David Sarley

Supply Chains for Global Health: Learning from Starbucks and Microsoft to get life-saving commodities where they’re needed, when they’re needed

What can supply chain experts from Starbucks, Microsoft and Trident Seafood share with public health practitioners at the Gates Foundation? Quite a lot, as it turns out.

These three Seattle-area companies all manage complex global supply chains for millions of customers in over 150 countries. Some of the challenges they face include anticipating what customers need, increasing visibility into what is happening along their respective supply chains and ensuring system flexibility and last mile delivery that gives customers the on-time and in-full orders they want.

Recently, Steve Robinson (vice president of Global Logistics at Starbucks), Jeff Davidson (general manager of Global Fulfillment & Logistics at Microsoft), Joseph Bundrant (CEO) and Ronald Hildebrant (vice president Logistics and Purchasing of Trident Seafoods Corp.) spoke with Gary Hanifan (head of Accenture’s Global Supply Chain Practice) and 50 staff and partners of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. Each of the panelists shared insights into what makes a supply chain work in an increasingly complex and interconnected world.

Panelists described the unique supply chain challenges their companies encounter. Trident’s Hildebrant spoke about the tight schedules delivery trucks have to meet in order to deliver food to distribution centers on time. For Starbucks and Trident, both deliver perishable products that require temperature control throughout the supply chain – without which inventory could be lost, customers’ orders could be unfulfilled and revenue could fall. Microsoft faces the challenge of short product lifecycles, and has thus designed its supply chain to meet the complexity of its products.

Each of the companies expressed the importance of understanding the point of demand and orchestrating the supply chain and analytics from there. They also stressed the importance of people and processes rather than technology in driving better performance. To emphasize this point, Robinson added, “Make it great, then automate.”

One of the critical areas facing both corporations and public health managers is how to deploy technology and supply chains in countries that have infrastructure challenges. In responding to this concern, Microsoft’s Davidson spoke about starting with an “It is what it is” mantra, which basically means that the sooner people move past the overwhelming magnitude of the changes needed, the sooner they can embrace the challenge of fixing a problem. For example, rolling out mobile phone technology in underserved regions can be a daunting task, but step by step development toward cell towers and GPS tracking can reap long-term benefits unimaginable when a project kicks off.

The insights shared by the panelists can be related back to supply chains that the Gates Foundation supports. Whether it is vaccines in Nigeria, family planning and essential medicines in Ethiopia, or HIV medications in Tanzania, supply chain managers need to have a solid understanding of product availability and supply chain processes in order to respond to people’s needs. This includes ensuring vaccines are kept cold and effective in route to the children who need them, and health commodities are transported efficiently so that they are available to mothers and children on-site and on-time.

The experience and advice from Starbucks, Trident Seafoods and Microsoft can help public health supply chain members improve their on-time and in-full order fulfilment, ensuring life-saving commodities are available when they are needed. We will be working with these and other private companies to understand how their experience can be translated to benefit public health systems that do not operate with the same profit motive that drives these global supply chain leaders.

The author, David Sarley, is a senior program officer at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

Editor’s note: This blog originally appeared on the Impatient Optimists website and is reprinted here with permission.

Health Care
supply chains, vaccines