What is meant by 'Agility' in a Supply Network Management Context?
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Although the management of supply networks has reached a high degree of sophistication in many contexts and settings, there is a growing perception that the basic structures may need re-visiting in light of an increasing and persisting level of business. In particular, it has been powerfully argued by academics and practitioners alike that an ‘agile’ posture or approach – as distinct from one based around the reduction of costs through increased control – should be adopted. However, whilst the concept of agility in both manufacturing and supply networks has existed for some two decades, there is a lack of clarity over what such a concept entails. Achievement of clear answers to questions such as: “What is meant by agility?”; “What practices are to be found in an agile network?” are important pre-requisites to any testing of the proposition that agile supply networks are more successful than non-agile ones in a turbulent business environment. Using appropriate databases, a total of 87 papers published since 1998 were reviewed and the subsequent analysis was compared with the responses to an online survey distributed to members of the Chartered Institute of Logistics and Transport, Australia (CILTA) which resulted in a total of 54 usable replies. This represents some 5% of the CILTA membership which, it is recognised is below the typical 10% response rate for such surveys (Larson, 2005). However, given the high degree of unanimity in the responses, the survey provided a useful triangulation of the literature search, and this was confirmed during an industry engagement meeting in which similar views were offered by the contributors. At the strategic level, there was a high level of agreement over the reasons why an organisation or network might wish to adopt an agile approach, and this was supported by the practitioner survey. At the next level, there was similarly a strong thread within the literature that offered a number of approaches - such as the use of actual not forecast demand; the achievement of rapid responses; flexibility and the development of a customer focussed network featured highly. There was, however, significantly less unanimity when the operational level was reached. In a sense this is unsurprising as many contributions to the literature were reporting the results of specific case studies in which certain approaches may/may not have featured. Nevertheless, these results can be seen in stark contrast to the clarity with which, for example, the operationalisation of the Lean Thinking methodology has been clearly documented and understood. Furthermore, the absence of discussion within the literature of ‘blockers and enablers’ emanating from issues such as the organisational, cultural, governance and similar considerations is an indication of the immaturity of the concept of agility. In short, it is considered that there is broad agreement over the areas that need to be addressed in order to deliver an agile supply network. However, the understanding of the subject would be greatly improved through further research that robustly tests the relative importance of specific drivers and approaches, and the extent to which these can be balanced with other relevant considerations.
Proceedings of the 10th ANZAM Operations, Supply Chain and Services Management Symposium
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Logistics and Supply Chain Management