UK global dried fruit and nuts manufacturer Whitworths says a recent move to cloud analytics across its real-time supply chain response is helping create a data-driven culture across the business.
Whitworths itself, with roots back to 1886, says it produced over 40 million kg of product in 2020 alone. As a result, it claims to be the UK's leading dried fruit and nuts supplier, supplying what a lot of own-brand major supermarkets sell to consumers.
To make all this work, Whitworths business analyst Jason Simpson says that a complex global supply chain needs to be properly organized and run:
The food industry's unpredictable, and bad weather in one country can have a massive effect on what's going on with us, so we must be able to react to things.
Take raisins; there are different seasons, depending on which side of the hemisphere you're looking at, so there's a time element. And then there's a market element - who has the best pricing and product right now. Plus you get different grades of raisins.
This leads to a few supply agreements, which are then issued out to suppliers of that product, which must be shipped through to us and which we need to keep track of in terms of where anything is at any given time. The consumer has no idea about all the data needed behind getting that raisin from Cape Town to the supermarket.
The company installed an IFS ERP (Enterprise Resource Planning) system several years ago to do all this back-end work. It had also implemented the Qlik Enterprise Business Intelligence (BI) system for finance, which has proven very successful. However, use of this form of data analytics was yet to spread to the other parts of the business that might benefit, such as the supply chain or manufacturing.
This was seen as a problem at senior management level, as they often struggled to get timely visualization of trends in the business. Outputs of data from the ERP were in a text form that line of business managers then had to manipulate themselves in Excel. This could result in meetings where different analyses of core performance information could end up being interpreted differently - or, in Simpson's words, leadership would begin given 10 different stories about the same situation.
This was very frustrating for the leadership, but they were also being told that important data could not be retrieved - which wasn't the case. You just had to know to look, but it was just too hard for them to make quick and accurate decisions.
To fix this, a decision was taken to widen usage of BI and data visualization within the company. Simpson was recruited 18 months ago from the financial services sector to lead the roll-out:
As the Whitworths' business analyst, my entire focus is getting information from our ERP system and external systems and putting it together into a coherent message for management via Qlik.
As stated, the company had been using Qlik Enterprise in one department. Simpson quickly developed a range of business apps from that system, but soon decided that more licences would have to be bought to properly spread usage.
That would entail cost if done so on-premise, so he initiated a move to general Whitworths' use of Qlik Cloud. This, he said, has not only reduced the cost of the adoption, but also ensured what he sees as a constant set of innovations to functionality, as upgrades get done automatically by the vendor at its end.
That stream of innovation was immediately useful, he said.
People might not think you need the latest tech in food manufacturing, but alerting was a big one for us, as was mobile use as well. A new capability in the software is automation, which is something that I want to bring into our processes from next year. The supplier just seems to provide innovation really quickly, about every three weeks, and when they release it there seem to be very few bugs, too.
‘We had to provide product in unprecedented levels'
Since the move, 60 cloud BI apps are now up and running, which Simpson says have proven very useful - including for helping the company monitor delays in shipments. That was particularly useful during the 2020 when demand for its products shot up, as consumers started to fill their time home baking during COVID-19 lockdowns:
Christmas is not a problem for us, because we start planning for it well in advance, but COVID-19 was a huge thing. We had to make very quick decisions, as there was a massive amount of demand and we had to provide products at unprecedented levels. That meant we had to be really agile, and this platform was used extensively to help. We had the same thing with the Suez Canal blockage.
Other benefits of this new way of working was the ability to see potential shortfalls and alert suppliers to ensure the gap is either minimized, or doesn't happen. Waste has also been reduced by a factor of four, he added. The company also likes the way it can add in extra information from partners into the core ERP system that Simpson says was not previously possible.
This move to the cloud for performance data has also been good for customers, as point of sale information is now much easier to feed back to major retail clients, who can be alerted to spikes of demand for certain goods that could be exploited by others in the chain.
Simpson said senior management is very pleased with the result. Perhaps the biggest ‘thumbs up' so far for him was the gratitude of a senior executive who had been asking for seven years for a report on a process that he was consistently told not possible, but which was easily generated by the new tool.
In terms of next steps, Simpson anticipates more use of real-time data to improve proactive decision-making capability even further at the firm, as well as automating processes to speed up data inputting into IFS.