I read an interesting article earlier this year about the creation of an electronic bill of lading (eBOL) standard by the Digital Container Shipping Association (DCSA). Similarly, an over-the-road eBOL purveyor created a ‘task force’ aimed at defining a similar standard for drivers and facilities. Their ostensible goal in creating a standard? Simplify the exchange of documents and data across the broader ecosystem of participants in the transportation and shipping space. Thus, promoting cooperation, enhanced visibility, and improved ability to react to congestion and other unforeseen challenges. A valuable and admirable goal, but one that any organization in this space mirrors. Dig deeper into the marketing and messaging, though, and another reason takes shape. One that more accurately explains their need for this concept of a ‘standard’ or ‘taskforce’.

Low Adoption

Despite renewed focus on end-to-end digitization and streamlining archaic paper and face-to-face supply chain processes, estimates show less than 5% of all organizations leverage a contactless eBOL and digital driver workflow. What is the foundational challenge limiting the adoption rate? The answer to this question illuminates why specific eBOL providers spend time exploring the creation of standards and taskforces to drive adoption, versus their solution.

Multi-Party Complexity

When clever organizations look to digitize physical interactions with drivers and the paper that bookends these workflows, they recognize the extent of the change reaches well beyond the walls of their organization. They understand success demands they bring their suppliers, vendors, customers, and every driver and carrier combination they work with into the discussion, as each play a pivotal role in a well-choreographed digital dance.

What happens if even one of these organizations is not ready or does agree to the process and technology change?

Any viable eBOL and driver orchestration solution capable of improving adoption must allow the organization implementing the solution to reap all the benefits of digital documentation and streamlined interactions with drivers and data, while still meeting their drivers, partners, vendors, suppliers, and customers where they are in their digital journey. Any solution that requires 100% compliance across this multi-company ecosystem is doomed to fail.

The Driver Challenge

Perhaps most critical is the role drivers play. Many organizations deal with more than 100 different carriers, not to mention individual owner-operators, all with varying levels of in-cab technology. Ensuring consistency and a standard across drivers is particularly problematic in a post-Pandemic world of constrained capacity.

What happens when a driver with a flip phone shows up and is expected to scan a QR code to gain entry to a facility? Is there a contactless digital alternative?

Are drivers expected to sit in their cab taking pictures of 20+ pages of an LTL bill of lading to start the digitization process with a cracked screen?

What if a driver, carrier, or customer requires a paper bill of lading? Are drivers required to enter the shipping and receiving office and speak with facility staff to procure paperwork?

As we continue to interact and talk with prospects and customers, it is evident that any solution to this eBOL problem must account for the variation in driver in-cab technology and tech-savvy in a clean and elegant manner. If a solution hinges on a homogenous interaction with every driver, it will not gain high levels of adoption and is destined to be the all too common 70% solve.

The Operational Challenge

Next, we have the operational complexity, variability, and exception-prone nature of warehousing and logistics. If you spend any time in a warehouse, you recognize the amount of exception handling necessary to ensure success shipping and receiving product. Labor shortages, equipment failures, inventory discrepancies, order changes, driver/carrier swaps, and last-minute trailer changes are part of every day. The ability to elegantly handle and account for exceptions in this space is beyond critical, it is a necessity and the hallmark and an exceptional operations team.

What happens when a driver swap takes place hours before arrival? Does the process hinge on knowing the driver ahead of time?

How does the solution handle a driver that arrives without adequate knowledge of the shipment identifier they are picking up? How do they communicate to resolve with facility staff?

How are site-specific safety requirements communicated to drivers? Is the solution flexible enough to determine the requirements based on type of load, delivery region, or position in the yard?

What happens if a driver is early, or late? How are they told not to enter, or to wait in a corner of the lot, or to call their dispatch?

What if the yard has a gate? What if it does not have a gate? Can the solution work in both realities?

How does the solution interact with in-yard weight scales, refrigerated trailers, and physical gates? Does the existence of these items limit implementation options?

Are there communication limitations with adjacent systems like Yard Management Systems (YMS), Warehouse Management Systems (WMS), Transportation Management Systems (TMS), or Enterprise Resource Planning Systems (ERP) that drive manual steps and one-off processes when exceptions occur?

These are challenging issues to solve, but they are not issues that require brand new technology. They are a byproduct of the limited knowledge of warehouse/yard operations and the day-to-day exceptions required to keep goods flowing worldwide. A pragmatic solution that creatively leverages existing technology in a manner to accommodate the flexibility an operation necessitates, while allowing any driver that shows up, regardless of in-cab technology, to induct themselves into a digital, automated, and streamlined workflow is the answer. No two operations or yards are the same and any viable solution must accept this reality.

The Real Reason Behind Low Adoption

The current solutions, particularly those built by Silicon Valley software firms, not warehouse and operations experts, take a highly idealized view of the problem. They incorrectly assume a consistent level of technology and savvy in drivers and a static and consistent workflow without exceptions. They are technology and software experts and attempt to solve the problem the way software and technology experts do, with technology and software in idealized use cases. Solutions where success is based solely on homogenous in-cab technology and driver tech-savvy. The idea that a high adoption rate solution only has in-cab QR code check-in and driver document ingestion options with their phone cameras is inane. To invert the semi-famous phrase from my seven-year-old daughter’s favorite Star Wars series, ‘this is not the way’.

The inability to cleanly solve for the operational complexity and variability outlined above is the real reason behind the need for a ‘standard’ or ‘taskforce’. The solution limitations have been identified and are not easy to solve for a technology firm. If eBOL providers can strongarm or force industry operators to adopt a single solution, offloading this challenge and need for change onto the industry, the provider can supply a single solution to meet said need. As any savvy logistics operator inherently understands, flexibility, adaptability, and elegant exception handling are everything in logistics. Remove that malleability through forced compliance with a standard that makes a vast number of assumptions and things fall apart. The movement of goods slows down, costs go up, and customers defect. Make no mistake, these concepts are beautiful in principle and in the boardroom, but they do not work in the real world today.

To realize this boardroom nirvana, one with complete supply chain interconnectivity and self-driving trucks, the solutions of today must build a pragmatic and flexible bridge to transport the industry from the current reality of warehouses, truckers, and commerce. This bridge is the key to industry eBOL adoption, unlocking the digital yard of the future.

Our Recommendation

Organizations exploring eBOL solutions must demand more from their solution providers than strict adherence to an artificial and arbitrary ‘standard’ created by tech-heads in Silicon Valley. Demand a solution that does not require holistic industry adoption. Demand a solution that meets the needs of every facility across your network, regardless the physical layout or site-specific safety protocol. One that provides the ability for carriers and drivers that need a physical copy of paperwork to leave with a physical copy, while still providing an entirely digital experience for the carriers, partners, and customers ready for that leap. A solution that does not require drivers to snap pictures of shipping documentation with their phones. One with the breadth of deployment options necessary to prevent massive change management and process upheaval from delaying network-wide deployment and ROI realization. One with the appropriate amount of operational flexibility to solve all the challenges and exceptions associated with driver and facility staff interaction.

The operational flexibility to meet organizations where they and their carriers, partners, vendors, and customers are today, while ushering them forward into a fully digital future is the key to eBOL industry adoption. The firms and organizations preaching a standard have not been able to build a bridge to accomplish that, so they look to impose a standard, versus a solution to encompass all the variability and options that a large organization requires.

Our recommendation to prospective buyers and the industry? Focus on eBOL solutions from providers with deep knowledge of warehousing and logistics, which is where the complexity of the solution resides. The eBOL space does not require a technical solution not yet solved. It is a problem best suited for a firm steeped in a rich warehousing and logistics heritage. A heritage that ensures every nuance, exception, and facility variation across an enterprise is met. Flexibility is the answer, not a standard, for adoption and the ability to share data, documents, and overcome the inevitable logistics disruptions and challenges ubiquitous within today’s global and highly complex supply chains.

Join us in our quest to provide the industry with a viable solution to eBOL and Driver Orchestration at https://macgregorpartners.com/m-folio/.

Written By Jason R. Ziegler, President / CEO

Jason is an entrepreneurial executive with experience spanning sales, software development, supply chain consulting, and emerging technology implementation. He brings a unique and valuable business perspective to any engagement, having sold, implemented, and consulted for numerous Fortune 1000 company’s most transformational supply chain, distribution, and technology projects.