7 Tips for Successful Supply Chain Integrations for Logistics Services Providers

Whether you’re integrating modern APIs, legacy EDI systems, hybrid cloud solutions, or some combination of them all, there are basic principles that you can put in place to make sure you deliver logistics and supply chain integrations on time and on budget.

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#1 Know the Goal

Too many integrations fail because the APIs work exactly as they’re supposed to but fail to solve a real business problem. Start with the foundational questions:

  • What problem are we solving?
  • How will this integration solve the problem?
  • How will we know that we’re successful?

If you can answer these questions, then you’re on your way to success.

Too many integrations fail because the APIs work exactly as they’re supposed to but fail to solve a real business problem or achieve a goal

#2 Understand the Words

We all know what a part number is, right? “It’s our SKU... no wait, it’s a style for us… in our system, we use the vendor’s part number for POs but our part number for ASNs…”

No matter how obvious the terminology is in a supply chain integration, you’re going to find some surprises. Sit down with your trading partner and go through the specification field by field. You’ll be amazed at how many times you are describing similar-sounding but completely different things.

A few things to look out for:

  • Arrival & Departure Dates: You mean “arrival at my warehouse” and they mean “arrival at the port.”
  • Invoice Numbers: You’re talking about the commercial invoice and they’re referring to the freight.
  • Bill of Lading: Are you talking about the master, house, sub-house?

Remember, assumptions are your enemy. A miscommunication at the beginning could mean failure at go-live, so be sure to ask all the “stupid questions” upfront.

No matter how obvious the terminology is in a supply chain integration, you’re going to find some surprises. Sit down with your trading partner and go through the specification field by field.

#3 Exchange Sample Files

Before you start mapping your EDI or coding your API endpoint, make sure you see some sample data in the format to be exchanged.

Don’t settle for mocked up examples with “1234” and “1 Any Street” stuffed into the fields. Have the trading partner complete a file with a real shipment and share both the sample and the underlying documents. Even if they haven’t built the integration yet, have them assemble a file by hand. If they won’t, do it yourself and have them review it.

You’ll be amazed how many times you find out that they have an extra zero on all of their purchase order numbers or that their system doesn’t populate the container number that you were relying on.

Just like tip #2, the goal here is to clear the misunderstandings upfront, before developers start writing code.

Before you start mapping your EDI or coding your API endpoint, make sure you see some sample data in the format to be exchanged.

#4 Project Manage the $!@#% Out of It

Weekly status calls suck. Daily standups are worse. Filling out tracking sheets is the most painful thing a human can ever experience. OK, maybe not, but it sure feels that way.

The number one predictor of a successful systems integration is disciplined project management. Scrum, Agile, Waterfall? It doesn’t matter. Pick a methodology and stick to it. When things are good, the calls will be short, and when things start slipping (which they will), you’ll catch them in time to correct them.

At Chain.io, we recommend a weekly 30-minute status call paired with a simple spreadsheet-based action tracker. We can all revert to our complicated internal tools for day-to-day work.

These simple interactions make it easy to move between multiple projects and trading partners with ease. They’re also easy for executive sponsors to consume if you need to bring them in to resolve an issue.

The number one predictor of a successful systems integration is disciplined project management. Scrum, Agile, Waterfall? It doesn’t matter. Pick a methodology and stick to it.

#5 Understand the Fallback Plan

Global supply chains are complicated. Distributed computing between enterprises is amazingly difficult. The number of things that need to go right to move one piece of device data from an IOT sensor to your screen is mind-boggling.

Things are going to go wrong. Humans will forget to click buttons. Internet connections will go down at the worst moment. Email notifications won’t be read.

Embrace the chaos. Accept that some percentage of the transactions won’t make it through. Some percentage of the data will be wrong. Discuss these failure conditions and make sure you’re monitoring them. Then make sure you have the right processes in place to work through or around them. How robust should those processes be? See #7 below.

#6 Hypercare

Landing a plane takes on average 4% of the total flight time; it’s also responsible for 46% of all fatalities. Integrations work the same way. For the first and last week (or two), make sure you keep the project team together. Increase your meeting cadence to daily.

Don’t wait for someone to report a problem. Actively seek out positive confirmation that things are working. Don’t ask, “Is everyone good?” Ask, “How many API calls did you make today? How many records did we create? Are those the numbers we expected?”

#7 Keep It Simple

All of this integration stuff is hard. It gets harder when engineers get excited about the new tech! It gets even harder when the business stakeholders hear about “real-time” and insist on injecting it into a monthly statement reconciliation.

Whenever possible, follow these rules…

  • Use technology that the team is familiar with
  • Make incremental improvements to business processes (unless they’re completely broken, which they usually aren’t)
  • Reduce the number of systems involved to the minimum
  • Reduce the scope to only the “must-haves” (the “nice to haves” can be tomorrow’s must-haves)
  • Minimize the size of the project team

These rules aren’t fun. There’s always pressure to over-scope, over-engineer, over-complicate. The only thing you can’t do is over-plan. Reduce everything else.

BONUS Tip: Use an Expert

Shameless plug time. At Chain.io, we’re passionate about getting the right data to the right person at the right time. We love delivering business value through reliable integrations, whether they involve APIs, EDI, XML, or any other TLA (three-letter acronym) you can find.

We'd love to show you how we can help.

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written on January 18, 2022

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