Blog: 5 Questions with a Supply Chain Expert: Ben Sproat

Ben Sproat is the Senior Director of Professional Services at GAINS and a nearly 20-year veteran of the supply chain software industry. Ben’s insights and expertise have been instrumental in using AI solutions to drive operational efficiencies and implement scalable solutions in complex supply chain environments. His customer-centric approach consistently pushes the boundaries of what’s possible in supply chain optimization and resiliency, and delivers exceptional results for GAINS customers.

Question 1: What have been some of the most significant changes in supply chain decision-making, and how did you help companies weather them?

Reflecting on my experience in supply chain management, particularly at GAINS, one change I’ve seen often in companies revolves around expansion opportunities. This typically happens when businesses expand or scale back their operations, usually through acquisitions or mergers. These changes can be very disruptive, requiring time and effort from various stakeholders.

My role is to help companies navigate these changes using   collaboration, strategic planning, and adaptability. By focusing on these aspects, my GAINS team ensures that businesses are prepared for current changes and positioned to handle future volatility and opportunities effectively.

Here’s how I help companies excel during  these transformations:

Navigating Organizational Changes

In acquisitions or mergers, there’s a critical need to manage historical events accurately, whether real or a chain of events requiring us to backfill history to drive better planning. During these transitions, I focus on ensuring seamless integration and continuity in supply chain operations. We also work with supply chain executives and planners to ensure that existing customer service levels don’t slipwhen meeting the increased demand from new business.

Setting Inventory Policy and Driving Forecasting

My role often involves collaborating with companies of all sizes to adjust inventory policies and forecasting strategies. This consists of a lot of coordination and analytical work to understand how historical events impact current and future supply chain strategies.

Addressing Day-to-Day Operational Changes

There are also less dramatic, more subtle, day-to-day changes within companies, such as varying service and customer service targets or adjusting inventory drivers. Part of my job is working closely with supply chain planners to analyze and tweak the parameters and settings within their systems to address these daily operational changes effectively.

Scenario Planning for Demand Change

My approach has been to run through different scenarios with clients, especially in situations like the pandemic, which brought potential step changes in demand. This approach involves simulating various scenarios and understanding their impact on our customer’s inventory and forecasting. The goal is to work collaboratively with supply chain planners s to decide on the best course of action when faced with volatility.

Question 2: How have your experiences changed your perspective on today’s supply chain challenges?

I’ve realized that the key to addressing supply chain challenges lies in flexibility.

Historically, companies might have approached supply chain management with a rigid mindset, either uniformly increasing or decreasing service levels. However, this approach lacks the flexibility necessary for true optimization and agility in managing demand and adapting to the ever-evolving dynamics of a VUCA (volatily, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity) environment.

The challenge for supply chain leaders now lies in shifting their mindset from traditional planning and executing planning strategies to embracing these new methodologies. This transition isn’t always easy for teams, as it often involves taking risks and venturing into unfamiliar territory, which can be daunting for many, especially those accustomed to longstanding practices.

Each individual’s response to change can vary, but the common thread is the concern about the potential impact of these changes on business performance. For example, altering inventory levels can have ramifications not just within the supply chain but also in areas like sales and customer support, which operate with different goals. This creates a complex environment where competing priorities must be balanced, and there’s a constant concern about the implications of one’s decisions on other parts of the business.

Companies must incorporate flexibility into their operations and decision-making processes. This requires a willingness to explore and adopt new technologies and methodologies, and build confidence in these changes’ potential positive outcomes. It’s about balancing core business objectives and being open to new strategies that can drive efficiency and adaptability in the supply chain.

Question 3: Is there anything in supply chain that still surprises you?

Yes, some aspects of the supply chain industry still surprise me. One significant element is the extent to which many companies, even large and seemingly mature ones, still rely heavily on manual tools and methods, such as Excel spreadsheets, for managing their supply chain operations. This reliance often involves manual workarounds to update specific parameters, and these methods frequently lack a solid logical foundation, usually driven more by ‘gut feelings’ than by data-driven strategies.

I am surprised by the continued reliance on manual processes in an era when advanced decision-making tools using AI and machine learning are readily available. This presents an opportunity for us, particularly at GAINS, to help introduce more logic and reasoning into the decision-making process, helping these companies reduce surplus inventory, for example, and improve inefficiencies in their operations.

The delay in performance optimization tools like GAINS also highlights a significant area of potential growth within the industry. While part of our work involves competing with other providers in this space, a substantial portion of our opportunities arises from engaging with companies still operating with fundamental inventory policies and processes., Their success shows the untapped potential and opportunity for improvement in the supply chain sector. It underscores the need for more companies to leverage modern AI technologies and methodologies to enhance their supply chain efficiency and effectiveness.

Question 4: What current market trend excites you most?

The ongoing shift towards greater automation, especially in the context of supply chain management, is exciting.

This excitement is rooted in the potential and evolving role of automation technologies, including ML and AI tools, in enhancing supply chain processes.

Black box simulations of the GAINS solution demonstrate our solutions’ effectiveness and the benefits of automation. These simulations showed how, even without human intervention, our decision engineering and orchestration (DEO) platform could efficiently optimize inventories while maintaining service levels. This kind of automation offers a glimpse into the power of AI technology in automating many supply chain operations.

It’s essential to understand that while automation brings immense benefits, it doesn’t negate the value added by human supply chain planners. A significant aspect of planning involves human judgment, especially when dealing with new items, version management, and other nuanced areas of supply chain management. The goal of incorporating AI and ML isn’t to replace these valuable human insights but to augment and enhance them.

By automating some aspects of demand planning, replenishment, and purchasing execution, we reduce the likelihood of errors and streamline processes. This, in turn, allows planners to focus more on areas where their expertise and judgment add the most value. Rather than seeing AI as a replacement, it should be viewed as a tool that makes supply chain planners more effective and efficient, allowing them to focus on higher-level tasks and strategic thinking.

The exciting trend in the market is not just about automation for the sake of efficiency but about how these technological advancements can collaborate with human intelligence to create a more robust, responsive, and effective supply chain. This synergy between human expertise and technological innovation is where the future of supply chain management is headed.

Question 5: What should supply chain executives do in 2024 to give them more resiliency?

For supply chains to build resilience in 2024, it’s crucial to reflect on significant changes and understand various scenarios, including worst-case scenarios.

This approach was highlighted in a session I attended years ago with Les Wexner of Limited Brands, where he talked about the ‘unknowns’—significant events like COVID-19 or 9/11—that can drastically impact supply chains. These events underscore the need for supply chains to be prepared for unexpected shifts and challenges. Today’s volatility is constant, and can range from geopolitical events to factory fires, no matter the scale, supply chains need to be ready.

To enhance resilience, supply chains should:

1. Plan for Extreme Scenarios: It’s essential to anticipate and plan for various potential situations, even those that might seem unlikely. This includes understanding the boundary conditions of your supply chain—and identifying the limits within which it can operate effectively.

2. Strategic Preparation: Often, the focus is on immediate challenges—getting the product out today or tomorrow. However, strategic preparation for future possibilities is equally essential. This means understanding the potential ‘bookend scenarios’ and having a plan for executing strategies when these scenarios become a reality.

3. Balancing Tactical and Strategic Approaches: The immediate tactical aspects of supply chain management must always be balanced with long-term strategic planning. While the immediate focus on current challenges is essential, neglecting strategic planning for future scenarios can leave the supply chain vulnerable to disruptions.

4. Integrated Planning Systems: Supply chain performance optimization solutions, like the GAINS Halo360° Decision Engineering & Optimization Platform,   can help prepare for various scenarios. These tools can provide insights and simulations that assist in understanding how different scenarios might impact the supply chain and help develop appropriate response strategies.

For supply chains to be resilient in 2024 and beyond, they must embrace strategic foresight, prepare for various scenarios, and find a balance between addressing immediate needs and planning for the future. By doing so, they can become more adept at handling unforeseen events and minimizing their impact on operations.

Closing Thoughts

Ben Sproat’s insights serve as a guide for supply chain executives hoping to navigate an ever-evolving landscape. Ben’s contributions to the industry and experience working with GAINS’ customers position him as an expert and a trailblazer, helping shape the future of supply chain operations. He inspires and leads with his forward-looking approach, demonstrating that a well-executed supply chain strategy is vital for sustaining a competitive edge and driving business success in a complex, rapidly changing global market.

Follow the links below to leverage our thought leadership for more cutting-edge insights and strategies.

Blog: Five Questions with a Supply Chain Expert– Featuring GAINS VP of Industry Strategy Amber Salley

Podcast: Let’s Talk Supply Chain – Achieve Real Results And Innovate For The Future, with GAINS

Blog: 7 Common MRO Supply Chain Challenges And How To Overcome Them