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.
Late in the semester takes on a degree of urgency for those involved in education on either side of the chalk. Similar to the wind down of a sports season, things count more and time runs short. Not surprisingly, the final project for my negotiations class entails analyzing a real situation to assess strategy and implementation of the parties involved. There is a timeliness and relevance that comes with looking at situations that are currently unfolding, and my classes have been blessed over the last bit:
- Fall 2008 – York University unionized workers strike.
Note: Neither Schulich (business) or Osgoode (law) were affected directly. All appreciated the irony of crossing a picket line to teach a class on Negotiating.
- Winter 2009 – Auto sector woes, which were welcome in the fall, continue.
Note: There is also a nice little transit strike in Ottawa.
- Summer 2009 – Toronto City outdoor and daycare workers strike
Note: Toronto City Counsellor Karen Stintz guest shared perspectives on this in class this semester.
- Fall 2009 – Cable companies and TV broadcasters
Note: Just in time for Fall 2009, CRTC Chair Konrad Von Finckenstein chastised the disputing cable and broadcasting companies with:
“You need each other; I don’t understand why you can’t negotiate.”
A final report gift, just in time for Christmas.
- Winter 2010 – Community College Teachers vs. Management
Note: As an instructor at Humber I was able to vote in this one. Who on Earth thinks that teaching is a profession in which to get rich?!
The thread through all of these situations appears to be “reacting to a business model that’s under strain.” Whether its wage dissatisfaction or margin envy, those involved, who really do need each other, would do well to hear Von Finckenstein’s words.
Complex situations? Requiring new approaches? This will ring familiar to those working in supply chain. Collaboration is easy to talk about and, theoretically, we can see the opportunity for creating/protecting value. The work comes in effectively executing on that mindset to address real challenges.
The competitive reaction appears to be automatic, especially if we are taking away things that people have “always had” (e.g. banked sick days) or have come to expect (3 – 5% year-on-year wage increase). The rightful target for competitive behaviour is often outside this relationship.
This means that even though it makes perfect sense to implement your cost-saving initiative, if someone is losing something, expect some push back. Positioning energy toward understanding the problem (hopefully a shared problem) is the most effective interaction. No situation is too small for a strategic look, which could start conversations toward some fixes.
Spending scandals are always good news stories; the best, of course, involve taxpayer dollars. There seem to have been a lot of them lately. One such story this week, involves the RCMP planning to spend $200K on the leadership development of three of its officers. Interestingly, perhaps, the issue this twigged with me is “what do you charge for these type of services?”
I recently had a conversation with a former professor and colleague of mine a Schulich Business School, and we agreed that one of the biggest challenges for providers of professional services (like me!) is pricing. The formula involves trading time for money: hours or days spent either with the client or in preparation. Time spent on the latter has more latitude because, as my client, you won’t know exactly how much time I have spent preparing. I will suggest that in most cases there is a reasonable range, which is usually driven by the size of the project and the available budget. The resulting agreement ensures that you, as my client, get value for money and that I, as the provider, receive compensation that allows me to stay in business with a manageable schedule (e.g. not working 90 hours a week, 51.5 weeks a year).
A recurring stat in my profession is that employers spend on average $1200 per year per employee on training and development. Some will receive a much higher investment in their skills and abilities, and those are the ones that most providers like me hope to train. I am not sure of the upper limit of the reasonable range for an individual’s training allowance, but I think it is considerably south of “$200K for three people.”
What happens when the buyer fails to enact the “reasonable range”? The current levels of scrutiny on such spending, as well as the strong trends toward forced transparency, may eliminate these situations completely. Until that happens, individual ethics will dictate how much time makes into onto the invoice. Let’s call this “micro governance.” I think that it can cover for any governance/oversight that may be lacking in the always imperfect systems. Ethics or no ethics, for the sustainability of both sides, the reasonable range is the safest place to be. I hope we can continue to find it.
Toronto city workers are striking, because they can. City management and union representatives, hopefully, continue to negotiate, because they have to. I am expecting final class assignments devoted to analyzing this situation:
- what went wrong?
- how could it have been better?
- what should they learn for next time?
I always enjoy the perspectives and the biases that come out in the analysis. Likely because he shares my biases, I enjoyed Howard Levitt’s legal perspective on the situation in today’s National Post.
As an additional perspective, my MBA class (Negotiations) this week tried to deal with ethics as practically as possible. With the assistance of some readings, excersises and discussions, we arrived at some criteria that can help inform ethical decision making. (I don’t like to think that it always “depends;” there are some more biases for you!) One of the criteria was “It is unethical to maximize your own interests with a disregard for shared interests.” You can argue the semantics of any of those words, but the point, as I see it, is look out for number one, but stay attentive to shared interests.
Under this criteria, in nature, a parasitic relationship becomes unethical if it threatens the survival of the host. Does that mean the Bernie Madoff was unethical because he failed to create a sustainable Ponzi scheme? Maybe. Remember, this is one of four criteria.
Do city workers violate this ethical code by holding out for, specifically, sick day banking and pay-back for half a year of sick days upon retirement? I think the answer is, “Yes.” The shared interest is in a sustainable system whereby reasonable tax revenues cover reasonable city services. As Mr. Levitt illustrates, the status quo union agreements have progressed to being unreasonable (evidence by the fact that you don’t see similar benefits in the private sector).
The checks and balances of the private sector are not perfect–and certainly do not guarantee ethical behaviour–but can help. Uncompetitive wage burdens were part of GM going bankrupt. Unions, workers and pensioners live with the consequences. Pushing a business to unsustainability is unethical if your plan is to continue working there (as it appeared to be for many workers) or to bank on retirement income from the company (as it appears for many pensioners).
If today’s City of Toronto workers are in it for anything other than short-term gains, they are not behaving ethically, I will suggest. Anyone who makes such a claim, better have a strong ethical leg to stand on (or had best make it on a blog whose readership is limited to like minds… we will see.)
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