Warehouse workers receive boxes
By Deanna Self | September 28, 2023

What I’ve Come to Expect from 3PLs (and Other Supply Chain Leaders Have, Too)

Think it’s “more automation” or “more speed or accuracy”? You’re in for a surprise.

For those who know my journey, I've been in the thick of the supply chain world for quite some time. From managing my own operations to my latest role at Zebra's North America distribution center, I've tackled various challenges. However, this latest chapter in my career as the Director of Operations for North and Latin America has been the first time I’ve actually managed a 3PL.  

Of course, it can always be a bit scary doing something for the first time. But relying on the skills I’ve been able to add over my years gave me the confidence to succeed. 

For example, I have managed several third-party vendors over the years, and my experiences with these other partners have given me a lot of lessons that I was able to draw upon when figuring out how best to work with our 3PL. I've boiled them down to three big things that I think have been essential in our 3PL partnership: collaboration, transparency, and trust. 

Wondering why these three are so crucial and how they lead to success? This reasoning is best explained in four parts: 

1. Pooling Our Knowledge for Bigger Wins

Whenever I chat with others in the supply chain field, one theme rings loud and clear: collaboration is a game-changer. It's not just about having a 3PL as a service provider; it's about harnessing their vast experience and insights. Just as inclusion and diversity (I&D) helps contribute to a positive company culture, a 3PL’s diverse clientele brings a wealth of unique perspectives to our operations. Teaming up with them doesn’t just mean more hands on-deck; it means a richer pool of ideas, innovative solutions, and the ability to make decisions that are backed by a broader view of the industry. Think of it as a brainstorming session where everyone brings a different piece of the puzzle to the table.

2. Transparency is Key

Think about when you're cooking with a friend. If you both know what ingredients you have, it's easier to whip up a meal without any hitches. Similarly, in the world of 3PLs, hiding details just won't do. We expect to see everything happening in as real time as possible. And it goes both ways - the more transparent we are with them, the faster they can adjust things to make sure we're all on track. It's all about working together so both our needs, and most importantly, our end customers' needs, are met without missing a beat.

To put it another way, when a company decides to hire a 3PL, they are really saying, “We want you to be part of our operations as an equally invested partner. So, we want to know what you know, and we want you to know what we know at all times. This will help us run our business as efficiently as possible…together.”

3. The Pursuit of Operational Excellence

Sure, keeping costs in check is crucial, but what truly makes a 3PL stand out is their dedication to top-notch operations. It's about faster turnarounds, accuracy, thinking outside the box to tackle challenges, and always seeking better ways to get things done. Just as we're passionate about excellence, we want a 3PL who shares that drive. Having this mindset and ensuring their team is on board is vital. After all, they're right in the thick of things, and their commitment can make all the difference in reaching our shared goals and keeping our customers satisfied.

4. Culture: More Than Just a Buzzword

Imagine teaming up for a big game. You'd want a partner who plays fair, supports the team, and has the same end goal in mind, right? That's how I see culture with 3PLs. It's not just about procedures or routines; it's about how employees, vendors and colleagues are treated, how challenges are handled, and how the small and big wins are celebrated. I want a 3PL that feels like an extension of our own team – one that shares our values, respects their crew, and has the same standards in work and behavior. When both sides get this right, we're not just working together; we're thriving together.

It also helps when both you and your 3PL agree that service level agreements (SLAs) are more than just a promise – that they’re the game plan…the rules you set together. 

Though they are technically contracts, they aren't just legal formalities. They're about trust, teamwork, and making sure you’re both moving toward the same goal post. Here's how we – as supply chain leaders – can ace this game with our 3PLs:

  • Open Conversations: Like any great team, communication is key. We should always be in the loop, share the game plan, and tackle any unexpected twists and turns together.

  • Regular Huddles: By frequently checking in, we can see if we're still on the right track and adjust our strategies to be even stronger.

  • Problem-Solving on the Fly: Let's face it, sometimes the ball doesn't bounce our way. When that happens, instead of pointing fingers, huddle up together (client and 3PL), find out what went sideways, and come up with a game plan to avoid that fumble in the future. Proactivity is our best play, but when we miss a step, understanding why is crucial to making the next play a success.

In Other Words

Partnering with a 3PL brings a myriad of benefits, from cutting-edge technology to innovative solutions. However, the essence of a successful partnership doesn’t solely rest on these offerings. It's rooted deeply in finding a 3PL that mirrors our values, aligns with our culture, and is genuinely invested in our collective success. When these elements harmonize, we don’t just benefit from the differences they bring but also pave the way for a future of mutual growth and achievement.


P.S. If you haven’t seen the latest post from my colleague Drew Ehlers in his “Look at Labor” blog series, you’ll want to read that next. He serves up a great reminder about the power of bringing the right people onto your team – whether you need them to work for you as employees or work with you as a 3PL partner – and challenges us to question whether we’re giving technology too much credit for our success. 

“There’s a reason why you never hear technology described as “talent… why the value of human workers rises in proportion to the digitalization of workflows and automation of inspections, decision-making and other critical actions… why partnerships with other people who know what they’re talking about – people who can help you make progress – have become priceless.”


Editor’s Note:

Deanna recently joined the DHL team on the “All Business. No Boundaries” podcast, where she spoke in more detail about Zebra’s relationship with the 3PL. Check it out!

There’s also a great e-book that just published highlighting “Nine Strategies Reshaping the Future of 3PL Warehousing” that’s worth a look. 

Warehouse and Distribution, Transportation and Logistics, Article, New Ways of Working,
Deanna Self
Deanna Self

Deanna Self serves as the Director of Digital Strategy for Global Supply Chain and Repair at Zebra Technologies, where she is tasked with shaping and driving digital initiatives to optimize the global supply chain and repair processes. Bringing over 25 years of experience in sales, operations, and IT to her role, Deanna is passionate about leveraging technology to improve efficiency and customer satisfaction. Her expertise and forward-thinking approach are integral to her leadership in transforming Zebra's supply chain digital landscape. 

Prior to this role, Deanna was responsible for the oversight and management of Zebra’s largest order fulfillment distribution center. She also spent over two decades in the food and beverage industry before joining Zebra, where she started out owning and operating her own distributorship and eventually served as an IT executive for Nestle USA.  

Deanna holds a Master of Business Administration (MBA) from Queen’s University of Charlotte and was named one of Supply and Demand Chain Executive 2021 Pros to Know. She is also a winner of the Supply and Demand Chain Executive 2021 Women of Supply Chain award.   

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