I've spent the past 17 years dealing with supply chains in a variety of roles and coming into International Timber and the builders’ merchant arena has been a real eye-opener.

I think – at all ends – there needs to be more time spent understanding the needs of the customer so we can then align the supply chain – right from the factory to the delivery of the physical product – to better meet their needs.

Walking the supply chain

It was a revelation when I came into International Timber and suggested we should actually spend time walking the supply chain. When you walk the supply chain, you learn to actually see what is happening, what is wasteful and what activities aren't adding value to the customer.

Typically, more than 90% of all activities aren't directly beneficial to what the customer needs. And while you'll have no choice but to carry on with some of those activities – the majority, you can do something about.

There'll usually be unnecessary movement, unnecessary miles being travelled, empty trailers, drivers sitting idling and piles of inventory all over the place. All that can be considered wasteful.

Walking the supply chain can give you a unique insight into this. For instance, we traversed the supply chain back from a builder in Cardiff, through the Jewson's yard, back to our depot where we machine the timber – following a single product.

Actually visualising our supply chain gave us access to all the facts. We were able to question activities that didn't add value or didn't make logistical sense. Unless you actually go and see it in action, it's easy to get caught up in day-to-day work and overlook the big picture.

Enhancing capability

Using the supply chain right can be massively beneficial for any type of business.

Typically, the capability I see in supply chains is very low. And by that, I'm not referring to staff, who, for the most part are great people who work very hard. I mean the systems and the way that supply chains are run.

Whatever your supply chain involves – there's significant opportunities to improve its capability.

This can be done by examining the way you network, using different modes of transport and making sure that they are full when you use them – just to name a few common areas where improvements can be driven.

By understanding demand, you can make sure you're able to satisfy that demand and make better use of the data you've got coming in.

The journey

Making the most of your supply chain is a journey. You're not going to see a dramatic change overnight and it's all about making incremental improvements to satisfy the demand of a changing business and a changing industry.

But first and foremost, your focus should be on the customer and lining up the supply chain against their needs – as it's the customer that's going to drive your sales.

Matt Addison is general manager operations at Saint-Gobain Building Distribution.