Solving the Supply Chain Mystery

I once met a regional sales manager of a large consumer good company at Davao City, the biggest city on the island of Mindanao, 978 kilometres (608 miles) south of Manila, Philippines. 

As I was introduced, the RSM looked at me for a moment and smiled broadly.

“You’re a supply chain consultant?”

Before I could say “yes.”  He says: “I’ve seen marketing consultants, sales consultants, and organisational development consultants, but this is the first time I’ve ever met a supply chain consultant!”

“Welcome, welcome!”  He shook my hand vigorously.  “I hope you can help us.” 

“You see,” he continues, “the supply chain is a mystery to me.” 

“Every time I submit a customer order, I never know what happens after,” the RSM said. 

“I don’t know when stocks would arrive.  I don’t know what and which products would arrive. And I don’t know how many would arrive,” the RSM said. 

He pointed to a few shipping container vans just outside the warehouse office where we were meeting and shared: “container vans like those would just show up and I wouldn’t know what are in them.” 

“I wouldn’t know if the containers have the products I ordered.  At the end of the month, five or more containers would arrive at the same time and I wouldn’t know which container would have the products I need the most.” 

“I’d spend much of my time calling the logistics office in Manila to tell me what’s coming and when but I never get a clear answer.  I spend a lot of time following up the deliveries of products I need when I should be using the time selling to customers.”

“As this is the first time I’m meeting a supply chain consultant, maybe things can change.  Maybe you can solve the supply chain mystery!”  The RSM said.

On the surface, the problem had a straightforward answer.  The consumer goods company’s logistics office just had to share shipping schedules with the RSM to tell him what’s coming and when.  That would right there solve the problem.

The problem, however, goes deeper. 

Why isn’t logistics sharing the information in the first place? 

Why is logistics not communicating with their sales counterparts? 

And aside from logistics, are other departments even communicating with each other?  Do the consumer goods company’s executives communicate with vendors, customers, 3rd party providers, and stakeholders?  Or are they too preoccupied with other problems they consider urgent?

Communication has always been a problem with companies, especially big companies.  Departments hardly talk to each other as they pursue pre-set goals or put out fires within their work boundaries.  If there would be any communication, it would be in the form of phone calls, memos, reports, or hours-long meetings.

Communication in the management sense, however, does not consist of meetings, memos, or phone calls.  Communication in the management sense is about rapport, i.e., active two-way connection between boss and subordinate, between peers, and between people from differing departments and separate enterprises. 

Communication enhances the flow of information in which individuals and groups constantly share pertinent important information with the purpose of meeting communal objectives for the mutual benefit of all concerned. 

So why aren’t companies doing that?  What’s the problem?  Why does a consumer goods regional sales manager have trouble getting in touch with people he sends orders to and waits for deliveries from? 

Communications within and between enterprises require support structures and systems.  Many companies, however, don’t have adequate structures and systems.  This is because these companies have been brought up on a culture of silos, in which managers and employees work in places that have goals and targets of their own. 

In the consumer goods company where the RSM works, there are performance measures and strategies assigned for every department: 

  • Finance seeks higher profits, more cash-flow, and higher rates of returns;
  • Marketing wants brand leadership, strong geographic distribution, and positive consumer acceptance;
  • Sales wants higher turnover, record-breaking selling volumes, and a high level of retail presence;
  • Manufacturing wants continuous uninterrupted production;
  • Logistics wants fewer pending orders and lower freight costs;
  • Purchasing prefers bulk purchases with large discounts on prices.

The consumer goods company’s organisational chart shows a hierarchy of managers and employees working in different functions with different scopes of work each with specific roles and goals.  The chart in itself lays out a plan of silos where individuals and groups work separately.

Separation means differences in priorities and interests.  What’s mine is mine, what’s yours is yours.  Each to our own.  I mind my business; you mind yours.  These become the thoughts of people within the company. 

What more for those who are not from the company.  We’re inside; they’re outside.  Enterprises might as well be islands in an ocean and many are just like that. 

Organisational development trainers and executives have recommended and implemented many ideas to bring people within and even between enterprises together.  They’ve introduced radical solutions such as “flat” org structures that eliminate many layers of authority and they have encouraged “campus” work ethics where individuals from different disciplines work together in open-plan shared work spaces. 

The consumer goods company the RSM worked for had “brand teams” which had marketing managers lead groups consisting of representatives from sales, manufacturing, finance, and R&D.  The brand team would “own” a particular brand of the company and be accountable for its success.  It was a way to break down barriers between functions. 

Unfortunately, these OD and brand team initiatives have only shown limited success.   At the end of the day, the functional employees and their managers go back to their familiar places of work and focus on the priorities of their departments.  The gates of their workplaces close once again as they resume pursuing their own urgent individual targets.   

Supply chains offer a way out of silos.  Supply chains are grounded on relationships.  Relationships, in order for them to prosper, require communication. 

In supply chains, operating functions work with each other to transform and move materials and merchandise from one point to another, one process to the next, one step at a time.  Connections and communications are what makes a supply chain tick.  And for a supply chain to work, it must tick with every part in clockwork synchronicity. 

When the RSM doesn’t know what’s coming and when, the communications and connections aren’t working.  The supply chain link from the transportation of the product to the receiving warehouse is broken.  The supply chain in this sense is not working. 

Hence, the first thing I urged for the consumer goods company is communication.  Fix the link, establish the connection, make active the communication not only between logistics and the regional sales manager, but also between logistics and other RSMs, logistics and transportation providers, manufacturing and logistics, the inventory planners and logistics, manufacturing and inventory planners and logistics, purchasing to planners to manufacturing, purchasing to vendors. 

There has to be rapport.  Not memos.  Not meetings. Not once-a-month reports.  Not emails or text messages.  But active two-way communication of shared information, shared planning, shared direction, and shared implementation. 

It doesn’t take a world-class detective to solve the supply chain mystery.  Just taking the initiative to communicate would provide much of an answer.

About Overtimers Anonymous

Why Should We Care?

Silos

When we get a job in an enterprise, we generally assume it’s for work the company advertised and interviewed us for.   We would find it kind of funny if the company assigns us to do something we didn’t get hired for.   

But it happens.  We sometimes are given work that are not on our original job descriptions.   

Some organisations include “any additional jobs the company may assign” to the list of things to the position we are employed in, but we would push back if the “things” our bosses tell us to do are far from the kind of work we are supposed to be doing.  One does not assign advertising work to an accountant, for instance. 

But it happens.  Like a bookkeeper who the boss treats as a secretary.  Like a plumber who ends up repairing electrical circuits.  Or an engineer who doesn’t do any engineering work at all but becomes a supervisor of an assembly line. 

We also hesitate when an enterprise gives us work in another department or to a “sister company.”  In the Philippines, some firms set up “sister companies” or “subsidiaries” that are totally different legal entities but have almost identical ownership.  The owners would ask their best-performing personnel working in one enterprise to do jobs in another.  An accountant would end up bookkeeping for several different firms or a technician would find himself repairing machines at several different workplaces. Each would, however, be earning just one pay-check from just one company. 

And it does happen.  And often.  Especially in corporations that have diversified holdings in various enterprises. 

We of course want to do just the jobs we are hired and paid for.  “It’s not my job” and “I don’t care” have become favourite mantras in most workplaces.  But just as much as our peers avoid asking us to do things we’re not supposed to do, we find it difficult when our bosses tell us otherwise. 

Our bosses, however, also do get their share of extra work.  Their superiors as well as executives of other departments at times ask them to do things that’s not on the scope of the departments they run.  As much as they resent the additional assignments, many have a hard time saying no. 

And it happens again and again.  Despite what bosses have on their plates, superiors would pile on more.  And we employees get more work too as a result. 

So, we build walls.  What some so-called experts would call “silos.” 

Silos literally are those large towers we find mostly at farms.  They’re storehouses farmers typically put their bulk harvests in before sending them off to markets.  They are usually built with strong materials such as steel or cement.  Silos are designed to isolate stock they store from the outside world, to keep out pests, provide protection from the weather, and preserve freshness.    

Silos have become the best figures of speech for departments in an enterprise who don’t interact with other functions.  And they apply to individual enterprises as well. 

Many enterprises have a culture of looking more towards within than without.  The entrepreneurs that start them have a tendency focus a lot on the activities of their enterprises as they make the effort to boost sales and control costs.   Organisations are conditioned from day one to look inward.  How do we sustain cashflow?  How do we improve our products?  How many sales people do we need?  How much training is enough? 

They ask less about:  how did my customer do with my product?  Did he or she like it?  How has my vendor reacted to my purchase order?  Is she making the effort to ensure the best quality of the items we asked for? 

These latter questions don’t address the interests of our enterprises, so why ask?  Why should we care? 

We should care because the world is changing.  And supply chain management has become more applicable if not more essential in this changing world.    

It’s not only because of the pandemic.    

When the coronavirus (CoVID-19) pandemic hit in 2020, enterprises saw their supply lines fall apart.  Merchandise didn’t arrive or orders were cancelled.  Hospitals didn’t receive needed personal protective equipment (PPEs).  Ocean transport stalled, tying up containers at ports.  Factory production stopped; food deliveries were disrupted.  It was chaos. 

And it didn’t end there. 

Governments have lifted restrictions only to repeatedly put them back again as the virus returned in second, third, and even fourth waves.  Ocean-going vessels ran short of shipping containers for clients and the clients scrambled to build inventories as their customers rushed orders.  Factories stopped and started due to uneven deliveries of critical materials ranging from semiconductor chips, coffee beans, cotton, and chemicals. 

Some politicians trumpeted recovery but realities on the ground were that supply chains have buckled under the stress of whipped up demand and limited supply and capacities. 

Supply chains aren’t in a crisis because of the pandemic.  The pandemic just aggravated what has been holding back supply chains. 

Silos. 

Many businesses had built walls and had focused only on what’s happening within; they ended up at the mercy of outside forces.  They faltered from disruptions that became more frequent this past decade, culminating with the global coronavirus pandemic. 

The concept of the supply chain, since its introduction in the 1970’s, requires managers and executives to not only interact with each other’s functions but also relate with parties along the supply chains they link to.

A butcher must take into account the origin of the meat he procures. 

Chemical companies must assure the lasting efficacies of its products from deliveries to customer to succeeding tiers of trade to the final consumer. 

We cannot not care.  We need to realise we are participants in a supply chain that runs through enterprises, not just within enterprises.  The bottlenecks our vendors face whether it be in material shortages or traffic gridlocks are our business as well as theirs.  The effects of how our deliveries cascade down from buyers to consumers are for our best interests to know and even be involved.    

We should mind the business of others, as we no longer can mind our own alone. 

This is what supply chain management teaches us.  A supply chain’s greatest strength lies in its links, in the connections we make with others. 

It’s a hell of a change in mindset. 

The good news is that many if not most enterprises we compete with are still stuck in the mindset of silos. 

The bad news is that they’re getting the picture too and they will soon be change to become better themselves. 

About Overtimers Anonymous