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Secret life of an IT manager: A test of traceability

I’ve just received an email marked urgent and someone is lingering at my desk waiting to talk; I wonder what’s happened? Oh great, there’s an issue with a shipment we’ve just dispatched and they need the IT guy to help distinguish the scale of the issue by tracing the order through the systems to find out exactly where it’s all gone wrong and map out the potential impact on the rest of our orders.  

Now I’m not talking potential explosions and fires, but let’s just say that one of our customers will not be overjoyed to hear about what could be lurking in their order. To cut a long story short, somehow, somewhere along the production line, a piece of metal has been found loose inside one of the cartons shipped to a food supplier. You might think it’s something that doesn’t happen to small manufacturers like us but I can confirm that it does, although thankfully not very often!  As a food and drink packaging manufacturer, there are lots of regulations we have to follow in relation to the composition of plastic materials in our products as set by wider EU regulation – fun right?

So when a foreign object is identified it obviously requires action, and speedy action at that.  We can’t risk, damaging business relationships with our customers and losing their trust in what we do, having machine downtime or risking the timings of future orders - it’s just too costly and extremely difficult to regain that lost time, money and potentially lost accounts.   So, firstly what I need to do is take a deep breath. Secondly, what we collectively need to do is go understand how we can begin to rectify this. 

The big problem we have right now is that without having the right level of data analytics to be able to trace data up and down the supply chain, it’s extremely hard to understand how many of the units we’ve recently packaged could be affected. The visibility we have from when the raw materials arrive in the factory to when they leave our warehouse is just not up to scratch and it is this gap in information that is ultimately going to make this an unmeasurable issue. 

Obviously not music to the ears of the team on the warehouse floor wondering how and when they can resume our other outstanding orders and the overtime that might be needed. In a situation like this, the term ‘it’s better to be safe than sorry’ seems somewhat of an understatement and an understatement that is going to require a larger recall operation than would be necessary if we were using the right technology. 

If we had the ability to assign serial numbers to all our inventory and a barcoding system to make it possible to monitor every movement, we could verify and track every order as it travels through production and into the warehouse, enabling us to work out which dispatches have been affected and contact the relevant customers – quickly. 

But because we can’t, we are going to have to begin a more widespread recall and alert customers who have received a shipment since that batch of raw materials entered out warehouse. This is obviously going to take time, man power and a big dose of swallowing pride. Our relationships with customers is one that that we want, and need, to preserve for the sake of these contracts and future ones. Perhaps the most frustrating thing is that we may have to be telling customers that wouldn’t have needed to know about the mishap.   

Modernising the system

So whilst it is with the CRM team to manage that operation and the engineer’s job to assess the machines to see where the foreign matter could have penetrated the production process, I’m the guy who has to use what order reports we have on the system to deduce who needs to be alerted. 

So basically, the bearer of bad news in this instance, but at least I’m not the one having to smooth things over with the customers – don’t envy that job  Having this recall happen in the midst of our assessment for a new ERP system has really brought home the critical need we have for the software to manage a completely traceable production line. Now we are left in a position where we are having to recall more orders than we may have needed to, all because we didn’t have the tools to help us pinpoint the scale of the issue. 

With a modern system we could use the serial number tracking, shipment tracking and mapping audit trails (there really is a lot of jargon in this industry) to help us be really agile and responsive if we’re faced with abnormalities and errors along the production process like this again.  My job is just one aspect of this process and this is no doubt a team effort, but it would have been a lot easier if we had the tools in the first place to streamline the process and minimise the risk and potential damage – both reputational and financial. 

But hey I’m keeping at the back of my mind, the future should be less daunting if something like this happens again, as at least we’ve already begun the process of updating to a system that will help us manage any future potential recalls to ensure they are low-impact and targeted.

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Epicor Software, a global provider of industry-specific enterprise software to promote business growth.