when should it be used?

The PDCA Cycle, also called Deming Cycle or, after his inventor Walter A. Shewhart, Shewhart Cycle, is a process and quality improvement tool. It helps to systematically enhance internal procedures and practices by constantly checking in what way an adaptation of processes leads to different results.

The PDCA Cycle starts with the initial state of affairs, which is to be improved in a first step of improvement, with more to follow. This approach implies that processes are gradually improved and it unsuitable for designing processes from scratch or fundamentally changing them. What is more, the PDCA Cycle presupposes a cause-and-effect relationship between adapting processes and measurable changes of results. So before you apply this method, you should know well what the causal connections of the process in question are.

How is the PDCA Cycle used?

To reach a certain aim when using the PDCA Cycle to improve processes, you do this in four steps (cf. “How continuous improvement may succeed“):

  1. Plan
  2. Do
  3. Check
  4. Act

The first stage (“Plan”) defines what modification the process is to undergo and what will be the result expected from this adaption. The consequent implementation (“Do”) puts the planned measures into effect. If you use a special testing environment because, say, you want to protect running internal processes from unforeseen side-effects of your measure, you make sure that your testing environment diplays the real conditions in your company, so that you will be able to apply your insights to running processes.
In the third phase (“Check”) you compare the observed results of process adaptation with your expectations. Especially if the results do not match your predictions, you’ll have to find out why the measure diverges from your assumptions. Finally (“Act”) you update your knowledge about the relevant process and its documentation.

To reach the initially defined objective of optimisation, the PDCA Cycle is applied not once but several times until the final aim is reached, with each iteration gradually improving the process or the knowledge about it.

Avoiding the pitfall

Most customers find it easy to plan and implement an optimising measure. However, instead of checking the result (C), adapting the knowledge of the process (A) and planning a new strategy for improvement on this basis (P), in many cases the only response is a new set of activities – downgrading PDCA to PDR (plan-do-react).

The reasons for this behaviour range from a lack of measurable exptations to a loose work ethic. The result is always the same: The well-thought-out methodology of the PDCA Cycle is interrupted and rather than gradually improving processes, they fall victim to a blind testing of random measures. If processes should be improved despite the odds, they are so by mere accident, not by a systematic approach that follows clear guidelines. What you want to achieve, however, is a predictable and sustainable improvement.

What use does the PDCA Cycle have?

If used consistently, the PDCA Cycle will have a double benefit: for one thing, it ensures permanent gradual improvement of processes to which it is applied; for another, it leads to a precise understanding of the process and the way it relates to other internal processes as the current knowledge about the process is constantly reviewed and adapted if need be.

Follow us on Xing and LinkedIn to learn on a regular basis how you can make the most of management tools, so that you will stay one step ahead of your competitors.

“Nobody could have foreseen Covid19 – or couldn’t they?” – The introductory question of an interview sequence about risk management conducted by “Businesstalk am Kudamm” reveals how unprepared many companies were when hit by the pandemic. While it is true that the Robert Koch Institute published a study in as early as 2012 showing what might happen in the case of a similar epidemic outbreak, the results of this scenario have been widely ignored by entrepreneurial strategists. Still, scenario planning can, more than any other instrument, help develop robust strategies for an uncertain future.

Crafting suitable scenarios

In his recent Harvard Business review “Learning from the future” [3], J. P. Scoblic emphasises that companies have to bridge the gap between long-term planning and short-term optimisation. While the first requires a prudent consideration of what will, could and might be, the latter demands focus on current processes, data and trends.
Here scenario planning helps to close the gulf in an ideal way, by combining analysis of current developments with an anticipation of the future. Creating scenarios means that present trends and dependencies are used to explore plausible far-future worlds, with a special focus on critical uncertainties.

Constructing robust strategies

Such a scenario planning typically results in a set of realistic scenarios which are also as distinct and dramatic as possible. In a next step, the company has to devise a strategy for its organisation and to put it to the test in the drawn-up scenarios.

Similar to scenario planning processes, strategic planning, too, combines what is relevant now with what might be in the future. In this context, it’s a company’s present environment in the form of existing capabilities, capacities and freedom of action that a strategic planning will start with. The relevant scenarios then show what challenges the organisation will have to face in the future.

The developed strategy usually refers to one scenario only. In the following test this strategy is adapted to the remaining scenarios. If a strategy is robust, it proves itself to be successful in all – or at least most – of the devised visions of the future.

Successfully ingraining these strategies

To ensure that reconciling short-term optimisation and long-term planning has been really successful, a third element has to be considered when it comes to scenario planning, and that is integrating it into the organisational structure of the respective company. Here, too, a balance must be struck between current developments and future unpredictabilities, thus helping to master the challenges described by J. P. Scoblic.

Ingraining scenario planning into a company is carried out in two directions: One goes from the scenario to the entrepreneurial context, the other leads from current external and internal developments to the scenarios. The first step is that all persons responsible for implementing the company’s strategy are constantly reminded that the depicted alternative futures are relevant to their decisions. In this way the drivers for and the relevance of the strategy are kept alive and future planning becomes more self-aware, thorough and prudent.

The second step in integrating scenario exercises in a company’s culture is to review critically the scenarios themselves at appropriate, regular intervals and to update them. Hypotheses which have proven to be unrealistic have to be replaced by new ones and the process has to be reiterated, at least partially. This will guarantee that the scenarios will stay relevant to the company and thus contribute to optimise strategic planning.

  1. Businesstalk am Kudamm (2020): „Corona wurde vorausgesehen
  2. Robert Koch-Institut (2012): „Bericht zur Risikoanalyse im Bevölkerungsschutz 2012
  3. J. Peter Scoblic (2020): „Learning from the future

Management tools are a dime a dozen. And yet, contrary to popular belief, most of them are good and helpful if used correctly and in an adequately defined context.
In “Tool Box Talks” we introduce you to common and less well-known tools and show you how you can exploit their potential for your enterprise, with today’s focus on the risk register.

What is a risk register and when should it be used?

The risk register is a risk management tool. Depending on the focus of the risk management activities, it documents risks related to a product, a project, a department or an entire enterprise. Though the tool stays the same for each of the perspectives mentioned, we strongly recommend having one independent risk register per perspective to avoid misinterpretation of the documented information (see “Do risk evaluations lead to faulty decisions?”).

A risk register should be used whenever risks need to be documented. The format of the risk register varies, depending on to the needs of the situation. An ad-hoc analysis, for example, generally requires less background information to be documented to be helpful than is needed for an extensive risk evaluation accompanying a complex and long running project. This difference in scope is reflected in the extent of the risk register. Besides the scope, the maturity of an organisation impacts the appearance of a risk register, which may be as simple as a spreadsheet or as complex as an integrated database using artificial intelligence for data completion and linking of information.

How is a risk register applied?

The simplest form of a risk register is a table listing all information required for risk management. The rows represent the individual risks while various pieces of information are organised in columns.
A basic set of risk information, i.e. columns in the risk register, are

  1. a continuous labelling for risk identification,
  2. an acurate description of the risk itself (i.e. what may happen and how does it affect the goals?)
  3. an estimation of the probability of occurrence,
  4. an evaluation of the impact and
  5. a proposal of a risk response.

There is much more information which may be included in a risk register, depending on the context.
Two approaches lend themselves as blueprints for adding information to a risk register in the context of a risk analysis. The most convenient one is working row by row, i.e. identifying one risk and then adding all related information before going on with the next risk. This approach follows intuition and thus is easy to facilitate. However, it also results in rather lengthy workshops and is therefore tiring. Alternatively, you may want to focus on the risk identification and description first and add all other information later. This approach shortens risk analysis workshops but also required a much more disciplined facilitation.

Beware of pitfall!

A risk register documents individual risks and their evaluation in a defined context. A common pitfall is to add up the individual risks and assume this number represents the overall product, project or organisational risk. Though this may be true in some rare instances, generally the actual product, project or organisational risk is significantly lower than the sum of the individual risks. The reason for this deviation between the overall risk and the sum of individual risks are dependencies between risks which are neglected if simply added up.

The transfer of risk information from one context to another is another topic to be aware of. Risk is defined as the “effect of uncertainty on objectives” (see ISO 31000:2018). Thus, if risks are transferred from one context to another, they need to be re-evaluated as generally the objectives shift with the context. Copy-paste of risk information from one risk register to risk register in a different context is simply wrong.

What is the use of a risk register?

A risk register summarises all information on risks within a defined context. Thus, it provides all data required for an effective risk management for the product, project or organisation. It also documents risk management-related activities by capturing changes in the evaluation of risks or decisions how to respond to risks. Therefore, the risk register allows for a detailed overview of risks and how they are managed.

Follow us on LinkedIn to learn on a regular basis how you can make the most of management tools, so that you will stay one step ahead of your competitors.

Especially in smaller companies, processes tend to become closely linked to those employees who are responsible for their execution. Over time, these employees have created their workflows according to their needs. The tasks along the process fit seamlessly into the daily workload, they exactly know what to do and the results are fine.

But when these employees quit their job, the new process owner faces the challenge to manage a grown and often not well documented process. Keeping the process functional is a tough task, and if external partners are involved in the workflow, complexity raises exponentially.

In such a situation, three steps help to ensure continuity and support optimisation of the process passed on to the new process owner.

1. Understand the Current Process Setup

First, the new process owner should understand how the process is actually working. In this step it is helpful to visualise the flow of information and products with the support of all internal partners, e.g. in a value chain analysis.

It is helpful to include the former process owner in such an exercise as he has both the relevant process knowledge and the necessary experience. However, to avoid conflict, focus on recording the status quo and do not question the way things are as this will be taken as criticism by your predecessor. Rather, ask questions on how the process actually works and how the former process owner has contributed to its success. In this way you will pay tribute to the leaving employee and get an accurate picture of the process.

2. Internal Process Optimisation

While you avoided questioning the status quo in the beginning, you should do exactly that in the next step, of course without the former process owner. The internal process optimisation is a task for the new process owner and should be supported by all internal process partners.

The optimisation should follow the procedure described in How to optimise internal business processes: Set the objectives, get to know the status quo (see Step 1), choose a suitable method, get the optimisation project done and integrate the improvements into existing structures. Besides, common pitfalls which unneccisarily slow down the process should be removed (see Three factors that slow down business processes)

3. Optimise External Interfaces

Finally, the interfaces with external partners should be improved. This step should be done as early as possible to avoid issues at the interfaces in the transition from the old to the new process owner. However, the internal processes should already be re-aligned before reaching out to externals.

The optimisation of external interfaces is best done in a workshop – either face-to-face or virtually. Within the workshop, a shared process understanding is established, interfaces are analysed, and weak spots are identified. An external facilitator with an unbiased view may support the process and mediate between partners if necessary.

It is important to create a positive atmosphere for the workshop where people feel appreciated to enable open and constructive feedback from all participants. Group dynamics need to be cared for from the beginning to avoid conflicts between individuals or groups. Here, different tools like a group exercise may be used to relax the atmosphere and create awareness for potential issues. Working with breakout groups, for example, allows for deep dives on selected interfaces.

The output of the external process optimisation should be an action list including all measures defined by all internal and external partners. Once implemented, these measures will help the partners involved in the process to contribute more efficiently and effectively to the process.

If you wish to know more about or need support with improving processes in a transition from one process owner to another, please get in touch with us and learn how we may support you.

Management tools are a dime a dozen. And yet, contrary to popular belief, most of them are good and helpful if used correctly and in an adequately defined context.
In “Tool Box Talks” we introduce you to common and less well-known tools and show you how you can exploit their potential for your enterprise, with today’s focus on the SWOT analysis.

What is a SWOT analysis and when should it be used?

A SWOT analysis examines an organisation’s present state of affairs, taking a look at two dimensions:

  1. An organisation’s potential (looking on the inside) will reveal strengths and weaknesses;
  2. an organisation’s environment (looking on the outside) will unmask opportunities and threats.

This investigation of internal and external factors helps to assess the current state of affairs in a very precise and exact way.
Where SWOT analyses are performed is in strategic planning processes as these often require an exact status assessment as a first input, which can be conveniently generated by a SWOT analysis.

How is a SWOT analysis carried out?

The first step in any SWOT analysis is to define its context, i.e. that the subject in question has to be described, for example a company, an organisation (or a part of it) or a concrete product or service. Plus, you need to decide what the focus of the analysis is to be. Depending on the nature of the strategic planning processes relevant to the SWOT analysis, this can be, for example, a company’s branding as employer, its positioning in a specific market segment or the product portfolio.
Having set the analytic frame, the actual analysis can begin and strengths and weaknesses, opportunities and threats for the issue in question are defined. If the analysis is about a product (subject of analysis) that is to be introduced into a new market (perspective), the following four questions can be helpful:

  • What strengths does the product have relevant to the market?
  • What weaknesses does the product have significant for the market?
  • What opportunities does the new market offer which the product is to open up?
  • What threats are there with regard to the new market which can impede a product’s introduction?

In any SWOT analysis, people with different backgrounds should be involved, for example staff from different departments or with varying functions or external experts. If available, you should also use data relevant to the analysis. If a product is to be introduced, this can be market analyses or comparisons with products sold by competitors.

Beware of pitfall!

The greatest danger when making use of a SWOT analysis is the failure to pinpoint its context. If its definition is not appropriate or precise enough, the results, too, will be at best vague, sometimes even contradictory.
If, for instance, the context of a SWOT analysis is only roughly outlined as “the new product”, using a modular construction system can be interpreted both as strength (“can easily be aligned with customers’ demands”) and as weakness (“is difficult to handle in terms of production and logistics”).

What is the use of a SWOT analysis?

A SWOT analysis helps to create a comprehensive and exact representation of how things really are. It is not limited to the organisation or the product itself, but also takes into account a company’s external business environment.
This information is the input to further strategic planning processes, which often centre around questions like:

  • How can we use strengths to seize opportunities?
  • What weaknesses prevent us from doing so?
  • What threats are likely to come up due to our present weaknesses?
  • Which of these four areas needs to be addressed?

This list is in no way exhaustive and should be adjusted to present needs.

Follow us on LinkedIn to learn on a regular basis how you can make the most of management tools, so that you will stay one step ahead of your competitors.

The project of launching into a new line of business was going off really well: highly motivated, the project team was supported by the board and all important internal and external stakeholders. But it only took a few weeks until there was a spanner in the works. The expected project targets of the different stakeholders seemed to be shifting from one week to the next, the project lead was facing ever new expectations of results and after a while the first doubts about the whole project’s usefulness for the enterprise were voiced. After only three months essential resources were withdrawn from the project and six weeks later the project came to a final halt.

Such or similar situations unfortunately occur rather frequently. Projects are being initiated and planned in the best possible way, but then they are lagging behind expectations or are being stopped half-way. In most cases what is at the heart of this failure is not the way project activities were planned or managed, but often a bad set-up. If you take the following three-step approach, you can avoid the most common pitfalls and significantly increase your chances for project success.

The qualitative and quantitative description of targets for the identified parameters should be a matter of course – regardless of whether these are strategic projects or, as described in this article, optimization initiatives.

Defining the target

When a project is being outlined, first and foremost its targets should be clearly defined. These targets describe what the project should achieve in the organisation’s business. The more precise and specific the definition of these targets, the easier it will be to plan the project and assess at what stage it will be judged successful.

If you set out to define your project’s targets in a way that is clear to all, you need to pay careful attention to your wording. The language you use should be succinct, unambiguous and easy to understand. In this way you will ensure that everybody has the same understanding of what you are saying.

To make the description of your project targets more objective, it is helpful to set up KPIs. Make sure, however, that they really reflect the established targets and are not just measurable but arbitrary variables, irrelevant for target achievement.

Finally, you should formulate target values for these KPIs. Again, this will guarantee that all people involved in the project will have the same idea of what the project is to achieve and when exactly this will be the case.

Describing project results

Having defined the project’s targets, you need to formulate the expected results. While the targets of a project say what is to be achieved by the project, project results describe what the project team has to deliver to the client after the project’s completion or at adequate milestones.

This can comprise reports, technical documents, prototypes or other things, depending on the project’s nature and its context.

With project results, just as is true for target definitions, the first step should be a description of expected project results. Bear in mind to note down not only the final, but also possible interim results, especially so if they represent crucial milestones for the further development of the project.

Next you should negotiate with your client about the form in which the results are to be handed in. The better you pin down deadlines and details even before the project is kicked off, the less you will need to double-check and revise while the project is on, when usually there is no time for lengthy discussions.

Before you go on to the next stage in defining the project, you should align the expected results with the initially set targets. The project results should always explicitly refer to the project’s targets or should make it clear that the targets have already been reached. Any discrepancy between the project’s targets and its results strongly suggests that targets or results have not, or only poorly, been put into words.

Specifying the project’s benefit

The third step links the project with its context by outlining its benefit for the company. This brings in questions like: “What problem is the project meant to solve?” Or: “How is the project connected with other activities?”

If you have found satisfying answers to these strategic questions, you should align them with the set targets by finding out if reaching these targets will really lead to the expected benefit. Should this not be the case, you will have to modify the targets.

Similarly, you should check if the expected results accord with the intended benefit. Again, if these two elements do not match you should make necessary adjustments to the results.
Having completed all three stages of project start-up, you can be sure that your project will be integrated into the strategic framework of the company and that clients, stakeholders and project team members alike will have the same understanding of the project’s targets and results – the bottom line of project success.

In the past few months your company spent a lot of time and effort into optimising their internal processes. Jobs and the separate process steps were scanned closely for potential weaknesses, and improved where possible. In the end all identified weak spots were addressed – and yet, the actual lead time was way behind the set target.

We have already described options for process optimization and continuous improvement in previous releases and know that if individual process steps are analysed and enhanced, the overall processes can be accelerated considerably. But often the real reasons why they are too slow go unnoticed as they are hidden in the interfaces between process steps.

Factor 1: Loops

In most cases delay is caused by the necessity to do rework whenever you have to loop back to a previous process step already completed. Just as there are different root causes for such rework, there are different approaches to identify and remove it.

Whenever rework is necessary to correct a mistake, this creates an unnecessary process loop. Process analysis, statistical data about errors or faulty products are useful tools to find out what flaws trigger the loop. The best way to address this problem is, obviously, to improve the workflow in a way that it runs smoothly. Alternatively, recognising errors as soon as possible minimises the waste of time due to rework.

Often, particularly in administrative processes, loops are the result of missing bits of information. Any query about earlier stages of a process costs time, especially so if the person responsible for the issue is not available. A systematic record of queries or direct interviews with relevant process participants can help identify possible weaknesses. Once the problem has been pinpointed, the interfaces between the respective process steps have to be adjusted I a way that all relevant information is being passed on, thus making further inquiries unnecessary.

Factor 2: Missing input

Just as loops caused by further inquiries waste time, so does information not gathered in time slow down business processes. The timing of when this specific input is being provided is particularly relevant in complex processes with two (or more) sub-processes.

In principle, there are two approaches to remedy such problems concerning interfaces. One straightforward fix is a Kanban system, so that the entire and complete input necessary for a certain process step is available when needed. Whenever the flow of goods and information has to be actively regulated, this method should be chosen. If, however, active input management is difficult to realise, it is advisable to work with a check list. In this way you can make sure in advance if all necessary input parameters are at hand before you start a process.

Factor 3: Idle time

In most cases it is idle time in the form of waiting that slows down processes. Whenever you do not directly move on to the next process step but keep your goods or data on hold, you are stuck in idle time.
To identify such periods of unproductive waiting, you have to scan critically the flow of goods and data within a process. Once you have found in the process chain the bottlenecks responsible for regularly creating idle time lost with waiting, you need to adjust the respective interfaces, either by a Kanban system or by implementing an early warning system preparing for the next process step.

As has been shown in these three instances slackening the processing pace, the process lead time is not only determined by single process steps, but, to a considerable degree, by their different interfaces and the flow of goods and information. This means that, in terms of process optimisation, these issues should be examined just as closely as the process activities themselves.


Covid-19 has forced many employees to work from home, thus further leveraging digitalisation: Meetings are no longer conducted face-to-face, but as telephone or video calls; also, rather than talking things over next to the coffee machine a phone call is made; and many processes have always been online anyway, the only difference being that now they are no longer managed via the organisation’s network, but through remote access.
This shift to a remote, digitalised environment works astonishingly well in most parts, but often the sudden break with traditional modes of operation for the sake of a completely digitalised workplace also reveals certain flaws: system overload, errors in digital processes, insufficiently aligned applications or databases, or, quite simply, limited server range or defective ports at home.
So how can processes in companies be digitalised in a way that business-related procedures run smoothly – even if all employees are suddenly ordered to work from home? As complex the problems of some companies may seem, the answer is actually quite simple: by developing and implementing a strategic roadmap for this kind of digitalisation, tailor-made for the individual enterprise.

Identifying the status quo

Before you start thinking about any strategy for digitalising processes, you should conduct a comprehensive and thorough evaluation of the status quo. This will ensure that your strategy will really meet your needs and that the existing tools will be seamlessly integrated into any new system (or that an adequate replacement is being provided for).
First you need to identify existing processes and routines. By designing a process landscape or using a similar form of visualisation, you and your staff members will get a general idea of what processes there are in your company and how they are interconnected. If your chosen mode of data representation does not only include formal procedures but also all other regular activities, any deficiencies in the system of processes will become apparent.
Then you should make a list of your IT systems and digital tools. For each individual setup or tool, you should write down its purpose, if it is linked with one or more systems and to what extent its use is standardised within your company – and if there are known problems in its application.
Having visualised the network of existing processes, digital tools and systems, you will be well-informed about the quality of your current digital processes and where improvement is necessary. Finally, you need to set your priorities: Which of the weak points in the network of your processes and IT systems should be addressed first and what, at least for the time being, works out fine as it is?

Developing a strategy

If you have finished this primary assessment, you will have to develop a strategy for implementing your plans to digitalise processes. This will help you to address your priorities in a target-oriented and efficient way, to recognise and use synergies when it comes to putting things into practice and to avoid double work and ensure compatibility of solutions.
To do so, you need to answer some basic questions, like: Would you like to go digital by means of a single, more complex integrated system or do you prefer linking up individual systems? Are existing systems to be integrated, or are you planning a completely new system? There is no simple answer to these and similar questions as these matters depend on many different factors. As they, however, determine the route you will be taking on your strategic roadmap, you should deal with them as early as possible.
Once these strategically important parameters are clearly defined, you have to decide where in your company or in your process landscape you start the digitalisation process. This should be aligned with the priorities you have set beforehand and with the chosen approach. Moreover, you should take into account how flexible and adaptive your staff members are when it comes to change or how you would like to deal with upcoming restructurings.
Next, after defining the starting point in your digitalisation programme, you should develop a roll-out plan. As the considerations you have to make are similar to those you dealt with when choosing the correct starting point, you can use these previous results and adapt where necessary. Having done that, your digitalisation strategy is ready for implementation.

Implementing your strategy

What you wanted to achieve in the first place – that processes, once digitalised, run smoothly – will only come true if you put your plans to the test by doing a reality check. However, just as it is always the case when you implement something, there are a couple of traps which can threaten the success of your project – even if you can eliminate some of them through careful planning.
Before implementing your strategy, you need to specify the details: In the early stages of the strategic planning process, you already set the frame for this step. Now you have to find appropriate tools and systems to fill it. Pay extra attention to interfaces which hold the key to properly working, flawless processes.
What is more, do not take these changes too lightly: Be aware right from the start that it is not just some little technical modifications you come up with, but that your interference considerably changes the way your staff members are used to working: Progress in digitalisation will change processes, employees will have to learn how to use new types of software and some jobs will probably be transformed entirely. As mostly only few people have a positive attitude towards change, adequate change management is most vital here.
Essentially, what is true for any new initiative, also applies here: Things will only happen if you get them done. In other words, you have to get up on your feet and oversee, push and check the current implementation process. Otherwise, your journey to digitalisation, will end up on a bumpy road.
Have enough ressources available without overtaxing your company, oversee the progress made and correct deviations, while always being guided by the ultimate goal of your agenda.
If you adhere to these guidelines, you will be able to develop and carry out a digitalisation strategy that closely fits your needs. In this way your processes will run smoothly, even in times of crisis.

You can find more tips on strategy implementation in our article “Successfully implementing strategy“. If you have any questions about planning and implementing your corporate strategy, do not hesitate to contact us.


2020 – The spreading coronavirus causes disruptions in the supply chain of many companies. These difficulties have already led some companies to the brink of insolvency [1].

2019 – Iran retains a foreign oil tanker ship resulting in rising concerns regarding a blockage of the Strait of Hormus. As a result, the oil price shots up [2].

2011 – An earthquake and a subsequent tsunami destroy a Toyota supply plant. The resulting supply shortage causes a breakdown in production processes, thus considerably delaying the delivery of cars [3].

Supply Chain as an Optimisation Task

In our globalised world, the value chain of any product generally is a series of interrelated activities of several companies and countries. Consequently, the design of the supply chain is a critical task which needs to consider several targets. Unfortunately, some of the targets are contradicting.

One of the most obvious targets of supply chain optimisation is cost reduction. Suppliers and source countries are selected to minimise the cost of production to allow for low product costs at high margins.

Logistics are another important optimisation aspect. Lead time, suppliers’ reliability and flexibility are important factors, especially in just-in-time manufacturing. As delayed deliveries can easily result in production downtimes, logistics are often almost as important as costs.

Lately, sustainability and carbon footprint are becoming more important in supply chain design. This is especially true for B2C products; however, legislation is expected to provide more rigid guidelines and requirements companies need to comply with.

Besides, the examples above highlight another target parameter for supply chain optimisation: risk.

Risks in the Supply Chain

There may be many different types of risks in a company’s supply chain. Probably the most obvious is potential quality issues. Many companies today address these by incoming goods inspections and frequent supplier audits.

What is often ignored is the dependence on individual suppliers. A single source setup strengthens the bargaining position of the supplier and may result in higher costs. At the same time, supply interruptions become more likely as issues in the production of an individual supplier directly impact the entire supply.

Also, if one supplier relies too heavily on one single customer, this may become problematic in the future. A drop in purchase volume, even if it is temporary, may pose a significant threat to the supplier’s ability to survive.

And what is true for depending on a single-source supplier is also true for regional dependency. The issue with regional dependencies is that they do not only affect the supplier location – the problem Toyota was facing after the 2011 tsunami – but also the transportation routes – which became problematic in the Strait of Hormus case.

Supply Chain Risk Analysis

To ensure that their own operations are running smoothly, companies need to evaluate their entire supply chain. However, given the vast number of products, raw material and services which a medium to large-size corporation is sourcing, a detailed analysis of the entire supply ecosystem is neither possible nor economically feasible. Here I’d recommend the ABC analysis. This is a proven tool to identify the critical segments in the supply chain. This approach divides supplies in three categories.

A parts are those which have the highest value and are most critical for the one’s own value creation. These components are normally sourced by highly specialised suppliers, plus they are a significant cost factor and cannot easily be replaced in case of supply issues. For A-parts, a detailed risk analysis of suppliers and sub-suppliers and the systematic integration of risk mitigation measures in the supply chain is a well invested effort.

B parts represent the next segment in a company’s supplies – both with regards to volume and value. For B parts, a risk analysis should include the company’s suppliers in a first step. This significantly reduces the effort compared to the analysis of the entire supply value chain but still allows for systemaitc mitigation planning. If the outcome of the initial supplier risk analysis brings to light any points which require special attention, this may trigger a more detailed analysis for selected parts or suppliers in the B-segment.

The bulk of supplies in terms of volume are usually off-the-shelf articles, so-called C parts. Given the low value and high volume of these parts, a detailed risk analysis does not make sense economically. For risk mitigation, a certain level of redundancy in the supplier base allows a company to avoid unpleasant surprises in case of crisis.

Using the ABC analysis as a guideline for supply chain risk analysis allows to minimise the resources needed to gain an adequate overview of a company’s supply ecosystem. This will enable you to adjust your supply chain and make it more robust, so that your company will be more resilient to local or global crises.

[1] DW (26. Februar 2020). „Coronavirus sprengt die Lieferketten – Wirtschaft droht Lähmung“.
[2] FAZ (18. Juli 2019). „Ölpreis steigt nach Tanker-Stopp“.
[3] Spiegel (13. April 2011). „Toyota-Kunden müssen auf Autos warten“.

The production lines operate at maximum capacity, order books are full, and the next delivery date is at hand. The last batch is just leaving the coating line when the red light flashes: there are uncoated spots clearly visible on several parts.
Happily, this is not a major issue. The affected parts are stripped, cleaned and sent back to the coating line. Half a day later, the lot is ready for shipment.

Quick fix versus sustainable solution

You probably know similar situations, not only from a production context, but also from other parts of an organisation. A deviation is observed and almost instantaneously someone puts forth a solution – and often this solution remedies the deviation.
Unfortunately, most of these solutions are mere quick fixes, which only address the symptoms. They correct the observed deviation but not the underlying problem which caused the deviation in the first place. Thus the deviation is likely to re-occur later.
In contrast, a sustainable solution does not address the symptoms but the root cause. To address the cause generally requires a bit more time and effort compared to a quick fix. However, it also prevents the same mistake from happening again.

Reasons for a deviation

A deviation in this context means that the actual result does not line up with the expected result. This may happen due to two reasons: either the assumptions on which expectations are based are incorrect or there are flaws in the implementation.

Incorrect assumptions

If you are implementing something new, deviations are often caused by incorrect assumptions. Whether it comes to product development, process optimisation, or the implementation of new tools or methods – you always step out of your experience and explore a new terrain.
In a new environment with only partial information, expectations are mostly based on assumptions, either about the environment, functionalities or causal links. It is important to be aware of these assumptions.

Implementation flaws

If the expected results are not based on assumptions but are derived from a sound understanding of how various factors are correlated and interconnected, deviations often result from flaws in the implementation. It is well-known how to achieve the targeted results, but once or twice this best practice approach was abandoned.
This type of deviation is often observed in areas with clear and stable processes in place like large series production or other frequently repeated processes with low variance.

How to address deviations with long-term success?

If you want to get rid of a deviation once and for all, you should follow a three-step approach:

Analyse the deviation

First of all, you need to understand the type of deviation you are dealing with. Ask yourself whether your expectations are based on an extensive process knowledge or on mere assumptions. If the latter is the case, try to understand which assumptions you have made.

Analyse the root cause

Next, you need to understand the root cause of the deviation. You need to understand which assumptions were incorrect or where the way you implemented certain steps had flaws. Tools like 5-why or Ishikawa are quite useful.

Derive and implement measures

Once you understand the root cause you need to address it. If the cause is a flaw in the implementation, you need to ask: How can I prevent the process from slipping again? The answer usually is to be found in the design of the process or the control mechanism. In this article, we have summarized how you can optimize internal processes.
In the case of incorrect assumptions, you first of all need to replace faulty assumption. Afterwards, you need to assess how, based on your updated knowledge, you ought to proceed.

If you adhere to this procedure and keep in mind our recommendations for optimising processes, you can not only correct deviations and errors, but also fix them sustainably and thus achieve real quality and process improvement. Contact us and we will find a tailored solution for your needs.