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Tue 1 Nov 2005 04:00 AM

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Dashboard Display

How many stock turns did your warehouse achieve this year? What percentage of your deliveries arrive on time? Executive dashboards can find the answers to these questions.

Dashboard Display|~|Dashboard2.jpg|~||~|How many stock turns did your warehouse achieve this year? What percentage of your deliveries arrive on time? Which lines are running low in the warehouse? These are the types of questions that a logistics manager hears everyday. All of the answers can, of course, be found within the firm’s various IT systems. But, actually extracting this information can be a difficult and time-consuming process. However, by implementing an executive dashboard, users can find the answers to these questions — and hundreds more — with just the click of a mouse.

Using information sources such as data warehouses, spreadsheets and standalone databases clearly help logistics organisations to operate more efficiently. However, extracting information manually from these systems is often slow and expensive. To make matters worse, larger companies may also find some of their business needs are being left unfulfilled, as there are simply too many systems to be manually tracked.

Dashboards offer a more high-tech solution by digitally linking historical business information with realtime operational data. The results are displayed within one screen, mainly in the form of colourful tables, charts, and graphs. This reduces the time it takes to analyse information and make decisions, allowing the workforce to become more proactive in their decision making, rather than reactive.

“Using warehouse management systems, forecasting tools and transportation management systems has become common amongst logistic companies,” explains Zahi Bitar, business manager at Span-SNS. “However they still encounter a serious problem — the lack of visibility. This means employees must ask their IT departments to extract data, which takes extra time. Dashboards are able to fill this gap by extracting the data from different sources, analysing the information and displaying the results. Everything is ready for the user. That’s the main purpose of the dashboards — having visibility.”

These executive dashboards, also known as manager dashboards, executive cockpits or digital cockpits, are able to unite data from across a company, including the logistics department and other areas such as sales, marketing, finance, human resources and distribution. Users can then view a complete, multi-department snapshot of the organisation or all of the relevant information from their department. The dashboard basically ensures that all information is available in one place and that everyone is using the same data sources.

The majority of companies use dashboards to integrate information from a variety of data sources, such as a data warehouses, spreadsheets, internal applications, external information services and standalone databases. The more robust portal servers increase value by allowing the integration of other business systems into the dashboard too, such as e-mails, stock quotes and news feeds. “There’s really no limit to the number of sources that can prove useful to larger organisations. It simply depends on how many sources the company is using at the time of implementation,” says Bitar.

The dashboard offers different views of company information to different users, depending on the person’s individual requirements. Users simply customise the dashboard to view information relating to their specific job. For example, a logistics manager may want to monitor inventory levels, using realtime information, updated as transactions are entered into the warehouse management system. They may also want to view order status to confirm a certain order has arrived, or extract the relevant data from a carrier’s system to track shipments.

This information can also be measured in realtime again key performance indicators (KPI), which are the heart of any dashboard. KPIs are chosen by each individual user to suit their particular needs. For a logistics professional, this could include stock turns, loading times, inventory accuracy and costs. Software vendors normally offer a set list of KPIs that should cover everything the user requires. Having standard measures across the organisation eases comparison of managers and executives to each another. The option of paying extra to add company specific KPIs is often available too. “Dashboards offer flexibility on a number of different levels,” says Bitar.

“The user sets their own individual KPIs and decides how the information is displayed. Depending on their taste, they can easily switch between different types of charts and colours. It is also possible to print the screen or save the information as a spreadsheet or .PDF file. This flexibility makes the dashboard incredibly user-friendly,” he adds.

The flexibility offered by dashboards increase their overall benefit to the organisation. However implementing the solution is only the beginning. Staff should also receive training and encouragement to use the system. Some organisations are setting specific targets after implementing dashboards to help improve usage, achieve better results and quicken the return on investment (ROI). For example, requiring the logistics manager to use the dashboard to handle exceptions, such as abnormally low inventory, within a specified time period. “Dashboards are useful for setting targets within a company or department,” says Raheel Khan, Middle East territory manager, Business Strategies Group (BSG), which is Exactus’ local partner.

“For example, some of our customers are planning to use dashboards in their warehouse. They will set certain targets amongst their staff and select KPIs to monitor performance. Workers can also compare their performance with other colleagues in the warehouse. This provides a useful incentive within the company to work harder and meet targets more efficiently.”

The audience for dashboards is not necessarily limited to employees. Some companies, including 3PLs, adopt a portal-based approach to make the software available to customers and partners as a value-added benefit to their services. Using the internet, customers can access the dashboard online and retrieve information regarding their accounts to keep themselves updated and make sure service level agreements are being met. The information is provided quickly and eases the burden on companies to handle customer queries through telephone and e-mail. A recent survey by Hurwitz & Associates, for instance, found that 71% of the US companies surveyed are using dashboards to communicate with customer and partners.

“Logistics companies are generally going through a transitional period in this part of the world. Customers are seeking more value-added services from their 3PL suppliers and the companies need to meet these demands,” says Khan. “Allowing customers to access the system through dashboards is certainly worth considering. Offering this service lets customers enter the system, manage their own inventory, and independently handle factors such as tracking and reporting. Its an attractive added-value service,” he notes.

Allowing online access to such information may raise concerns regarding security, however solutions are in place to tackle the problem. “Dashboards are read-only tools. They do not manipulate the data or make changes to the back end systems,” explains Khan. “They simply help customers to easily access the information, analysis it and share it. In terms of security concerns, these days, we have robust firewalls and people regularly use internet banking, where they are transacting money via the web, so I don’t think this is an issue.”

ROI is obviously an essential issue for any company considering business intelligence and dashboards. Hurwitz & Associates’ survey found over 50% of those companies implementing dashboards saved over US $500,000. In addition, approximately 50% had achieved an ROI in less than one year. The results are very impressive considering that, on average, the dashboards had been in place for less than two years.

“The ROI varies between companies,” says Hemal Shah, director of Logistixware, regional partner of Manhattan Associates. “A smaller sized operation may benefit from testing a warehouse management system without the dashboards and deciding whether it suffices. However for larger companies, having a performance management layer with dashboards is highly recommended. It provides visibility and information on future trends. That’s where the ROI will be faster.”

The majority of companies in the Hurwitz & Associates survey stated that dashboards account or will account for at least 25% of their performance analytics budget, if not more than half. On average companies are spending between $100,000 and $500,00 on each dashboard and they plan to continue spending at that level. The market for dashboards in the Middle East is yet to reach this level, but vendors are hopeful that it will get there soon.

“Once the local market matures and warehouse management systems are more prevalent, the demand for business intelligence will increase. The need for dashboards is going to become inevitable, if not immediately, then in the very near future,” says Shah. ||**||

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