Let's say you've got big event coming up—maybe an awards ceremony, or an important anniversary. You and some of your friends are going to the event together, and to make the whole affair a little more special you decide to rent a limousine take you there and back. Though the venue is only an hour’s drive away, your friends’ homes are spread throughout your town in ways that make planning the optimal order in which to pick them up (and drop them off after the party’s over) a challenge. On top of that, not everyone will be ready at exactly the same time, and those who would be picked up later in the process would like to know in advance so that they can spend more time preparing. Where do you begin when it comes to planning out a tour that works for you?
As a supply chain planner, you probably see something familiar in the example above. If you’ve ever had to develop a tour as part of your transport management strategy, you know that the deeper you dive into the planning process the more complex it becomes. Do you optimize for time, or do you opt for the shortest route in order to save on fuel costs? Should you utilize transfer points at which you consolidate or break up shipments in order to bolster efficiency, or should you go for a continuous, unbroken transport? (For our limo user, this might be the equivalent of asking friends to drive to one another’s houses to limit the number of stops.) Does your route account for one way streets, and areas that provide limited turning opportunities? (UPS famously experimented with eliminating left turns from its tours in order to tackle this problem). That’s all before you get into customer delivery and timeline requirements, which can add an additional layer of scheduling complexity.
Putting down the Pencil
The depth and breadth of these considerations mean that optimal tour planning is almost always too complex to do by hand. By trying to untangle this aspect of transport logistics with pen and ink or an Excel spreadsheet, you cut yourself off from the types of tools and innovations that can help you visualize all of your options and ultimately select the right organization of stops based on the parameters outlined above. Not only that, but planning on paper effectively prevents you from integrating your plans with other planning workflows, and makes end-to-end visibility virtually impossible by keeping tour planning efforts outside of the kinds of digital planning workflows that encourage collaboration and easy access to information.
Alternatively, by ditching the spreadsheet and performing your tour planning functions in a modern, digitized workflow, you give yourself the chance to optimize complex scheduling problems and integrate your tour management into other digital workflows. If, for instance, you were shipping furniture to an office building, you might want to be able to group different orders together based on which offices would also require help with installation, or based on the building type (larger office buildings might have larger freight elevators, and thus offer easier movement of goods than smaller offices). This would be difficult to do on paper, with different caches of information stored across different points on the planning funnel. But in a digital tour planning environment, it’s easier to integrate these different sources of information so that planners don’t get stuck trying and failing to find critical information. In this way, instead of a segmented planning process that necessarily lacks important data integrations (meaning difficult optimization processes and limited flexibility), you have an agile planning workflow that can account for all potential modalities. The benefit here is that with more data your plans can benefit from better predictive insights into the outcome of any given decision even after the original plan is already in motion, resulting in better management of events and disruptions.
Okay, let’s think back to our limo example for a moment. You’ve finished up your party and you’ve dropped everyone off at their respective homes—what now? Now, you face another test of your technological integration. You have to pay for the rental, and then (assuming you were splitting the costs with your friends) let your companions know how much they owe not just for the limo itself, but for fuel, champagne, etc. For the supply chain planner, a similar set of concerns arise: how do you handle customer billing on completion of delivery? How do your customers receive delivery notifications? What’s the protocol for documenting disruptions or unexpected changes? The fact that these questions concern so much more than just plotting out the necessary stops on a tour should tell you something important about the nature of modern tour optimization: that it depends on treating route and tour planning as integral components of broader supply chain planning.
Imagine if your tour planning workflow were completely cut off from your billing department, for example. When it came time to send a bill, your company wouldn’t necessarily know if the order had arrived on time, or in the correct condition. By the same token, if an order was cancelled at the last minute, you might not be notified in time to alter your tour plan. These areas of potential disconnect can create confusion and stand in the way of optimization by preventing the creation of smarter, more connected workflows. When these processes are integrated, on the other hand, both teams can receive notifications in real time, and both billing and planning workflows can be updated to reflect new information. In this way, you shorten the lead time for any changes or adjustments that need to be made to either process, thereby saving time and money.
Though this is just one example of the kind of integration that optimized tour planning thrives on, you can be sure that there are others, from sequencing warehouse management in conjunction with load-unload points along a tour route to managing hubs and yards based on changing tour parameters. In each case, connectivity and visibility remain the keys to optimization, paving the way for more responsive, adaptable processes that make your business more competitive.