An industry that is famed for its reactiveness, Supply Chain in Japan is in the process of undergoing a much-needed upgrade


Although Japan has one of the world’s most resilient supply chain functions, almost without rival when it comes to reaction to crisis, the global system has moved on and there is a feeling that Japan has been left behind. With a major trade deal agreed upon between Japan and the E.U., Japan’s supply chain industry is ready to change, but it needs to develop talent in order to do so.

The last 12 months has seen Japan’s supply chain industry making tentative steps away from being a simple cost centre function towards self-enablement, contributing to sales, and developing a burgeoning focus on the commercial aspect, according to Marc Burrage, Managing Director of Hays Japan.

“In Japan, supply chain used to be about firefighting and troubleshooting, and it has excelled in this area. However, technology and process-wise, it is about five years behind other countries,” Marc explains. “But the past year has seen a change in this outlook, with a more proactive stance than we have seen before, as it becomes a critically important partner for sales enablement.”

The predominant development that has come from this change is the creation of ‘demand forecasting’ as a job function, a new appearance in Japan over the last two years.

“With organisations seeking to integrate data, optimise inventory and ordering, as well as seeing a liaison between the supply chain and sales and marketing, there has been a growing need for ‘demand forecasters’.

“However, due to the historically operational, reactionary way in which Japan’s supply chain industry has worked, the pool of these proactive individuals who are able to push back on the sales and marketing side is very shallow, and as this demand is likely to continue for another two years, it is only likely to become shallower.”

As the focus of supply chain in Japan begins to take in an increasing notice of services, candidates in the area of indirect procurement have become much more important, and are taking more visual positions in companies.

“Whether companies are trying to cut costs on IT software, human resources or warehouse management, the role of indirect procurement has become one of increased importance over the last year,” Marc says. “It has grown to such a degree that we are seeing more and more companies develop it as a centralised department, with indirect procurement managers being drafted in to develop teams.”

However, like with ‘demand forecasters’, companies are finding it difficult to fill these roles amongst the legions of reactionary employees, which is leading companies to develop the talent for themselves.

“Some of the bigger players, such as pharma companies and major FMCG companies, have created development programmes with the specific supply chain function in mind. These can be three year programmes with rotation between different supply chain functions – purchasing, logistics and planning – with the intention of making specialists as opposed to the generalists that we have seen in the past.”

As the nature of the industry transfers to a more active, commerce orientated self-enablement operation, there are a variety of skill sets that are in demand.

“For candidates in mid-level roles, companies are looking for individuals who have spent time in third party logistics and domestic transport agencies. Ideally, they will have participated in project management with an overseas department and have history of implementing innovative strategies,” Marc explains.

“For senior level candidates, we are looking for someone that has experience either overlooking the entire supply chain function, or as the head of a primary function in a larger firm. But the key point that companies are looking for is that candidates have driven a change of management initiative, spearheaded system integrations or process implementations, or created a new supply chain process for a product launch.”

For those with the requisite skills there are plenty of positions, however they cannot expect to command huge salary increases, with eight to ten per cent as standard. However, if candidates are looking for improved work-life balance, then their needs should likely be met as companies are increasingly happy to oblige in this area. This is advantageous for the high percentage of women in the industry.

“For at least 70 per cent of the candidates I see, one of their top three requirements will be a good work-life balance. Supply chain is a female driven market, many of whom have family duties around which they have to work. Fortunately companies are adaptable to this, and are amenable to candidates’ demands of flex-hours and working from home,” says Simon Lance, Managing Director of Hays Greater China.

“And while the upper areas of management are still 80 to 90 per cent male, this is a situation that is improving, and companies have come to us looking to encourage greater diversity, with incentives for good female candidates.”

An overview of what other trends have been observed in Japan’s supply chain sector can be viewed below.

• To supplement the training of supply chain staff, there has been an increasing trend of MNCs dispatching experts from their global headquarters to implement new practices in the Japan branches.
• With Japan in the process of developing firm trade partnerships around Europe and the Pacific, there is a strong desire to find fluent English speakers with international experience.
• Bilingual candidates who can adopt newer innovative systems and newer technologies will be in the strongest positions.
• Over the last few years, recruitment processes have been sped up as companies move quicker to tie down talent in candidate short areas.
• With the big distribution companies struggling to cope with the demands of the e-commerce explosion, the concept of last mile logistics is becoming an increasingly pertinent consideration.

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