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Is End-to-End Pull Flow Possible for Your Company?

By Bernard Milian
Layout of Flow Between Factories

Pull flow is not a new technique. In the industrial era, Kanban loops have been around since at least the middle of the 20th century. The principle has likely been around for much longer, since it’s so simple and logical: replace what has been consumed, to align the supply chain with actual consumption. Who knows, perhaps the supply of stone blocks for the construction of the pyramids was organized that way?

Curiously, in the 21st century – we’ve perhaps become too intelligent, thanks to computers and, why not, AI – these principles have withered away. Kanban loops and pull-flow are most often confined to a small scope: within a workshop, as a result of the rapid deployment strategies of Lean tactics, perhaps between a customer and a supplier.

In my industrial career, I’ve worked to implement pull flow tactics on the widest possible scope, but I’ve often bumped into barriers. It’s okay to implement pull flow in the factory, but the factory ships to the distribution network – which is another responsibility, and you can’t change practices there. Is the replenishment signal from the distribution network very unstable and erratic? That’s not your job, you have to make sure the factory knows how to handle it. On our end, we have salespeople and forecasters who do their job!

In my experience, the main obstacles to deploying pull flows from one end of the supply chain to the other are :

– A fragmentation of responsibilities, and local performance indicators, which prevent the company’s entire supply chain from being considered as a system.

– A lack of methodology, guiding principles, and a common language to ensure that all the players involved in the company’s supply chain share a common vision. 

– IT systems – mainly ERP systems – whose core reactor is designed for push flows. 

When, about ten years ago, I joined the Demand Driven movement promoted by the DDI, what particularly appealed to me was the promise of being able to deploy an end-to-end pull flow, and to align all operations with actual demand/consumption:

– Finally, we have a methodology, guiding principles, and training to align teams throughout the company.

– Finally, we have the IT systems for supply chains needed to put these principles into practice – first and foremost Intuiflow.

The obvious, for experienced supply chain optimization practitioners, was finally going to prevail, and pull flow was going to be deployed for all companies!


Unfortunately, we’re not there yet. We have supported several companies in setting up an end-to-end pull flow, including distribution, production planning, workshop management, and procurement – across all company sites. 

These are success stories. These companies willingly testify to the significant benefits of this end-to-end transformation. But these companies are still in the minority. 

Our customers who have had the most success implementing end-to-end pull flow across all their sites share some interesting characteristics:

– The entire supply chain – procurement, production, distribution – for all sites is under the same responsibility.

– From the outset, the vision of an overall deployment was shared with the teams.

– Deployment at all sites was completed rapidly – in a maximum of 24 months.

You might think that these criteria would only be found in mid-sized companies – with sales of a few hundred million euros – but we’ve seen similar success stories in multi-billion dollar companies. 

Conversely, several initially ambitious programs have fallen a little short of the mark, or are taking much longer than expected. 

Time is the enemy of an ambitious transformation program. If your program stretches out over many years, if it’s too fragmented, you run the risk of encountering several difficulties, which we’ve observed with some of our customers:

– Program champions leave the company or change jobs. 

– There are difficulties on some sites – that’s normal. Despite the successes, these difficulties fuel controversy and over time there are differing opinions within the company – is this the right methodology for us?

– Well, there’s an ERP system change to be made. Let’s stop or shake things up.

The answer to the original question – is end-to-end pull flow possible for your company? – is an unambiguous YES. Not only is it possible, but it’s also a prerequisite for success and longevity. Toyota showed the way a long time ago and has amply demonstrated its effectiveness. 

How to succeed?

– Don’t get bogged down in pilots

– Be determined, set up an in-house project team, and organize a sustained tempo

– Investing in knowledge and team alignment

As a result, you’ll have a much more agile supply chain, which adapts continuously to changes in demand.

And don’t forget: once you’ve deployed the virus on all your internal sites, all you have to do is pass it on to your suppliers and customers! 

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