Supply Chain Case Study: the Definitive Guide

Professionals in supply chain management use various methods to identify best practices to improve the operations. Analysis of case study is certainly one of the most popular methods for people from business management background. In order to accelerate the learning, this article has gathered 30 most sought-after supply chain case studies, analyzed/categorized them by industry and the findings are presented.

1. Aerospace Supply Chain

Aerospace Industry is characterized by high material costs (about 65-80%). Manufacturing systems and regulatory compliance are considered to be very complex, coupled with the limited number suppliers due to the high barriers to entry. Moreover, the aircraft manufacturers have to do whatever it takes to win the order long before the commencement of production. 

There are two things Boeing and Airbus have in common, utilization of lean manufacturing system and strategic sourcing concept. However, the overall implementation of strategic sourcing is a bit different between the two companies.

Boeing and Air Bus Supply Chain Strategy

Boeing wants to encourage more flight frequency and direct route using a smaller capacity aircraft. Then they decide to outsource many things such as the design, testing and production of key components to key industrial partners and try to reduce number of components that go to assembly. The ultimate goal is to finish the final production process within 3 days.

Airbus takes a bit different marketing approach. They want to utilize high capacity airplane to help airlines drive the operating cost down. They decide to selectively outsource the production of parts and keep the design and production of key components in-house.

2. Fashion Supply Chain

Supply Chain of fashion industry involves a time based competition. Many customers have the unique product needs but a competition is very fierce because of the low barriers of entry. Many new players try to offer specialized products to customers all the time. This section features the supply chain case studies of H&M, Benetton, Zara, Adidas, Louis Vuitton and Marks & Spencer (M&S).

2.1 H&M aims to be the price leader in the fashion market.In order to materialize its vision, H&M tries to eliminate the middlemen in various stages of supply chain and consolidate the buying volumes. Product design is also the central part of its strategies. They don't try to follow the high fashion designs but try to adopt the street trends which are easier to produce.

They don't invest in production facility at all because they utilize a network of nearly 700 suppliers located in Asia and Europe. They also don't own any stores because they choose to rent the space. In order to control its supply chain, they use a central warehouse to Germany to receive and ship products to local distribution centers in different countries.

At the end of the day, they can bring products to market within 2-3 weeks.

2.2 Benetton, in contrast, chooses to have a full control of its production but allow its licensees to operate the stores so they can focus on production and quality control. The reason is that they would like to create the worldwide brand awareness.

For fast moving products, they use the production facilities in Europe. Asian suppliers will perform production for standardized products.

2.3 Zara is very famous for its time based strategy. In order to launch a new product within 15 days, Zara uses a small lot production. A new product will be tested in pilot stores. If product sales is good, a larger batch will be ordered. Otherwise, remaining products will be removed from the shelves and sold as mark-down in other stores. This creates the perception among consumers that Zara's products are unique and you have to take it while stock lasts.

Vertical integration contributes to the success of Zara, they own the majority of its production facilities and stores (this is the reason why Quick Response can be effectively implemented). Its automated distribution centers are strategically located between the center of populations so products are delivered to stores quickly.

Zara also works with Air France, KLM Cargo and Emirates Air in order that they can coordinate directly with the airlines to make the outbound shipments to its stores and bring back some raw materials and semi-finished materials with return legs.

2.4 Adidas copes with changing customers' demand by adopting Mass Customization strategy. The whole idea is to develop, market and deliver the product variety that most customers will find what they want.

The first steps towards mass customization is to strategically offer the product choices. Too few variations will disappoint a customer but too many variations will simply postpone a buying decision.

After that, Adidas asks the same key suppliers to produce custom components in order to achieve the economy of scale.

In order to compensate a long waiting time, Adidas uses air freight or courier service. The reason why they can do this is that customized products are sold directly to customers so they have the higher profit margin to compensate the higher transportation cost.

2.5 Louis Vuitton is one of the largest luxury brand in the world. In the past, they supplied products to department stores. In order to create the better buying experience and control counterfeiting products, they establish their own stores in high-end shopping malls. Having own stores mean they can have better understanding about buyer behavior so they can adapt more rapidly.

2.6 Marks & Spencer (M&S) is one of the biggest fashion retailers from UK. Other than fashion items, they also sell food items and home products.

The primary focus of M&S is always a cost reduction. For example, they ask each supplier to develop samples for all range of fashion items so they can decide which items they will order from whom. The delay in the development of samples, testing, sample approval and final decision making causes a very long time-to-market. As a result, they're able to respond to the rapid change in fashion industry. However, they change some of sourcing process as below,

- Close its production facilities in UK and use suppliers in Asia or Eastern Europe

- Instead of asking suppliers to produce the items exclusively for them, now they allow suppliers to produce items for other retailers too. Then, suppliers don't have to provide a dedicated production facility which results in no investment cost. Using common raw materials also help to reduce cost drastically

- Assess the capability of each supplier and reduce number of suppliers

- Ask low cost producers to make standard items and ask capable suppliers to make innovative products

- Reduce number of SKUs and pay much attention to 500 best-selling items

Supply chain strategy of the fashion retailing industry is summarized as below,

supply chain strategy in fashion retailing

3. FMCG Supply Chain

FMCG industry is typically the products sold to customers at a low cost and will be completely consumed within 1 year. The nature of this industry is the short product life cycle, low profit margin, high competition and demand fluctuation. This section will present the case studies of P&G, Unilever, Coca-Cola and L'Oreal respectively.

3.1 P&G: forecasting and new product introduction has always been the issues for many FMCG companies, P&G is no exception. To cope with this, P&G conducts a merchandise testing at the pilot stores to determine the customer's response to new product before the launch. The result is that the forecast accuracy is improved because a demand planner has an additional source data to make a better decision. Moreover, products can be shipped to stores in-time then lost sales is minimal.

3.2 Unilever also feels that the competition in FMCG industry has significantly increased. They have to launch the new products on regular basis but the forecasting of new product is difficult. So they create a better classification of new products (base, relaunch, repack, new) using a regression model to identify potential forecast errors for each type of new product.

3.3 Coca-Cola doesn't really have many stock keeping units when compared with other companies in the same industry. However, products go to over 2.4 million delivery points through over 430 distribution centers. Managing transportation at this scale is the absolute challenge.

In order to streamline the delivery, Coca-Cola implemented a vehicle routing software. The reason is that is the software vendor has a very good relationship with Coca-Cola's legacy ERP software vendor. Moreover, the vendor has a solid connection with the university who can help to develop the algorithm that fits in with the business' needs. The result is that transportation planners at each distribution center can use the new tool to reduce travelling time/distance on daily basis.

To expand its global footprint, Coca-Cola creates a global supply chain through a franchising model. They only produces key raw materials such as beverage bases and syrups then these raw materials will be sold to 300 bottling partners throughout the world. Then, franchisees in each area make the final products by adding water, sweeteners and carbonate. Then finished products will be sold via the retailing partners. From its inception as a local company in Atlanta, Coca-Cola has now become one of the biggest multinational companies in the world, thanks to the franchising model.

3.4 L'Oreal is one of the world's best cosmetics brand with 41 factories across the countries. To speed up the revenue growth in major markets, they acquire other brands as below,

- Maybelline New York for expansion in the US
- Yue-Sai for expansion in Asia
- Mininurse for expansion in China

They also establish the R&D facilities in Chicago and Shanghai so they can understand and develop products that customers love.

4. Automotive Supply Chain

Lean manufacturing concept has been implemented widely in the automotive industry so the case studies about lean manufacturing is very readily available. Due to the increasing competition in the automobile industry, car manufacturers have to launch a new model to the market more frequently. This section will show you how BMW manages a long term planning, how Ford applies lean concept to the new product development, how Hyundai manages the production planning/control and how Volkswagen Group use modular design to cut cost.

4.1 BMW uses a 12-year planning horizon and divides it into an annual period. After that, they will make an annual sales forecast for the whole planning horizon. After the demand is obtained, they divide sales into 8 market and then select the appropriate production sites for each market, considering overall capacity constraints and total cost. As you may notice, this kind of a long range planning has to be done strategically.

4.2 Ford calls its product development system as "work streams" which include the body development, engine development, prototyping and launch process . The cross-functional team are the experts and their roles are to identify key processes, people, technology necessary for the development of new prototype.

Each work stream team is responsible to develop timeline of each process. Detailed plan is usually presented on A3 sized paper. They clearly identifying current issues they are facing with supporting data, drawings and pictures. On weekly basis, they organize a big group meeting of all work stream team to discuss the coordination issues.

4.3 Hyundai deploys a centralized planning system covering both production and sales activities across the facilities and functional areas. They develop a 6-month master production plan and a weekly and a daily production schedule for each month in advance. During a short term planning (less than one month), they pay much attention to the coordination between purchasing, production and sales. Providing a long term planning data to its suppliers help to stabilize production of its part makers a lot.

4.4 Volkswagen Group has the goal to offer safe but attractive cars consists of a broad range of product categories such as,

- Sporty cars such as Audi and Lamborghini
- Value cars such as Volkswagen, Skoda Auto, Bentley and Bugatti

However, each brand designs and operates independently. In order to reduce overall costs, Volkswagen outsources many components from suppliers in India. Later, they adopt the "modular" concept such as,

- Transverse component for small cars
- Longitudinal component for medium-sized cars
- Rear component for rear-engine city cars

This enables them to drive the economy of scale much better.

5. Electronics Supply Chain

Life cycle of technology products is getting shorter and shorter every day. Unlike FMCG, the launch of a new product in the hi-tech industry requires the investment in research and development quite extensively. Then, a poor planning will result in a massive loss. This section will cover JIT and outsourcing by Apple Inc, Supply Chain Risk Management by Cisco System, Technology Roadmap by Intel, Supply Chain Network Model by HP, Mass Customization by Dell, Quality Management by Sam Sung and global supply chain strategy at Whirlpool Corporation and Haier.

5.1 Apple Inc: Steve Jobs invited the Tim Cook to help to improve Apple's Supply Chain in 1998. Jobs told Cook that he visited many manufacturing companies in Japan and he would like Cook to implement the JIT system for Apple. Jobs believed that Apple' supply chain was too complex then both of them reduced the number of product availability and created 4 products segment, reduced on hand inventory and moved the assembling activities to Asia so they could focus on developing the breathtaking products that people wanted to buy.

5.2 Cisco Systems would like to be the brand of customer choice so they implement a very comprehensive supply chain risk management program by applying basic risk mitigation strategies, establishing appropriate metrics, monitoring potential supply chain disruptions on 24/7 basis and activate an incident management team when the level of disruption is significant.

5.3 Intel's new product development is done by the process called Technology Roadmap. Basically, it's the shared expectations among Intel, its customers and suppliers for the future product lineup.

The first step to prepare the roadmap is to identify the expectations among semiconductor companies and suppliers. Then they identify key technological requirements needed to fulfill the expectations. The final step is to propose the plan to a final meeting to discuss about the feasibility of project. Some concerning parties such as downstream firms may try to alter some aspects of the roadmap. Technology Roadmap allows Intel to share its vision to its ecosystem and to utilize new technology from its suppliers.

5.4 HP's case study is pretty unique. They face with a basic question, where to produce, localize and distribute products. Its simple supply chain network model is presented below,

HP Supply Chain

From this example, only 3 possible locations result in 5 different way to design the supply chain. In reality, HP has more production facilities than the example above so there are so many scenarios to work with. How should HP decide which kind of a supply chain network configuration they should take to reduce cost and increase service to customer? The answer is that they use the multi-echelon inventory model to solve the problem.

5.5 Dell is one of the classic supply chain case studies of all time. Many industries try to imitate Dell's success. The key ingredients of Dell's supply chain are the partnership with suppliers, part modularity, vendor managed inventory program, demand management and mass customization. Also, you can find the simplified process map of Dell's order-to-cash process as below,

Dell Order to Cash Process

5.6 Sam Sung has proven to be the force to be reckoned with in the hi-tech industry. The secret behind its supply chain success is the use of Six Sigma approach. They studied how General Electric (GE), DuPont and Honeywell implemented six sigma. After that, they have created their own implementation methodology called DMAEV (define, measure, analyze, enable, verify). They use the global level KPI to ensure that each player in the same supply chain is measured the same way. Also, they utilize SCOR Model as the standard process. Any process changes will be reflected through an advance planning system (APS).

5.7 Whirlpool Corporation foresees that appliances such as washing machine are the standardized products. So it's essential to enter the global market so production process can be standardized and economy of scale can be achieved. In order to implement this strategy Whirlpool acquires a majority shares in an Indian company and create 4 joint ventures in China. This kind of investment enables Whirlpools to understand the local buying behaviors through the experiences of local JV partners more rapidly. Moreover, they don't have to build a brand new supply chain everywhere they go because they can utilize the existing infrastructure that JV partners already have.

5.8 Haier is one of the world leading appliance manufacturers from China. Due to the level of competition in home market, they believe they have to expand to foreign market to increase the revenue. Their “Go Global” strategy is to focus on the most difficult market, namely, the United States, Europe or Japan. The reasons are that 

- They want to force themselves to learn more about technology in more sophisticated market

- People who used to live in the developing countries will recognize Haier's brand. When they move back home, they will spread the words in local market

Then they decide to build a production facility in South Carolina and gain a big market share in the United States

6. General Merchandising Supply Chain

The last industry covered here is the general merchandise retailing industry. The critical success factor of this industry is to understand the drivers of consumer demand. Four case studies will be presented, namely, 7-11, Tesco, Walmart, Amazon, Zappos, Carrefour and Ikea.

6.1 7/11 is another popular case study in supply chain management. The integration of information technology between stores and its distribution centers play the important role. Since the size of 7/11 store is pretty small, it's crucial that a store manager knows what kind of products should be displayed on shelves to maximize the revenue. This is achieved through the monitoring of sales data every morning. Sales data enables the company to create the right product mix and the new products on regular basis.

7/11 also uses something called combined delivery system aka cross docking. The products are categorized by the temperature (frozen, chilled, room temperature and warm foods). Each truck routes to multiple stores during off-peak time to avoid the traffic congestion and reduce the problems with loading/unloading at stores.

6.2 Tesco is one of the prominent retail stores  in Europe. Since UK is relatively small when compared with the United States, centralized control of distribution operations and warehouse makes it easier to manage. They use the bigger trucks (with special compartments for multi-temperature products) and make a less frequent delivery to reduce transportation cost. Definitely, they use a computerized systems and electronic data interchange to connect the stores and the central processing system.

6.3 Wal-Mart's "Every Day Low Prices" is the strategy mentioned in many textbooks. The idea is to try not to make the promotions that make the demand plunges and surges aka bullwhip effect.

Wal-Mart has less than 100 distribution centers in total and each one serves a particular market. To make a decision about new DC location, Walmart uses 2 main factors, namely, the demand in the proposed DC area and the outbound logistics cost from DC to stores. Cost of inbound logistics is not taken into account.

There are 3 types of the replenishment process in Wal-Mart supply chain network as below,

Walmart Replenishment Process
In contrary to general belief, Wal-mart doesn't use cross-docking that often. About 20% of orders are direct-to-store (for example, dog food products). Another 80% of orders are handled by both warehouse and cross dock system.

Wal-Mart has one of the largest private fleet in the United States. The delivery is made 50% by common carriers and 50% by private fleet. Private fleet is used to perform the backhauls (picks up cargoes from vendors to replenish DCs + sends returned products to vendors). Short-hauls (less than one working day drive) is also done by the a private fleet. For long-hauls, the common carriers will be used.

There are 2 main information system deployed by Wal-Mart. "Retail Link" is the communication system developed in-house to store data, share data and help with the shipment routing assignments.

Another system is called "Inforem" for the automation of a replenishment process. Inforem was originally developed by IBM and has been modified extensively by Wal-Mart. Inforem uses various factors such as POS data, current stock level and so on to suggest the order quantity many times a week.

Level of collaboration between Wal-Mart and vendors is different from one vendor to the other. Some vendors can participate in VMI program but the level of information sharing is also different. VMI program at Wal-Mart is not 100% on consignment basis.

6.4 Amazon has a very grand business strategy to "offer customers low prices, convenience, and a wide selection of merchandise". Due to the lack of actual store front, the locations of warehouse facilities are strategically important to the company. Amazon makes a facility locations decision based on the distance to demand areas and tax implications.

With 170 million items of physical products in the virtual stores, the back end of order processing and fulfillment is a bit complicated. Anyway, a simplified version of the order-to-cash process are illustrated as below,

Amazon Order to Cash Process

Upon receipt of the orders, Amazon assign the orders to an appropriate DC with the lowest outbound logistics cost.

In Amazon's warehouse, there are 5 types of storage areas. Library Prime Storage is the area dedicated for book/magazine. Case Flow Prime Storage is for the products with a broken case and high demand. Pallet Prime Storage is for the products with a full case and high demand. Random Storage is for the smaller items with a moderate demand and Reserve Storage will be used for the low demand/irregular shaped products.

Amazon uses an propitiatory warehouse management system to make the putaway decision and order picking decision.

After the orders are picked and packed, Amazon ships the orders using common carriers so they can obtain the economy of scale. Orders will arrive at UPS facility near a delivery point and UPS will perform the last mile delivery to customers.

Amazon is known to use Sales and Operations Planning (S&OP) to handle the sales forecast. Anyway, this must be S&OP process at product family/category level.

6.5 Zappos: to compete with other online retailers, Zappos pays much attention to the way they provide the services to customers. In stead of focusing on the call center productivity, Zappos encourages its staff to spend times over the phone with customers as long as they can so they can fully understand the customer's requirements. They also upgrade the delivery from 3 days to 1 day delivery in order to exceed customer expectation.

6.6 Carrefour sees the expansion opportunities in China then they establish the first hypermarket in Beijing. The most interesting point about Carrefour is the location strategy. Instead of using mathematical model, they use a simple section process as below,

- Pick the location at the intersection (Carrefour in French means crossroad) so they can ensure that they can get high traffic area

- Choose the location within 8 kilometer radius from the major bus ride

- Ask the independent investigators to collect data about purchasing potential and buying behavior of local people at potential store locations

6.7 Ikea also have their own stores for different reasons. Their unique selling points are products with good design at lower prices. To drive cost down, Ikea shifts some of their activities to customers or self service operating model. For example, they make it easier for customers to locate products during shopping, pick the products, checkout, bringing products back home and install the furniture. This helps Ikea to reduce operating cost a lot.


All case study demonstrates that supply chain management is truly the strategic initiatives, not merely a cost cutting technique. Leading companies have a very strong customer focus because almost all of initiatives are something to fill the needs of customers.

Relationship management is the unsung hero in supply chain management. It's the prerequisite to the success of every supply chain. And at the end of the day, it comes down to the quality of supply chain people who analyze, improve and control supply chain operations.

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