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.
Earlier here, I introduced AUTHORITY, EXPERTISE and INFORMATION as dimensions to consider in determining if and why to collaborate with different parties. Importantly, this decision is driven by what you need from other parties and not whether or not you like them. For context, let’s say we are addressing complex supply chain relations that directly affect the sustainability—economic, environmental and societal—of today’s business models.
The net/net of the earlier column was, if you have all three of these elements, collaboration is optional.
THE “2 out of 3” SCENARIOS
#1 – No AUTHORITY – Sell the idea
The extent of simultaneously moving parts in most business functions creates a situation where those managing the work cannot be familiar with all the intricacies. Having information and expertise usually means that you can see the consequences of a decision (e.g. “No, we can’t just ship in larger quantities to make sure we meet demand; the expense and risk of housing inventory in that particular location is prohibitive.”).
The approach here is to “sell” the right idea. If you have fostered a degree of “benefit of the doubt” with the “authority” figure, this can be very easy. If the relationship is not there yet, this will demand a thorough understanding of that person’s interests, and a savvy ability to tell them what they need to hear. This is the realm of persuasion and communication skills. In my view, it is the responsibility of our informed experts to get these ideas through.
#2 – No INFORMATION – Help me help you
The final scene in the Cohen Brother’s movie “Burn After Reading” illustrates this situation perfectly (and hilariously), but in real life these interactions can horribly frustrating. Picture a situation whereby you are a competent cook and you have the authority to make whatever you want for dinner. Yet your question “what do we have in the house?” is met with either:
1 – “Well, there is a lot of stuff in the house,” OR,
2 – A detailed list of “everything” in the house.
The fog created by the audience’s lack of expertise can thicken if they are at all intimidated by the degree of authority. These situations are quick to break down completely (e.g. “we’ll eat out tonight!” or “just let me in the kitchen to see for myself!”) The overriding “help me help you” desire can—time and patience permitting—also take the form of tolerating the lengthy list and taking what is useful.
#3 – No EXPERTISE – Hand over the authority
This is the flip side of “No AUTHORITY” and demands a large degree of comfort with the lack of expertise. But, no, this doesn’t mean abdicating completely! Those in authority are tasked with taking a wider look at things, so, to use our first example, they understand the trade-offs involved with running short on supply (e.g. disappointed customers), as well as the trade-offs involved with keeping more inventory (e.g. higher costs and risks). Taking all into account, they can arrive that the decision that does the “best” for the organization.
The interesting part here is the word “best,” which should come down to strategic priorities for sustaining business success, rather than “best” for specific segments of the company (short-term profitability) or individuals (least headache potential). With the necessary separation of expertise and authority, such strategic priorities need to be very clear. A colleague of mine and I consult with organizations to align such strategic priorities with elements of the triple bottomline (profit, planet and people) and to leverage those in engaging with various stakeholder groups. The ensuing conversations, though tough, are well worth having in preparation for evaluating such trade-offs.
If there was any danger of your supply chain getting dull, this can certainly spice things up nicely.
What kind of person are you: Competitive? Big-picture thinker? Assertive? Conciliator? Other?
Such tags tend to promise clarity, but bring in a bundle of behaviours and attitudes that may or may not relate. When these words find themselves describing quadrants or supporting wider groupings on a personality test, you almost need a glossary to explain the context (and the particular bundle).
I run into this with my working descriptions for negotiation strategies.
A couple of semantic challenges are:
- Even if you are not “a competitive person,” you can still pick a strategy of “competing” in a certain situation;
- It can make strategic business sense to “accommodate” the needs of others and you don’t have to be weak-kneed to do it;
- Collaborating with a party does not mean agreeing with them all the time, and you don’t have to be “nice” to do it.
I will suggest that collaboration is a default for supply chain initiatives, given that the relationships (internal and external) have to be maintained over a period of time and that, in today’s competitive (semantics again!) environment, there is no room for compromising the returns on time and dollars spent.
So do you have to collaborate all the time on everything? Not at all.
Before giving you the model, let me give you this:
Glossary of Terms
Information: Results, data, examples and findings that may help in determining a superior course of action.
Expertise: Orientation, experience and training that enable one to see relevant implications of a decision prior to its implementation.
Authority: Structural or informal power to direct the actions of others, coupled with accountability for the consequences of a decision.
If you have all three, there is no need to collaborate. Why would you? You have all the information you need, you know what is important for the decision, and your sphere of responsibility allows you to “make the call.”
This doesn’t mean that you have to be obvious about “going it alone,” but engaging others would be strictly for relationship-building. You will decide if this is worth the effort.
Tune in next month for an elaboration on what to do when you have “two out of three” (which “ain’t bad,” according to Meatloaf).
THIS ARTICLE FIRST APPEARED IN THE AUGUST NEWSLETTER FOR THE CANADIAN SUPPLY CHAIN SECTOR COUNCIL.
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.
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)
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)
We are all familiar with the adage: “Don’t bring me problems, bring me solutions.” If this is your mantra, please accept my apologies. I am actively working to change that mindset—in a supply chain function—one evening at a time. I am recently involved in delivering training for the Supply Chain Awareness Program for Employment (SCAPE), whereby people with international training and experience can receive courses toward designations recognized in Canada.
In the overview material and cases, much of the focus is on tools and frameworks to identify problems… not just our problems, but within and beyond the organization (e.g. from supplier’s supplier to customer’s customer). The level of complexity and the breadth of the analysis pretty much ensure a grab bag of problems. In my experience working in various industries and countries, a different perspective (e.g. international) provides an increased ability to see “new” problems. Stopping every time to ponder solutions would be paralysing.
I am not at all suggesting that solutions be ignored. The better solutions to these complex problems demand participation from other stakeholders, who may require some help understanding the importance of the problem. Credibility and flexibility are necessary ingredients in this communication. The SCAPE training at Micro Skills will provide part of the credibility, as will Canadian work experience as it accumulates. Flexibility is addressed through the material in “translating” problems to different audiences. We tend to practice the following languages:
- Profit impact on dollars tied up in, for example, inventory (business language);
- Customer service impact of slowdowns and delays (sales language);
- Risk impact of uncertain forecasting (finance language); etc.
The plan is to involve all the necessary people to contribute to a better sustainable solution that almost always involves complex trade-offs. One perspective will not deliver the insight required.
Rather than bring solutions with problems (or not bring problems because we can’t find the solutions on our own), the line should be “Bring me problems and a lists of potential collaborators!” I think that those with other language skills and experiences could be part of this shift.
THIS ORIGINALLY APPEARED IN THE MARCH NEWSLETTER FOR THE CANADIAN SUPPLY CHAIN SECTOR COUNCIL. www.supplychaincanada.org
This month, I attended meetings at which the Canadian Supply Chain Sector Council, in conjunction with the Canadian Standards Association, assembled stakeholders to discuss the creation of standards for the accreditation of training and education programs in the sector. Like any standards, these are planned to be objective yardsticks. Educational programs or courses that are submitted for review and meet the requirements specified in the standard, once finalized, will be accredited by the Council.
Discussion at one point focused on communication between students and teachers, which got me thinking about the divide between ideal-world and real-world communication in learning environments.
One of the principles put forward at the meeting was that of lifelong learning. I enjoy the parallel of this concept with continuous-improvement supply chain philosophies, such as kaizen.
In a professional setting, there is no room for knowledge building that fails to be applicable in the workplace. Operating with this in mind, students/trainees should ideally receive feedback on their course submissions, as well as in related areas such as problem solving (e.g., “You missed the main issue”), presentation and writing (e.g., “I can’t understand your argument”), and working with teams (e.g., “You caused disruptive tension with your classmates”).
On the other side of the equation, instructors also require feedback that provides information about both the degree of customer satisfaction (e.g., “You demonstrated knowledge and answered questions”) and the teacher’s effectiveness (e.g., “You made it easy for me to pay attention and learn”).
Through this kind of communication, teacher and student answer each other’s question, “What can I do to be more successful in doing my job/building my career?” Since, in an ideal world, both parties subscribe to the principle of lifelong learning, each will want the information that answers his respective question, to enable him to improve his performance.
The attitudes of teachers and students will never be standardized, but you can count on market forces to keep the parties somewhat aligned: students won’t waste their time in programs that don’t deliver value, teachers want to remain employed, and institutions want to attract students.
Many evaluations, rather than providing objective information that would help a student or teacher truly develop skills, address questions such as:
- Was it fun? or,
- Did I get a good mark?
And consider, would a teacher really be open to feedback that indicates, for example, that she is boring or her thinking is outdated?
Most of the training that I am involved with focuses on skill building (in negotiations and communications, for example), so, as with golf and languages, there is always potential for growth. I will confess to not always wanting it, but I do solicit and appreciate feedback from my students and clients. It is easy, however, to see how the commitment to lifelong learning could waver on either side of the equation.
THIS ORIGINALLY APPEARED IN THE NEWSLETTER FOR THE CANADIAN SUPPLY CHAIN SECTOR COUNCIL (supplychaincanada.org) – JANUARY 2009.
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