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.
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
The theme of telling “the truth” vs. telling “your story” recurs in the world of business communication. (The question of the existence of “the truth” opens a philosophical conversation best kept to coffee houses and whiskey bars… We want practice, please!) One specific application of business communication is in trying to find a job. A dripping irony is that “the truth” probably won’t get you a job.
“Hi there. I am really good at analyzing business data to improve supply chain performance. I get bored pretty easily if I am not challenged. I have a low tolerance for arbitrary rules, and I hate to be rushed to make a decision when I know I need to do more analysis.”
However, as the storyteller of your skills and abilities, you carry a responsibility to align your story with your truth. A colleague of mine shared some insight from one of his field contacts:
“The context and the technical expertise is the easiest type of knowledge to share with a new hire. Give me someone who has a desire and ability to learn, and can work with others in a team environment. That is the kind of person that I want to hire.”
Apparently, there are challenges in filling this particular bill. Even if those are the requirements, I guarantee you won’t see a job description that says only:
“Wanted: someone who can learn our systems reasonably quickly, and work with our people reasonably well. Good benefits. Pay commensurate with experience.”
JOB EXPERIENCE, EDUCATION, SKILLS and ABILITIES are parts of your storyline (and maybe even headings on your resume), however the underlying questions you face are: Can you do this job? And, if you can do it, do you want to do it for us? Deeper questions include, “have your overstated your qualifications and abilities?” and, especially if you a shifting careers, “do you have a realistic appraisal of your value (in this new marketplace)?”
You may be able to defer the answers to these questions almost indefinitely. I will suggest that for all concerned, truthful answers to these create the most value for employee and employer. Everyone expects a degree of story, especially in the written communications (Cover letters, C.V., resumes, etc.). The interview process, especially the latter rounds, provides an opportunity for both sides to explore and share a bit of truth. On both sides of the equation, it is dangerous for the story to stray too far from it!
This month I was working with groups at the PMAC in-residence week. This event pulls together a large group of individuals with mixed backgrounds, geographies, industries and issues. The task was to fill a half day in developing useful skills and awareness about communicating, collaborating and negotiating better solutions. The challenge from my perspective is getting beyond very general concepts (e.g., consider the other parties’ interests), while maintaining relevance to the group: the common denominator of “manufacturing” is long gone from purchasing and supply chain.
Is There an 80-per-cent Rule?
My economics professor from an undergrad class at McGill told us students an anecdote, from which I will share the first 80 per cent:
After a shipwreck in the North Atlantic, three survivors wash up on a rocky island. They are a chemist, a physicist and an economist. From their vessel, they recover a crate filled with canned tuna. This appears to be the only food they will have until they are rescued. Anticipating hunger, all three set about to address the challenge of extricating tuna from the cans.
The chemist immediately starts tasting the water to gauge the salinity, and then begins calculations to determine how long the cans would have to soak before corrosion weakened the can to the point it could be opened with bare hands.
The physicist begins to look for the highest point on the shore, and starts gathering loose rocks of different sizes. This will determine the optimum “height of drop” and “weight of rock” necessary to open the can without spilling its contents.
The economist begins arranging rocks to resemble three chairs and an eating surface. The others shout, “Hey, we need to open the cans first, friend,” to which the economist replies: “Oh yes, but my assumptions are (1) negligible inflation and (2) that we have a can opener.”
My professor went on, in the next 20 per cent of this discussion, to lecture on the necessity of assumptions in simplifying issues. His conclusion: including all the complexities from the real world will limit valuable economic analysis.
I have used the first 80 per cent of the above anecdote as an illustration for many clients. My conclusions vary based on the situation. Sometimes I stress the importance of teamwork, the value of shared objectives, or the danger of assumptions. (I enjoy the irony of the latter given my professor’s original version.)
Many of the approaches that come from business research and experience (in soft skills, as well as in process improvement and strategy) take clients 80 per cent of the way. That could be only 80 per cent or a full 80 per cent, depending on your individual lens. There is a balance between the desire to reinvent the wheel (e.g., to tailor-make solutions) and to apply an “off-the-rack” approach. The responsibility for finding this balance is shared.
People like me, who consult to industry, have to be ready to bring the tools of “good thinking” the rest of the way for clients. Eighty per cent won’t cut it. I will admit that this is difficult in large groups, but it is an area of continual focus in my client work.
The supply chain is a perfect example of where those actually wrestling with complex problems can absorb the value from successes in other areas and functions.
- A services supply chain is different from a hard-goods supply chain, but there will be some relevance from one to the other.
- There are similarities between the not-for-profit and for-profit worlds.
- The Maritimes and the GTA are not completely different.
In the collision of business ideas and human beings, enabled through multiple communication touchpoints, there is a lot that can be termed “common sense” and “generic.” As a friend of mine likes to say, “until common sense becomes common practice there will be a lot of work for consultants.” I would like to add, “as long as they deliver on that 20 per cent!”This originally appeared in the May 2009 newsletter for the Canadian Supply Chain Sector Council (supplychaincanada.org)
I was out with a friend this month who is embarking on a new phase of working life. (To be fair, he is embarking on a lot of new stuff: just moved, recently married, starting a new family… he even has a new haircut.) I was recounting some of my experiences moving back to Canada after working in Japan for several years. In such situations, through sheer necessity, one gets good at answering the question “What do you do?” This is a very portable skill and directly applies to working in cross-functional teams.
So, what do you do?
Sometimes roles can be clear in cross-functional groups. I was working with a client recently to organize a program evaluation meeting that was to include national-level, provincial and local representatives within the organization, as well as bringing in experts from education and training, volunteer management and technology support tools. Members are tasked with bringing insight from their unique perspectives. The hope is that a comprehensive review will bring about sustainable changes; this provides the answer to “Why are we here?”
“Why are you in this group/on this team?” is a question that is likely considered more than it is articulated. Proactively expressing your “expertise” can enable a group to function well together. Imagine if a project team started off with a series of self-proclamations like:
- “I am here because of my product expertise.” (from Product Development)
- “I am not here to provide input; I am here so that we know where the decisions came from.” (from Marketing)
- “I am here to say ‘No’ so that we out forward solid proposals to senior management.” (from Finance)
- “I am here to reinforce the point that forecasting is impossible.” (from Sales)
- “I am here because I have not been involved before and I have the courage to ask stupid questions.” (from the Intern)
Clarity on roles (with oneself, as well as with others) increases the chance that any conflict can remain productive and task oriented. In the real world, some people’s “roles” may seem more like:
- “I am here to get attention.”
- “I am here because I already have the answer.”
- “I am here so that I can say ‘I told you so’ in about 3 months.”
It can all sound very much like a wanna-be self-help meeting: “Hello, my name is Chris, and I am here to defend the client interests.” Without being corny about it, I will suggest that clarity on “our job” and “my job” can help a cross-functional team to fully function. I have found it useful to tell clients to simply state, “I wouldn’t be doing my job if I didn’t ask [for example, ‘is that really the best way to provide value to our clients?’ or some other potentially challenging question.]”
Many of the lines between “helpful and hurtful” or between “team-oriented and affected” come down to relationship equity and benefit of the doubt, which needs to be fostered. Assertiveness over your or the group’s role can help to keep you on this side of that line.
“This column is here to provide insight on issues that can create distracting interpersonal noise.”
THIS ORIGINALLY APPEARED IN THE NEWSLETTER FOR THE CANADIAN SUPPLY CHAIN SECTOR COUNCIL (www.supplychaincanada.org).
In keeping with its mandate to “bring together partners,” the Canadian Supply Chain Sector Council together with the Association for Canadian Community Colleges, spearheaded a gathering of self-identified stakeholders in training and certification related to supply chain. Like most “stakeholder” gatherings, the room included representatives from competing organizations. In this case, that meant representatives from “rival” colleges and institutions, as well as from bodies offering “competing” certifications. The potential value of such gatherings comes in identifying shared interests and in enabling better solutions.
My exposure to this sector is largely through such stakeholder gatherings. Cross-functional (or cross-associational) gatherings in “supply chain” often generate discussion around “what is supply chain, anyway?” The opportunity to clarify the function and value of the sector has the potential to unite the many stakeholders. All of a sudden, there is a pan-sector identity (e.g., in-group) whose job it is to convey that value proposition to non-sector (e.g., out-group) stakeholders, who include employers, job-seekers, students, their parents, other functional areas of the business, etc., etc. We all win when these “others” realize the strategic importance and potential of supply chain… and they win, too!
Interaction between competing forces also helps everyone, by fostering good-old differentiation. For colleges, associations and “others”, this is positive – and necessary – because competitive markets don’t tolerate a “six-of-one” and “half-dozen-of-the-other” split for long. Contact and dialogue help to define core competencies and clear the way for collaboration that helps the sector overall.
As a related example, I worked in media sales where we had one main competitor. At an ad-agency function, I recall turning a corner and coming face-to-face with my “rival account manager” who was talking to our mutual client. Once our poor client realized that she could not avoid acknowledging us to each other, she betrayed the look of someone forced between former spouses from an acrimonious marriage. Shortly after I left that company, the “six” and “half-dozen” merged into one company. Strange how competition forces new ways of working.
It is very easy to pay lip service to collaboration and looking for “win-win” solutions to today’s complex problems. Examples are rarer in reality, but I came across one recently whereby rival conference organizers found they both targeted events in Western Canada that addressed the environmental implications of supply chain. Isn’t it fitting that the two are co-branding their events to spur discussion on the opportunities for supply chain and corporate social responsibility to deliver positive impact? Check out “Supply Chains and the Environment,” to take place on May 25 and 26 in Calgary.
The lines between friends and enemies may be blurring. There is value to be had and created in stakeholder gatherings that help us look for intersecting interests. I guess it takes a sector council to foster that dialogue.
THIS ORIGINALLY APPEARED IN THE FEBRUARY NEWSLETTER FOR THE CANADIAN SUPPLY CHAIN SECTOR COUNCIL (www.supplychaincanada.org).
I recently met with the CEO of an organization that was in the midst of a process improvement initiative. Like many consultants, I am rarely in conversations where everything is perfect: few people talk to consultants for fun!
The project was into its second phase and was proceeding swimmingly. All timelines were maintained with results better than expected. Before long, we got to the heart of the issue: the successes were not being broadcast effectively, which, my client suspected, was the reason for a lackadaisical air around the entire initiative. Of course, there were regular project team presentations to the wider group on results and learnings, but the true success of the little wins along the way were not getting across.
To of us who are familiar with “selling the sizzle, not the steak,” think about a prime cut of meat—beautifully cooked—in a Tupperware container at the back of the fridge. And there are plenty of them back there!
From experience, I know that considerable effort goes into organizing the kick-off sessions for big change initiatives, and that a key objective is to “get people excited” about their projects. Leadership team members, internal experts or third-party consultants who speak at these events are careful (one hopes) to prep both message and delivery for optimal results. Rick Spence, who provides advice to small businesses in the Financial Post, prepared a quick list of dos and don’ts for “delivery” (aka: public speaking) here: (http://www.financialpost.com/small_business/story.html?id=654070) The list is good, but will likely be familiar to anyone who has waded into the waters of being a better speaker/presenter.
I find it noteworthy that numbers one and two on the list are “tell stories” and “tell your own stories.” The thinking is that stories relax speakers (it’s not a script to memorize, it’s a story to tell), and the “your own” part of it brings credibility and sincerity to the mix. The perceived absence of the latter qualities, I would suggest, puts the “nay” in those naysayers who can try to quell the excitement that a successful kick-off creates, and give rise to the lackadaisical air.
In our situation, the “presenters” are relaying the results of projects (e.g. stories), with which they were directly involved (e.g. their stories). So where’s the gap?
I spotted two: (1) those involved do not realize the importance of “communicating the success” and not just “presenting the information;” and (2) those with the stories to tell have little experience and understanding of how to present information.
If GAP #1 is beneath the radar screen of senior management, someone needs to help them “get” that the necessary cultural shift for any change initiative does not come from good—even great—results alone. In my earlier anecdote, my client was keenly aware of this gap, but I doubt he is in a vast majority. Fixes for GAP #2 can take many flavours from the school of hard knocks (forced experience?) to random pop quizzes on Mr. Spence’s list (forced understanding?).
The most effective means for unlocking the potential in these communication opportunities will do two things: (1) involve those at senior levels of the organization, and (2) will provide the required resources for the “presenters” to succeed, namely time (to prepare and practice) and expertise (internal or external, to coach on delivery). This may require some financial resource outlay (investment), whose return will come in the form of a steak that brings adequate sizzles.
This originally appeared in the July 2008 e-Newsletter for the Canadian Supply Chain Sector Council
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