It’s the mantra of excellence for process engineering and supply chains everywhere: right product, right place, at the right time. How could it not fix all that ails any organization, be they financial problems, customer service problems, quality problems, or any other type of problem? If there were only a broad consensus on the definition of “right,” things would be easier. In instances where “right” is not perfectly clear to all involved, there is an opportunity for a conversation (or negotiation). The adversarial nature of such interactions can cause them to consume more resources than necessary or can mean the conversations never even happen. It is easy to see how these “battles” arise.
Are you picking your battles?
By definition, those working in supply chain are “caught in the middle” between two nodes in the chain. When this idea of “right” becomes a struggle between, for example, consistency and timeliness (e.g. I don’t need it right, I need it on Tuesday), you can make a judgment call as to which of those positions is more “negotiable.” “The boss said Tuesday,” is an understandable piece of evidence to introduce to the consistency camp. But is “Tuesday” reasonable? Is the consequence of missing the deadline worth the consequence of breaking with consistency? That is a conversation that may be difficult to broach, especially if “The Boss” has little time or attention to expend. Engaging rather than accommodating may bring about a more informed decision and direction. A solid base of relationship capital—with all parties—can help move this to a collaborative conversation rather than a battle of “The boss said” vs. “That is crazy!”
Are battles picked for you?
In a competitive environment, whether trying to win business in the marketplace or win resources internally, it is easy to fall into the mindset of a win-lose approach that creates adversaries rather than collaborators. It is worth asking oneself, “Am I the one who is making this adversarial? Can I see it a different way?” It is equally beneficial to ask, “Have we been pitted against each other?” Well-intentioned people may have created a reward system (formal or informal) that sets up the interaction as a zero-sum game. (e.g. on time or on budget?) If you have different measures of success, it is another instance of right vs. right. Is there a common “right” that makes sense to both of you (e.g. customer satisfaction)? If so, you are now allies in engaging to have better measures in place for next time.
The “right” actions and initiatives can come from many places, but those originating from a supply chain function may carry the risk of being seen as a hindrance and not a help. It takes a deft appreciation of the overriding narrative to understand which actions will be most effective and what conversations (up, down and across) will enable implementation with the least amount of resistance.
One big advantage of supply chain is the end-to-end view that this discipline affords. In his novel The Ground Beneath Her Feet, Salman Rushdie recounts, “The only people that see the whole picture are those who step out of the frame.” We are all in a frame, but I think that those in supply chain have one of the wider ones going. This can help them see the more wide-reaching “right” way to do things. Sensitivity and skills in collaborating will help.
THIS ORIGINALLY APPEARED IN THE NEWSLETTER FOR THE CANADIAN SUPPLY CHAIN SECTOR COUNCIL – Oct. 2011.
The monthly mailer from APICS brought my attention to a panel hosted by SAP at the end of September that touched on how supply-chain related activities can lead to business sustainability and, more importantly, can reduce risk. One of the comments on the website of the original article suggests that this is not “new news,” and goes on to share the commentator’s own presentation from 8 years prior conveying a similar risk-reduction message.
I concur that stating “It’s not about going green, it’s about making money and minimizing risk” smacks of motherhood, but the clarification this from a strategy level will quickly become a negotiation about trade-offs involved. For simplicity sake, let’s look at an industry that makes no pretense in the “doing good” department: contraband cigarettes.
Tom Blackwell’s recent series in the National Post exposes a picture of a complex supply chain and the risks taken on by some of the parties. Beyond the tobacco farmers as suppliers of raw materials, the industry needs paper and filters. Suppliers would be smart to engage their buyers in a discussion in order to fully understand the risk and return trade-offs. The discussion should address the risks involved with supplying illegal factories, apparently located on First Nation reserves. The balance of risks (of being associated with a contraband industry) with return (of additional sales) can become a business decision beyond its ethical implications.
You can see how this becomes an internal negotiation, as well, and provides an opportunity to clarify what is acceptable by multiple measures (e.g. what do we mean by sustainable, ethical or other measures?). Avoiding these negotiations leaves a larger degree of risk than necessary. If/when a crisis breaks regarding untoward supplier relationships, the communications and public affairs department may be stuck with: “We never bothered to ask” as a defense. This may not be acceptable to stakeholders on grounds ranging from ethics to stock price.
Gaps between “doing” and “saying” create risks that need to be acknowledged, and then managed and reduced. Treating these situations as a collaborative negotiation (internally and externally) can assist in this process. Not every industry operates in such proximity to ethical and legal risks. Nonetheless, the approach is similar. Sustainable business can offer some common ground from which to build a conversation/negotiation about shared value. A first step is to identify the different aspects of sustainability and how they are prioritized. It will be worth the effort.
Summer can give you pause to reflect on actions and decisions of the past…and question choices you made. One important decision in addressing some of the tension of collaborative environments is whether or not to involve (or use) others in conversations. Replay a situation as if the decision depended on a coin toss: Heads, enlist an agent; Tails, go it alone.
The Case for Heads: Buffer for Cultural Differences
In stakeholder discussions with my classes and my clients, we often delve into cross-cultural dimensions that can reflect in different values and motivations. Doing my undergrad in business in the early 90s, cross-cultural management pretty much meant dealing with Japan. Now, in this country – and specifically in supply chain – you likely encounter people from different cultural upbringings several times a day.
To deal with cross-cultural issues, I always ask those with firsthand experiences to share their insight. It is safer to address some prickly stereotypes from the “inside.” This particular dimension of in-group/out-group dynamics creates an opportunity to buffer cultural disconnects (including clashing corporate cultures) by involving someone who can see both sides, and, perhaps more importantly, is seen to be able to see both sides.
Call them “agents” or buffers, due to experience of circumstance, using people in this way can go a long way to smoothing some natural tensions, as well as offering translations, including when “maybe” really means “no,” as can be the case with the Japanese culture.
The Case for Tails: Fight Your Own Fight
One of the case studies that I used this summer in my negotiation class involved a classic showdown between a beleaguered airline and its union. In a recent discussion, a student, who was sitting with me to “negotiate” a portion of the final grade, reiterated his position that management should have used a third-party mediator. The rationale being: no emotions, just facts. It really is simple, or at least was in the student’s mind.
If you have ever been “buffered” in this way, it can actually set off an entire new range of emotions that reflect frustration in not being able to make a case directly and suspicion that the “mediator” (or agent) will not accurately reflect your interests. I wonder, in retrospect, how this student would have reacted if I had appointed a third party to hear his case for an improved grade.
Many times you have to “fight your own fights,” if not for control of the situation then to establish yourself for this and future interactions. Relationships matter.
The interpersonal side of collaboration can be exceedingly complex. That said, there are some instances where the decisions are clear (e.g., work through someone or address a situation directly). Context can give you an idea, but rarely do we get certainty. Experimenting and taking chances (coin tossing?) can create situations that you can reflect upon and learn from.
The thread that I try to weave through most what I do (including my writing in this space) is that communication can be strategic on the smallest (micro) levels. By strategic, I mean trying to get the most for the least. By communication, I mean storytelling through writing, talking or meeting with people. Sample supply-chain related stories (aka – agendas) include: sharing the upside of the switch to centralized purchasing, understanding why a process is not working in practice, or encouraging diverse groups to share all their information.
Some ears may be deaf to these storylines, but there are three things that I think can help you be more strategic in telling your story (even to the metaphorical hard of hearing).
Three enablers of strategic storylines
1 – Seed the idea
Communication works on networks social, informal, or otherwise. People may pay more attention to things that are being discussed. Favourable discussion can lead to: “everyone is talking about how good this is, so it must be good.”
Deferring judgment, I bring you the social media example of the “tweet sheet,” which is, under one definition, a list of “key messages” that you send to your friends so they can independently “tweet” your messages to their networks and beyond.
Judgmental note: I was gobsmacked when I heard this. Isn’t social media supposed to be this bastion of authenticity? Everyone has an agenda!
The ethical discussion is beyond the scope of this column. Seeding ideas is one way to tell a story. You may be able to plant seeds in ways that fit with your way of operating.
2 – Use what’s there
Again, I draw from a marketing discipline. A consultant relayed the story of working with a producer of breakfast cereal: “One of the things that kept coming up was the stat that a cereal box is read X number of times. Finally someone decided to capitalize on that real estate!” Similar rational sits behind using the cleverly placed ads on bathroom walls.
Where are people looking already? Does the company newsletter attract eyes? Is there a place where people tend to wait (e.g. outside a particular directors office)?
Again, be wary of the line between “clever and subtle” and “overt and cheesy.” Best to keep well on the former side.
3 – Question the change
I was in a discussion last month that questioned the entire premise of “buy-in.” The logic being that, looking back at theories of motivation, people won’t do what they don’t want to do. (I was in a discussion yesterday where a client had recently realized that “power” was the answer.)
Asking the “what if” question of yourself gives you what you need to go forward. So, what if we can’t centralize all purchasing? What if we can’t get reliable information from sales? The steepness of the downside may illustrate how much effort you put into this.
My secret hope is that everyone makes their case well, and the result is actions and directions that serve the best interests of all involved. (My “best” includes a good dose of sustainability.) I will get you my “tweet sheet” and cereal box decals, if you want to help get this message out. Of course, we all realize that much of this could be (1) happening already, and (2) impossible to achieve. More of 1 will put me out of business, and I haven’t “bought into” 2 just yet.
THIS ORIGINALLY APPEARED IN THE MAY NEWSLETTER ON supplychaincanada.org
As long as I have been active in the business world (and paying attention), “providing solutions” has been part of normal business language. This is not a measure that I endorse, but a Google search for “business solutions” garners 10 times more results than does a search for “business problems.” (For what it’s worth, bing.com turns up 270 million for the former, and 300 million for the latter. Is Microsoft onto something here?)
Tom Blackwell (National Post Health Care columnist) writes last month about the trends to bring Toyota-like efficiency into hospital and health-care environments. The successes are clear and are often demonstrated in reduced wait times and higher through put. Both of these offer defense to such criticisms as “you can’t treat people like automobiles” because you can treat processes like processes.
One of the perspectives that Mr. Blackwell introduces is that of consultant Tim Hill, who works in the implementation of such programs. His criticism is that, as the worm turns toward “everybody’s doing it,” clients may not be getting the value that they should (or, as Hill puts it, “A lot of health care facilities are getting ripped off.”). Needless to say, the eHealth initiative in Ontario has raised the level of scrutiny on consultants to the health-care industry, including perhaps myself and Mr. Hill.
Accountability for “providing solutions” has always been a tricky one for consultants and service providers. How many software executives would take payment from the efficiencies their product generates? Or how many advertising executives would link compensation to the sales impact of a campaign? With a larger understanding of shared interests, consultants can be encouraged to try to “solve the problem” rather than simply “provide the solution.” This may override the obvious tension of the pay-the-least vs. charge-the-most divide. Again, both sides need to be reasonable.
The bigger challenge is where “the problem” stretches beyond the area of the organization that hired the consultants. The natural temptation for any service provider is to give the client “what they want,” which may not be the solution they need. To use Mr. Hill’s example, the hospital may get the rigour of Lean processes (that they asked for!), but some important underlying issues remain unsolved.
Managing the tension of collaboration is possible when there is an understanding of the shared interests. This likely means that: (1) the customer is not always right; and (2) for consultants, there are no one-size-fits-all solutions… but we all knew that already.
THIS ORIGINALLY APPEARED IN THE MARCH NEWSLETTER OF THE CANADIAN SUPPLY CHAIN SECTOR COUNCIL (www.supplychaincanada.org)
Cynicism can be a very destructive force, and can be particularly damaging to the trust/goodwill/benefit-of-the-doubt that seems to help collaboration unfold. I might suggest that perceived hypocrisy is the very best fertilizer for those cynical weeds in the collaborative lawn of an intra- on inter-corporate culture.
Claiming hypocrisy appears to be a safe place from which to launch a critical attack. Much of the criticisms of the recent Copenhagen climate summit point to a disconnect between curbing greenhouse emissions and jetting off to global conferences, then taking limousines to the hotel.
Al Gore received the same treatment for living in a mansion.
David Suzuki got it for using a tour bus to move his small entourage around Canada.
On a smaller scale, in the set-up to some client work I did on effective meeting behaviours, the senior manager showed up a few minutes late and then began chastising the lack of respect for people’s time that hampered effectiveness.
In my role as a trainer/instructor, I have an opportunity to instill the importance of “walking the talk” when engaging hostile stakeholder groups, or even members of a cross-functional team. Most of the time clients, students and attendees can’t tell if I actually walk my talk. (Recall the cynical adage: If you can’t do, teach.)
Note: A colleague of mine, who also teaches negotiations found a neat way around the issue: “It’s not how good a negotiator I am; it’s how good are you after I have taught you.”
There are two situations where those watching, I think, have an opportunity to really assess my walk-to-talk ratio.
1 – Training presentation skills: Similar to writing a book on writing skills, leading a training session on “presenting” always makes me feel naked. During one such session, I found the projector frozen (having spent a December night in the trunk of a car). I am certain the audience was quietly thinking, “Wow! What is he going to do now?” and expecting me to have the right answer, (which is get on with the content; you will find the projector works fine once it is warmed up!)
2 – Negotiating grades for a Negotiation class: Students have an option to analyze and strategize their negotiation with me for a final mark in my MBA course. I don’t feel as naked in these situations because of the obvious power imbalance.
Either of these situations provides clear opportunities to spot the “do as I say, not as I do” moments. I can’t say that I have been called out much at all. One gentleman approached me after a training session with a hypocrisy sighting: “You told us you tend to ‘beg forgiveness over ask permission,’ but then you kept asking us if it was OK to move on.”
Hmmm. Needless to say, no “participation” marks were on the line this time.
When under scrutiny, I think that credibility can become very solid very quickly if the talk and walk line up. Authenticity is a strong asset in managing and leading change from any level of an organization. I firmly believe that those under the most scrutiny (from strong out-group camps), have a fighting chance to gain/regain credibility when they “walk their talk” as much as possible. This means that if I am not flawless, I can’t hold you to a flawless standard… that would be hypocritical, which would make you cynical, which limits our ability to collaborate.
No one is bullet proof. It is far too difficult to fake it. Lead with your strengths, and find others to cover your weaknesses.
Earlier this month, I attended a talk at Schulich Business School where Operations Management faculty and PhD students played host to Dr. Kevin Hendricks from Wilfred Laurier University. As is often the case, we began with introductions; the audience was small enough for us to go quickly around the room of students, who were largely looking for research tips. Describing my connection (negotiations instructor) and my interest (helping positive change take hold), I got the sense that people in the room asked themselves “What is he doing here?” I was very clearly “outside” this particular group. It’s not the first—and certainly not the last—time that will happen.
You don’t have to spend too long with me before I start on about in-groups and out-groups. A fundamental belief of mine is that value-producing collaboration requires better communication across traditional divides (e.g. between the two groups). It can, however, be uncomfortable to spend time across a divide (as I can attest from some of the discussion involving research methods).
The set-up for Dr. Hendricks talk peaked my interest: “Many senior executives simply don’t understand the importance and value created by a well-performing supply chain.” His premise was that the best way to “prove” that companies should actively invest in pre-empting supply chain failures was to look at the stock price drop that followed a reported inventory “incident.” (For the truly peaked, click here.)
The take-away for the students was, as I understood it, that many of the traditional statistical methods (presumably familiar to these PhD students) are useless when looking at such incidents. There are other ways to inject the necessary rigour into the study, and this was the focus of much of his talk.
Perhaps a kindred spirit, I am certain that Dr. Hendricks does well in speaking to “practitioner” audiences, and clearly conveyed the importance getting this message out to other parts of organizations. Pre-emptive arguments that require investment are always difficult. Making the case to “senior management” may be easier with studies and findings he and others produce.
According to Hendricks, the majority of practitioners who take interest in this work do so because of such a failure and, conceivably, a drop in shareholder value in their recent past. This means that practitioners can simply wait for “an incident” to occur. Direct experience has a way of persuading.
THIS APPEARS IN THE MONTHLY NEWSLETTER FOR THE CANADIAN SUPPLY CHAIN SECTOR COUNCIL (supplychaincanada.org)
If you read this column, you will know by now that I have a very soft spot for analogy. My favourites involve the restaurant industry, and to guard against diminished impact from overuse, allow me to share one from a client of mine, who is enamoured with sports analogies. He explains a relatively recent switch in his and his agency’s role:
“We used to be like hockey referees. If things were working, people barely knew we were there. Occasionally we would be called in to work on problems, but there was often clarity about what should happen. These days, we are baseball umpires and are constantly being asked to call ’strikes’ and ‘balls’ in situations where things are happening fast and in front of many spectators.”
The difference in the impact of the authority of officials is stark between hockey and baseball (leaving national orientations aside). In hockey, a referee is unable to see everything because the action is so constant. In most instances, no action on the part of a referee is an acceptable response. There is an expectation that less-serious infractions and breaches will be ignored, and that occasionally a major breach will slip under the radar (for example, if it happens behind the play). In instances where a potentially game-changing decision is required, such as with a disputed goal, the lines are very clear and the maximum impact – one goal – is usually surmountable for the other side.
Baseball umpires, on the other hand, have a nearly omniscient view of the field of play. They are constantly required to make binary decisions – i.e., in or out (watch this clip for the frenzy created by delayed calls). One of the most-important criteria for an umpire’s decisions – the vertical strike zone from the player’s shoulders to knees – changes with every batter, plus the ball travels at highway vehicle speeds and only very recently has support been allowed through instant replay. “Game-changing” calls routinely become “game-ending” (e.g., how rare is a bottom-of-the-ninth third out on strikes?)
In the working world, which would you rather be?
A straw poll would likely show a preference for refereeing, but I will suggest that many organizations need the calls made by umpires. There are steep potential downsides to “no action” as a response to a situation:
- Delays that cause missing a window of opportunity
- Diminishing perceptions of the person’s ability/leadership
- Deflating employee spirits as “analysis” continues seemingly forever.
From my involvement with supply chain professionals, I’ve found that they often make up the group that has the best view of the “field of play” and may be in a good position to make (or initiate) a positive “game-changing” decision that takes into account wider implications. The criteria for success, like the strike zone, may need some clarification to maintain the quality of the decisions and garner necessary support.
The other thing to point out, before the analogy goes too far, is that the best decisions come when the “us against them” dynamic is altered toward collaboration. This is why I still prefer the restaurant stories.
THIS WAS ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED IN THE AUGUST NEWSLETTER OF THE CANADIAN SUPPLY CHAIN SECTOR COUNCIL (www.canadiansupplychain.org)
With my recent purchase of a new car, I have ceased membership in two groups to which I had a certain affinity: (1) those with cars built last millennium, and (2) drivers of standard transmission. All indications are that both these are dying breeds. The sales guy who facilitated my purchase won me over partly by saying that the automatic transmission turned “driving” into “aiming.”
There was only one time when I was truly embarrassed to drive my old car. Last year in March, ice on the highway caused me to spin out into a snow bank half way through a four-hour intercity trip. The bottom half of the trip was humbling; it is one thing to be driving an old car that runs well, quite another to drive one that rattles when you crack 85 km an hour. It was a very quick and inexpensive fix, which brings me to the topic of alignment, where little things can make a big difference.
Two summers ago, I sat with a client overlooking the newly installed volleyball nets on the lawn of the corporate campus. The idea was a good one: outdoors, exercise, taking a break, blowing off steam… The only problem was that, apparently, none of the senior staffers ever played. Directly or indirectly, the message to staff was “if you want to get ahead in this company, don’t waste your time on the volleyball court.” In my experience in and around organizations, there are many such instances that illustrate a misalignment between intention (what the organization wants) and action (what the organization does).
NOTE: HR has a tough role in these instances, and would do well to fully understand corporate cultures and values before launching “employee” initiatives.
Defining or clarifying some shared values can assist in making interactions and negotiations between working groups (e.g., on a micro level) more productive. Here are examples of gaps between the culture and the communication:
- A “strategic” partner talks about how much they value the relationship, but constantly resorts to “nickel-and-dime” approaches to negotiations;
- An internal workgroup, whose mandate is to improve efficiency, continually schedules meetings that fail to move the process forward; or
- In dealing with their “internal clients,” a support function provides little in the way of customer service.
Like with my beloved car, small problems with alignment can result in large problems. Tension between management values (stated and, better yet, understood) and actions/initiatives are fodder for cynicism, lack of trust, and unhealthy noise between people and groups. On a smaller scale, individuals can take the lead in clarifying some shared values through questions such as:
- Is this partner really that “strategic”?
- Do we need to be efficient in addressing efficiency?; and
- What is our understanding of “client service” internally and externally?
The answers to these questions may emerge easily, but more likely will spark a tough conversation between those involved. The discussion may force a clarification on what parties should expect (e.g., maybe it is unrealistic to expect to be treated as a “client” all the time).
Ideally, the corporation as a whole will have actions align with values. Individuals, I suspect, see misalignments more often than not. Approached in the right way, with a good degree of benefit of the doubt, I think that some of the smaller ones can be addressed, if not fixed. These little alignment issues can have wide-reaching effects. It may be worth a check.
This originally appeared in the July 2009 newsletter for the Canadian Supply Chain Sector Council (supplychaincanada.org)
Last week I participated in a meeting of the CSCSC’s board of directors, which brought together an impressive cross-section of stakeholders in Canada’s supply chain community. In addition to hearing reports and updates, attendees participated in a group exercise, led by Linda Lucas, to build on information from pan-Canadian information-gathering sessions conducted earlier this year. The exercise involved three steps:
- Identify sector-specific priorities (in a given overall segment);
- Map actions to further those priorities; and
- Assign tasks to people (bonus marks, I think, for time lines).
From my experience doing similar work with clients and groups, all the steps are important, and gauging consensus (rather than happiness) along the way is essential. Success or failure can hinge on the Number 3 point, above; failure is still in play even if Numbers 1 and 2 are clear and garner group support.
My group was focussed on issues under the umbrella of “Attracting and retaining talent in the sector.” Among the priorities we determined was getting other business functions to recognize the strategic importance of the supply chain function to make it a desirable area to pursue.
Note: The theme of the undervalued supporting function is rampant. “Supporting” roles never get the respect that they should. Individual egos (and we all have them) are no small part of this. At varying times, I have sat in meetings where those from other supporting functions (PR, Communications, HR and IT, for example) bemoaned the fact that they deserved more respect in the organization.
Having identified this priority, we suggested that the appropriate action is to “bang the drum” about the importance of supply chain. We then dutifully took aim at assigning the task, but concluded that this one – perhaps like others – is everybody’s job.
Some specific examples for the rollout might look like this:
- Leaders in organizations: celebrate successes in supply chain innovation internally (to reinforce the changes) and in other companies (to demonstrate the opportunity).
- Educational institutions and designation-granting associations: foster pride in being involved in 21st-century value creation (profiling successful graduates), and provide skills to communicate that value to different areas of the organization.
- Workers in the sector: take every opportunity available (and create opportunity) to share successes with all related functions internally and externally; praise and foster internal collaboration that helps generate innovative solutions.
- Consultants in team and stakeholder communications: provide awareness as to the importance of selling your functional and individual value; train skills on effectively communicating the value of supply chain to the wider stakeholder group.
Much of this is already underway, I know. According to information gathered in the Council’s activities, the work is far from done to further this priority to the extent that the sector needs to realize its potential. Consider yourself tasked, and stay tuned for the timelines.
This originally appeared in the June 2009 newsletter for the Canadian Supply Chain Sector Council (supplychaincanada.org)
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