Data Visualisation: Picturing your Supply Chain

Data is fast becoming the most valuable asset organisations own today – ‘Big Data’ refers to the size of the prospect that insight into data can unlock, and harnessing it will make it possible for organisations to build unique capabilities and competitive differentiators. Rynier Keet, MD of Corporate Renaissance Group writes that data visualisation provides insight into supply chain data, providing the necessary visibility that will equip companies to address challenges proactively, in this month’s SmartProcurement.

In today’s complex and “volatile” global marketplace with extended supply lines, companies are finding it more difficult to deliver their products and services cheaper, faster, better and at a lower risk. In a study conducted by IBM in 2008, The Smarter Supply Chain of the Future , it is envisioned that the supply chain of the future will be more: instrumented – machine-generated; interconnected – the total supply chain will be connected for integrated supply chain information; and, intelligent – decisions are smarter and automated through advanced analytics and modelling.

Although this will aid in improving supply chain efficiencies, it will certainly also lead to greater complexity when it comes to translating the data into insight.

Data is getting BIG

This challenge of moving from data to insight will be more complex due to the increase in data volumes to be analysed; and the difficulty of structuring it in a manner that allows decision-making insight to be extracted. However, the latest technology advances in database design and smart analytics are assisting companies to manage these larger and more complex datasets. It is even said that data is fast becoming the most valuable asset companies own today and it can be a primary differentiator for competitive advantage.

We are therefore now entering the era of Big Data where ‘big’ refers to the size of the opportunity not the size of the data. This will enable companies to build unique capabilities and competitive differentiators if they have the power to harness it all. Whereas previously we used megabytes and gigabytes as a measure of data volumes, the new units of measure are terabytes, petabytes (100 terabytes) and exabytes (1 million terabytes).

Just to bring this into context, Twitter generates 15 terabytes of data per day and a company like Walmart, a supply chain business, processes 1 million transactions per hour and stores around 3-5 petabytes of data. By 2010, all the digital data in existence was around 1,200 exabytes…

Compare that with the size of all words ever spoken by mankind, which is estimated to be around 5 exabytes.

This is the supply chain reality of today which we are endeavouring to visualise and understand under the term, Supply Chain Visibility.

Supply chain reality and visibility

From a data and information perspective, the key elements with regards to supply chain visibility are relevant, timely information, which directly addresses the integrity, ease of access and the message that the data conveys to the user.

The users are not isolated, but they collaborate with other participants in the supply chain and the main objective of supply chain visibility is to ensure more informed decision-making by all stakeholders, which will lead to an overall improvement of supply chain efficiency and effectiveness.

From a strategic perspective, attention falls on resource networks where visibility ensures better and quicker alignment between the supply chain and the ever-changing business environment.

Senior managers are also expecting to get tactical answers quickly for strategic questions. They want to be warned in advance if customer satisfaction or shareholder value is being threatened and want to drill down to the source immediately without having to wait for IT to develop the reports. They need to move from data to insight quickly.

Data visualisation – from data to insight

Data visualisation is a means of exploring and understanding data – helping you to make sense of your data and moving from data to insight quickly. Data visualisation, which incorporates information visualisation, is computer-based; it is interactive and easy to use; it represents the data in a perceptible and meaningful way; and, amplifies cognition.

According to Stephen Few, a data visualisation specialist, in his book Now You See It, the most important characteristic of data visualisation is amplifying cognition. He states here that the “purpose of data visualisation is not to make pictures, but to help us think” – it is designed to support analytical reasoning. The goal of data visualisation is to answer important questions using data and facts.

Good data visualisation design must therefore accommodate people’s need for depth, flexibility and expressiveness in the visual displays. Furthermore, it must also provide the answers quickly and easily without having to involve others in supplying the answers required.

The traits of effective data visualisation are: (1)

  • User-Driven Approach. Analytics and reporting must be decentralized and produced by the people using the results. IT provides the infrastructure, but business users create their reports and dashboards. This is also called “Self-Service Business Intelligence (BI)”.
  • Flexible Configurations. Companies need answers for today’s challenges but without sacrificing tomorrow’s needs. The chosen software needs to be configurable and priced to support that. Also in the supply chain environment there will be more than one type of system used which means that the software must be able to link to more than one type of database with minimum IT intervention.
  • High Performance. The solution needs to run fast. It must have multiple means of getting that performance. Different users have different needs and all of their requirements need to be catered for.
  • Easy Administration. IT needs to be able to support the new application with existing staff and infrastructure. New-world BI makes the life of an IT executive and manager easier. IT should not be involved in creating and running reports but spending time on providing high-value services to the organization.

Data visualisation supported by at least the four factors mentioned above can change the way that supply chain companies do business. Supply chain visibility will become the prime priority and solution, as more visibility will enable companies to address all of the other challenges proactively AND data or information visualisation forms a major part of the solution – it provides insight.

The following visual examples will show how data visualisation can be used to enhance supply chain visibility.

Data visualisation in practice

A dashboard is a “Visual display of the most important information needed to achieve one or more objectives, which fits on a single computer screen so it can be monitored at a glance” (2). Data visualisation uses interactive dashboards to communicate. The following images show dashboards of sales and profitability results for a fictitious company resident in Gauteng that distributes furniture, office supplies and technology nationally.

The objective of the first dashboard is to show the sales and profit for each delivery address for a selected period as well as the impact of shipping cost on profitability for each product.

Click here to experience the functionality described below.

On this single computer screen the following information is available starting from the left:

  • Number of orders by Order Priority shown in colour and size. By clicking on any priority category all other visual reports as well as the summary report will update to show the relevant information.
  • Number of orders by Shipping Mode with the same functionality and information outputs as above.
  • The left-hand top map shows the sales volume (size of the circles) and profitability by location (Blue = Profit and Red = Loss). This map can also be used as a filter to see the specific information for that location – all other visuals will change accordingly.
  • The right-hand visual shows the sum of sales through a product hierarchy by product category, sub-category and product name. To the right of the bar chart is a bubble graph showing margin % for each with the size of the bubbles indicating shipping costs. The colour shows profitability.
  • The Summary table will update automatically with any selection that is made on the dashboard.
  • Additional filtering is also possible by using the drop-down menus at the top, the date filters or filtering on any colour legend.

The second dashboard shows the sales for each province and city/town by product, linked to the supply chain dimensions of Order Priority and Ship Mode. This dashboard uses the same supply chain dimensions as the previous one on the sides however different main visuals are used to show:

  • The left-hand top map shows the customer locations with the size of the circle giving an indication of the total sales at the location. The pie segments indicate the product category and sales volume. The provinces are coloured in various intensities of green with the darkest indicating the highest total sales values.
  • The left-hand bottom visual is a scatter plot showing the relationship between shipping costs and order quantity. The three colours indicate the product category with each showing its trend line. The shapes represent product containers used. As can be seen outliers can easily be identified in this visual. Full filtering, slicing and zooming can be done with the detail of each being shown by hovering over a point with your cursor.
  • The right-hand top bar chart shows a product hierarchy down to the individual product. This provides information on total sales and the percentage of total sales by product dimension. The colour in the left-hand bar graphs indicates the shipping mode and the colour in the right-hand bars profitability. This visualisation can also be used as a filter.
  • The bottom right-hand line graph shows the cumulative sales by product category at the bottom and the actual sales by product category at the top. Outliers or spikes are clearly visible in the top graphs. Zooming in on any date period is possible to answer any questions that management may have as to a specific period or product.

Data visualisation triggers your sensory and short term memory, identifying supply chain challenges before they become problematic and allowing business users to address them immediately, themselves.

These examples were created by a business user without any IT intervention and as you will experience when opening the workbook and “playing” with the two dashboards, they are easy to use and very intuitive. They provide answers to difficult questions immediately. They are available on the cloud – you actually using them proves it; and, they are mobile – access your dashboards on your i-Pad or Android while you are on the move.

Self-service supply chain visibility and performance management through Rapid-fire visual business intelligence, indeed!

For more information, contact Rynier Keet, MD of Corporate Renaissance Group, South Africa on

(1) Dr. Chris Stolte, Dan Jewett and Professor Pat Hanrahan, A New Approach to Business Intelligence: Rapid-fire BI, August, 2009
(2) Stephen Few, Information Dashboard Design, Analytical Press, 2006

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