Efficient supply chain management depends on two key factors: the ability of information technology (IT) systems to manage data; and the ability of the people using those systems to know how to optimize their potential. The nexus therefore becomes a solution’s user experience. Put simply: A poor user experience leads to poor performance.
Supply chain management is a process that involves many of a company’s key players. But if we listened to everyone when devising an IT solution’s user interface, the amount of data included would be astronomical. Often, project members are so afraid of leaving out a piece of information, that they choose to include it on the screen rather than question its utility. And therein lies the pitfall of these highly customizable solutions: Because it’s technically possible to include all of the various data points in the design, everything but the kitchen sink is displayed on the screen.
Design should simplify the experience
I have seen screens that display five different tabs, each of which feature more than a dozen datapoints, projected on a horizon of five years. I have seen tabs where a final forecast is displayed after the statistical forecast and the forecast method used. I have seen top-down data inherited from strategic planning, together with proration coefficients; figures on the impact of seasonality; inputs regarding promotional events; and various rows about collaborative forecasting from the marketing and sales departments. Of course, users ignore the vast majority of the information and focus on the one or two key pieces of data that are actually required to fulfill their particular task.
The information that supply chain managers need and use is complex by nature; so the aim of supply chain management tools should be to streamline. Although the five Ss are generally used to create a suitable workplace, they are also quite applicable to interface design and user experience. Here’s how:
- Sort: Keep only the information that is key to the decision-making process.
- Simplify: The purpose of each screen should be clearly identified. Do not mix several purposes together. If you fear a screen lacks a specific detail, implement a side report that will pinpoint that particular piece of information.
- Scrub: When designing the screen, consider ergonomics and the user experience. Use data visualizations to clearly communicate a whole dataset with a single glance.
- Standardize: Frequently ask yourself if the interface is working to its full potential. But do not request upgrades that will just create confusion.
- Sustain: Always follow the previous four Ss.
I once applied the five Ss methodology when implementing a demand planning solution to support a company’s sales and operations planning process. For demand management and forecasting, a preconfigured solution was selected. However, not all of its functionalities were relevant to the business. Therefore, I spent time with the project team identifying the key data to be displayed, as well as what information should be kept in the process but displayed only at the user’s request. Anything that didn’t apply was simply removed.
Another time I used the five Ss was at a tier-one automotive supplier. The procurement plan was managed on a screen that displayed nearly all of the information the planner needed on one single grid. With nearly 15 lines to review, it was too confusing. After consulting with internal IT project managers, procurement managers and end users, I split the single screen into five pages. Each page focused on just one aspect of the procurement plan. I also included relevant graphs, which enabled the manager to quickly visualize what the data was telling them. The feedback from end users was tremendous; they could now get answers and make appropriate decisions quickly and with confidence.
When users are not overwhelmed with too much information, they can review the necessary data, ensure that all critical aspects are understood before taking action and make smart decisions. A user experience that provides simple and easy-to-use tools upgrades the performance of all supply chain management activities.