Three (3) Questions Supply Chain Managers Always Need to Answer

When it comes right down to it, supply chain managers have three (3) questions to answer:

  1. How do we get what we need when we need it?
  2. How do we make available what whoever needs them at when they need them?
  3. How do we deliver to whomever wants them when they need them?

When supply chain managers answer these three (3) questions, their responses must be relevant to their mission, which is:  Fulfil Demand. 

And when we say Fulfil Demand, it must meet the following criteria:

  1. It must be productive, i.e., at lowest cost to maximise profit margins and at minimal capital investment;
  2. It must result in competitive advantage, that is, the enterprise should come out better than that of its rivals;
  3. It must meet expectations not only of customers (i.e. quality, complete & on-time deliveries) but also stakeholders (e.g. shipment volume targets) and the communities they work in (e.g. compliance to laws, environmental sustainability)
  4. It must result in stronger relationships with customers, vendors, stakeholders. 

When supply chain managers answer the aforementioned three (3) questions to the satisfaction of the criteria mentioned, they would be deemed on their way to success. 

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The Many Questions Supply Chain Managers Are Asked to Answer

The following are questions customers typically ask supply chain managers:

  • “Why is it taking you so long to deliver my order?”
  • “When will you deliver?”
  • “How many of the items we ordered will you deliver today?”
  • “How much of an item do you have available?”
  • “Your items didn’t meet our specs; when will you replace them with the right ones?”

Executives also ask supply chain managers the following:

  • “How much did we ship today?”
  • “How much did we ship so far this month?”
  • “How many orders did we receive from Sales today?”
  • “How many pending orders do we have?”
  • “Why do we have so many pending orders?”
  • “When will you deliver the pending orders?”
  • “When will the items be produced?”
  • “How many of the items will we make?”
  • “Why does it take so long to produce?”
  • “When are the materials for production arriving?”
  • “How much will we pay for materials this month?” 
  • “Why are we getting customer complaints?” 
  • “How are you responding to the customer complaints?”
  • “Our costs are too high; how can we reduce costs?”
  • “What’s your plan to comply with government rules on sustainability?”
  • “How safe is our product?”
  • “What’s your plan to stop pilferage of our products?”
  • “Why are we wasting materials?”
  • “How can we reduce inventories?”

Vendors and 3rd party service providers also ask questions:

  • “How much of this material are you buying?”
  • “When are you ordering?”
  • “When do you need the materials that you’re ordering?”
  • “What are the specifications of the materials that you want to buy?”
  • “When will you pay me?”
  • “How much will you pay me today?”
  • “What is your company’s response to my bid?”
  • “How many trucks do you need tomorrow?”
  • “How long do my trucks have to wait before they get loaded at your warehouse?”
  • “Your bid is too low; can you pay me more?”

Supply chain managers encounter questions like these all the time.  Most who ask want answers immediately and supply chain managers feel the pressure to respond. 

The questions, however, lead to more questions.  And it leads to more searching for answers.  Supply chain managers sometimes spend the whole day (if not days) trying to answer questions than actually managing their operations.  

Supply chain managers work in a broad scope.  The questions they are asked would likely touch not only where there are assigned but also functions adjacent to theirs.  Logistics managers who are asked the status of shipments may find out there are issues with production shortfalls and materials shortages.

And because supply chains aren’t only limited to an enterprise’s internal functions of procurement, manufacturing, and logistics but also include the interactions with other enterprises upstream (vendors), downstream (customers) and branches (e.g. service providers, parts suppliers), the questions that supply chain managers are asked would also lead to issues outside the borders of the enterprises they work for. 

Supply chain managers, therefore, are in that unique and unenviable position of dealing with questions that go beyond their job descriptions. 

Supply chain managers should welcome questions, however, not dread them.  Not only they should anticipate them, they should seek them out. 

Questions like the ones above offer windows to opportunities as they indicate what executives, customers, vendors, and other stakeholders find important.

Questions are not problems.  But they together are the first step in figuring out what and which important problems need to be addressed and solved. 

Questions unravel the problems we need to solve.  Seeking them out and defining the problems behind them are proactive methods for supply chain managers to not only answer pressing questions from stakeholders but also open avenues of opportunities which lead to lasting benefits. 

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Finding Fault in Who versus in What

There seems to be a lot of finger-pointing going around. 

People pointing to other people as causes of problems:

  • One country points to another for the coronavirus pandemic. 
  • One politician points to another for failure in stopping the spread of the virus;
  • A restaurant owner blames a vendor’s delay in deliveries as reason for the lack of items on a menu;
  • A manager blames an office worker for poor sales performance;
  • Fans ask “Who’s at fault for why our team didn’t make the playoffs?” and the next thing we see is the head coach getting fired.

We tend to find fault in people.  And we do that a lot.  Just read the newspapers and we see people blaming other people.  Anything from crime, accidents, or plain gossip, someone is hitting somebody else for the issue.   

Rather than say: “Who’s at fault?”  maybe we should first ask: “What’s at fault?” 

Right there and then, the paradigm shifts from outright blame to a study of the circumstances behind any incident. 

  • “What, instead of who, started the pandemic?”
  • “What, instead of who, brought about the spread of the virus?”
  • “What, instead of who, caused the delay in deliveries of needed supplies for the restaurant?”
  • “What, instead of who, led to the enterprise’s poor sales performance?”
  • “What, instead of who, did we do wrong that our team didn’t make the playoffs?”

Just by substituting “Who” with “What,” our frame of mind, even our attitude and feelings, change.  Our ill feelings toward a suspect diminish. We switch from witch-hunters to problem-solvers.

When a problem strikes, it may be good to take a deep breath, get our thoughts together, and remind ourselves to start asking questions with “What” before “Who.”

One word can really make a difference. 

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Three Questions Every New Manager Should Ask

Every new manager should always ask three (3) questions about an operation he or she will be in charge of:

  1. What does the book say should be happening?
  2. What do the people say should be happening?
  3. What is really happening? 

Chances are each answer would be totally different from the others. 

What does the book say?

The “book” in this case is the manual, memo, policy, or rule.  What does the book say how an operation should be run? 

What do the people say?

The “people” are the workers running the operation, your boss, and your peers whom you work with.  They’re the men and women on the ground who know their jobs as well as those co-managers who think they know more than you. 

You could also pose the same question to support staff like the inspectors & maintenance technicians, or to foremen and supervisors who oversee the workers.  But I’d put more weight to what the people who are on the front-line say since they’re the ones who are right there doing the job itself.   

What is really happening?

This is what is actually happening which comes from witnessing the operation itself. 

Most of the time the answers to each question differ greatly.  What the book says would differ from what the people you work with say and either would differ from what is happening in real life.

When a new manager notes the different answers, it provides a starting point on how best to manage the people and operations she will be in charge of.  It will lead to more questions like:

  • Why isn’t the operation doing what it’s supposed to as per the manual?
  • Why are people saying differently from what is actually happening?

The idea isn’t to catch people and find fault.  It’s to know what real problems underlie the jobs people are doing and the systems that run them. 

The three (3) questions provide an opening into understanding what those challenges and difficulties are. 

Case in Point:  Production at a Refrigerated Margarine Packing Line

As a new manager of a refrigerated margarine packing line of a multinational consumer goods corporation, it was my job to make sure production would always be maximised.  There was high demand for the corporation’s refrigerated margarine brand at the time and I had to make sure production was in full swing.

I noticed, however, that production per eight-hour shift never was more than 700 packed cases a day. 

I went to check the work styles of the margarine’s operators.  I had the three (3) questions in mind:

What did the book, the company’s manufacturing manual, say? 

The manual said employees must be on the production line at the very start of their shift and can only leave their work-place during breaks and only at the end of their shift.  During their work-time, they must be working and packing to meet output as dictated by the production schedule.

In other words, employees should be working throughout their shift except during breaks. 

But if they are working throughout their shift, then based on time & motion studies, they should easily exceed 700 cases a day.  So why weren’t they?

What did the operators say?

When I asked the operators how come they weren’t exceeding the 700 cases a shift, they said that is the maximum they can humanly do.  Each case is heavy and packing them isn’t as easy as what the manual says. 

When they pack a refrigerated margarine case, they said they have one person scooping up the margarine bars and putting them into a corrugated container.  A second packer tapes the case and stacks it with others on a pallet.  A third person who is also the operator of the production equipment moves the pallet to cold storage adjacent to the packing line and then provides a new pallet for the packets to stack new cases. 

What was really happening?

When I went to discreetly observe the packing operation (I would observe from a spot where they wouldn’t see me), I noticed that there’d only be one operator on the packing line.  The other two wouldn’t be there.  In fact, whenever I observed the operation, there will always be only person doing everything:  packing, stacking, and moving the pallets. 

On the swing shift (afternoon to evening) and graveyard shift (evening to early morning), there would be no production operation for the last two to three hours of each shift.  As in no one present on the production line. 

When I confronted the crews about this, their first answer was that the other operators were on break when I was observing only one person on the line.  When I countered that it wasn’t the designated company break time, they then said they took turns on breaks so that they could run the machine straight without having to turn it off and on again. 

When I asked how come there was no operation for the last two to three hours of a shift, they said they were making up for the break-times they didn’t use up from going straight during the shift.

Finally, when the employees realised they weren’t making sense, they finally said:

Some years ago we were paid on incentive.  We were given a quota of 700 cases a shift.  If we exceed quota, then we will be paid extra.  But the company decided two (2) years before you the manager came to scrap the system and raised every worker’s salaries to make up for the lost incentive.  We at the refrigerated margarine line, however, felt no longer motivated to produce more than 700 cases per shift.  And rather work throughout a shift, each of us operators took turns packing the items on the line.  Each of us would really be working only two (2) hours a shift.  After six (6) hours, when we reached the “quota” of 700 cases, we would all go upstairs to our locker room and rest until quitting time. 

For the succeeding months afterwards, I worked with the refrigerated margarine crew in this regard.  I didn’t outright succeed in getting more production per shift but I did change how production schedules were done and did organise the crews into teams that worked on reducing downtimes.  Productivity actually improved despite the ongoing practice of producing only a fixed quantity per shift. 

Asking those three (3) questions:

  1. What does the book say?
  2. What do the people say?
  3. What is really happening? 

helps managers see what’s happening from three (3) different angles. 

Neither answer may necessarily be the right one.  The idea is to reconcile them all and identify the problems that underlie each one of them. 

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Twenty-Five Questions We May Find Ourselves Asking Everyday

Some of us ask very profound questions when we go to bed at night or wake up in the morning:

“Why are we here?”

“Where are we going?”

“What happens when we die?”

For many who work long hours and experience the daily adventures of hand-to-mouth jobs, however, these questions are quickly overtaken by more mundane ones. 

The following are twenty-five (25) sample seemingly trivial questions we may find ourselves asking as we go through our daily lives:

  1. Why does it take so long for the traffic light to change?
  2. Why does the traffic enforcer make me and a hundred drivers wait as long as twenty (20) minutes at an intersection?
  3. Why does my mobile phone conversation keep disconnecting?
  4. Why does it take up to five (5) times to redial and connect a mobile phone call?
  5. Why do some fast-food restaurants reject my credit card while the drug store down the street accepts it? 
  6. Why doesn’t the brand-name wrist-watch store have on stock the brand-name wrist-watch strap to replace the one for my brand-name wrist-watch?
  7. Why does it take months for the big hardware store to replace the light bulb I bought but which stopped working after a few days? 
  8. Why do many new bridges only have two (2) lanes, one for each way? 
  9. Why ban trucks on roads at certain hours of the day?
  10. Why do traffic cops target and stop trucks for alleged violations all the time? 
  11. Why put speed bumps (we call them humps) on newly-cemented smooth roads?
  12. Why do some cars not stop when there’s a red traffic light?
  13. Why does the water company dig holes and trenches on newly-built roads?
  14. Why does the power company require so much paperwork and time to change the meter of a house?
  15. Why are there so many fires every March, which every year is fire-prevention month?
  16. How come there’s always an elevator that’s not working?
  17. Why are there never enough parking spaces to park my car at the convenience store or at the bank?
  18. Are Manila’s streets for cars or for basketball courts?
  19. Why do we have to pay the city’s tax-paid garbage truck to haul our trash?
  20. Why do I have to renew my business’s environmental permit when I already have a city hall mayor’s permit?
  21. Why do I have to submit a hundred pages of tax forms when I already had filed it electronically through the tax agency’s website?
  22. Why does the power company give me only a week to pay my electric bill before they threaten disconnection?
  23. Why is the bank’s 24/7 ATM always off-line?
  24. Is it me or is the bread I buy getting smaller?
  25. Why is fish so expensive in a country surrounded by water?

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