Do you believe in magic?

From the December 2023 print edition

Years ago, while volunteering for a nonprofit, I managed logistics for their disaster response team.

At the time, a new director met the local team and when he asked me about my role, I explained,
I was responsible for the logistics part of supply chain.

Ian Seunarine is president of the Supply Chain Canada, Manitoba Institute, and global sales director at The Duha Group.

You can imagine my surprise when he exclaimed, “You guys are awesome! You’re like magicians,
I don’t know how you do it, but somehow you get everything we need, right when we need it.” While it was a great compliment to the team, it made me realize the general lack of understanding about supply chain management. I wish it was magic, but we all know the hard work it takes to keep our supply chains efficient.

Fast forward to today. The words supply chain have been in the media and on everyone’s radar since the pandemic. While recovery has been ongoing and improving, it seems that supply chain is the most convenient excuse for all that ails most industries. Let’s face it, the pandemic caught us off guard. Not exactly the spotlight we hoped for.

A new limelight
Pre-pandemic, we were leaning out our inventory, rationalizing supply bases, and enjoying relative standard shipping times (and costs) without too much thought on our extended supply chains. Then, reality hit us as businesses coped with rising costs and a lack of materials and labour. Just like magic, our profession was suddenly thrust onto the main stage, highlighting the new challenges we face with the complexity of supply and the fragility of chains.

For today’s young professional, navigating the field of supply chain can be exciting but also turbulent. To tackle today’s complex challenges, there must be a paradigm shift on the part of supply chain professionals. Traditionally, we have provided value through tasks like sourcing, price reductions, long-term contracts, just-in-time inventory, consignment, or vendor-managed programs. We were measured on metrics like the total cost of ownership, inventory turns, supplier performance, and lead times. While these tasks and metrics are still relevant, we need to move beyond being task managers to strategy leaders.

Organizations are looking for supply chain professionals to answer strategic questions and provide solutions to complex issues such as, ‘how do we leverage the supply chain to provide value to external customers?’ ‘Do we understand the market trends that might impact supply decisions in the future?’ ‘How can our supply chain create not only competitive advantages but also tackle macro goals such as environmental and social governance, circularity, and even diversity, equity, and inclusion?’

The new supply chain professional needs to understand sales, marketing, operations, and human resources. Shifting our thinking to provide strategic value, we must look at the supply chain holistically. We need to engage with other functional areas to gain insight as to what is required. Siloed thinking and isolated decision making will only provide short term benefits (if any) but cannot sustain an organization’s future.

It’s daunting to think all this falls on our shoulders. Even the word “strategic” can be intimidating. Fortunately, strategic thinking is not innate. It is something we can learn. The first step is to understand what it really means. The second step is to know if we are thinking that way or not.

It’s impossible to explain the nuance of strategy in a short article. However, strategic thinking is understanding how decisions impact your organization and customers in the long term and aligning it with your company’s vision, mission statement and values. That implies, you understand where your company is going, who your customers are, and what your organization’s vision is. If you’re not sure about any of this, welcome to strategy.

Practice makes progress
It takes time and practice, but once you get into the habit it’s second nature. Below are a few suggestions to get you thinking strategically.

Follow your company, competitors, suppliers, and customers on social feeds such as LinkedIn. That will give you information on your industry and what’s happening in the market. Schedule regular “coffee chats” with leads in different areas to understand their pain points and those of your customers. Seek updates from suppliers on market conditions to understand how those trends can impact your supply.

Keep current with supply chain trends, specific in technology and areas relevant to your industry.
You will soon start asking more questions than you thought possible, and that inquisitive mind will help you shift from thinking about tasks to strategy.

At this point, I’m sure you’re wondering ‘Why Us?’ As supply chain professionals, we’re one of the few departments that intersect all functional areas. It makes sense for us to bring the other teams together, to plan, discuss, and action ideas. To do this, organization and implementation are essential. Don’t forget your basics: be prepared (have agendas for meetings), follow up (assign ownership and establish timelines), establish trust (let everyone speak, ensure you hear different points of view), and be objective (where possible, use tools to help brainstorm, establish root cause or make decisions).

It’s not that difficult. Once you establish yourself in the role, you’ll be surprised how many people look to you for guidance, leadership, and decision making. And so, when that last-minute shipment makes a sudden appearance, some people might think it’s magic. But we know better.