What Causes Transport Logistics Delays?
Brian Hoey - February 18, 2020
Sometimes, shipments get delayed—it’s just a fact of life, and it's the cost of doing business when you enter the global supply chain. Often, the cause of the delay will be fairly obvious on the outside: a hurricane blocks off a shipping route that usually goes through the Gulf of Mexico, or a strike in France brings all shipping through French ports to a halt. Just as often, however, the reason for the delay seems completely mysterious: despite ideal traffic, weather, and trade conditions, your cargo just doesn’t make it to the right place at the right time.
If you’re a logistics manager at a large company, this can be hugely frustrating. After all, if you can’t identify the cause of a delay, how can you avoid future ones when similar circumstances arise? Luckily, this is an area where a little bit of knowledge goes a long way—which is why we’re breaking down the most common causes of transport delays, and the best approaches for how to avoid and remedy them.
Grappling with Supply Chain Events
Like we said above, sometimes the cause of a particular delay is obvious. Let’s say you’re shipping a dozen containers worth of automotive parts across a route that includes ports in Southeast Asia—if your transport partners start to receive tsunami warnings while they’re en route, they’re going to have to adjust course and potentially slow down the final delivery. Or, if you’re sending some freight across the Atlantic and storms make the most direct route impossible, delays will seem inevitable. In these cases, the cause of the delay isn't really open for debate, and it might seem from the outside that there’s nothing a logistics manager could really do to prevent the situation.
This is an understandable thought, but it isn’t necessarily true in all cases. For one thing, businesses are more likely to run into problems like this when they rely too heavily on static shipping routes without adjusting them to emerging circumstances. In other words, if it’s your business’s standard practice to send a certain kind of shipment via a certain route every time a particular order recurs, you have to take some of the blame for sending your goods right into a storm. This is not to say that all such events are predictable and avoidable, but a logistics manager who proactively crafts dynamic shipping routes based on the unique circumstances of each shipment is much more likely to avoid delays resulting from supply chain events.
In practice, creating dynamic transport routes in the ways we alluded to above is going to be a digitally-driven process. While a planner using pen and ink or an Excel spreadsheet to figure out the optimal route is only going to be capable of so much agility, a planner who augments the planning process with advanced predictive analytics can visualize new efficiencies and potential pitfalls in a way that would have been impossible to accomplish by hand. In this way, you can anticipate a potential disruption (say, a strike or a storm) based on real-time data and then automatically run through possible routing scenarios to find one that is optimized based on cost, risk, or any other factor.
As it happens, all this talk of data integration leads nicely into our next section…
How Supply Chain Data Impacts Logistics Delay Times
Sometimes a delay is just a delay. Though there’s no splashy supply chain event that can explain the delay from a distance, the freight still fails to reach its destination at the appointed time. This can be much more frustrating than the delays we discussed above, particularly because they’re often suggestive of a larger operational issue. Often, however, in cases where the cause of a delay or disruption is unclear, it’s a decent bet that the culprit is inaccurate or out-of-date information. Maybe you bundled your shipments based on last month's inventory information, and the pallets you expected to find in one warehouse were actually sitting in a different one across town—resulting in a delay right off the bat. Conversely, you might have chosen a particular port because of its historically favorable processing times, only to miss out on recent reports about massive slowdowns.
In both of these hypotheticals, the plans were sound in theory—and they would have gone smoothly if the data being relied upon had been accurate. Because the information was out of date, however, the plans fell apart, resulting in delays and potential added costs. Luckily, this is another area where your technology can make a big difference. Often, when someone is using out-of-date information it’s because they either can’t access up-to-date data or it simply doesn’t exist. In an environment that’s largely un-digitized, it’s easy to imagine how this can happen (people only update certain physical records every month or so, and the records themselves aren’t accessible to everyone, e.g.); likewise if you have Shadow IT that creates data silos between different arms of your organization. With a supply chain management solution that prioritizes connectivity, flexibility, and data-visibility, this kind of delay becomes less and less common.
Market Forces in the Value Stream
Of course, even in an environment where planners are operating with maximum supply chain visibility and enough agility to avoid risky shipping routes, transport plans can still go awry. Often, this will be the result of market forces, e.g. unexpected spikes in demand on either end of the value stream. If, for instance, February sees double the number of orders that January had, you might find yourself in a mad dash to source extra materials and book more freight in order to fulfill those incoming orders. In these instances, some delays may be inevitable, but the very same technology we discussed above (advanced predictive analytics and dynamic routing software) can make all the difference.
Sure, sometimes you’re going to need rush orders on raw materials and premium freight for outgoing orders because of unforeseen market conditions. But even then you can monitor warehouse conditions, transport options, supplier inventories, and other data in real time to find cost optimization opportunities. Maybe you can save some money by utilizing backhauls, or maybe if you adjust your production ratios so you can get more out of the raw materials you have on hand (though this would of course require visibility and coordination beyond transport logistics and into production planning). Again, this will likely involve visualizing options that a human planner couldn’t see unaided, but if you’ve got the supply chain management software to make it happen, you'll stand to reduce both costs and mean logistics delay time considerably.