Yes, Abby, there is a Santa Claus

Happy holidays to all.

I started this blog in 2010, and have grown the readership to over 3000 regular readers.  At first, very few people would post back.  <To say that the traditional supply chain audience is a bit uncomfortable with twitter and blogging is an understatement.>   As the blog matured, it attracted a different audience.  I now have a number of university students of SCM following me.  I find it very rewarding to get their comments.  Last week, a reader replied to my supply chain trends piece:

As a current graduate student in Supply Chain Management, I have seen significant discussion on talent management. Is this a trend that you are seeing?  And, can you give some advice to graduates on how to improve their skills to align with what employers are seeking? I stumbled upon your blog a couple of months ago, and have really enjoyed your perspective on the challenges and opportunities within supply chain roles.”

Abby, I don’t know you, but this blog post is designed to answer your question.  In short, the answer to your question is YES.  I feel a bit like I am answering the inquiry by Virginia on September 21, 1897 which was answered by the famous editorial of The New York Sun, “Yes, Virginia there is a Santa Claus.”  His reply was that Santa exists as love and generosity.  My answer is that there will be very different jobs than the jobs that you see today.

If you are the Abigail Mayer of Plymouth University, UK born in 1990, you are in the third generation of supply chain leaders. My generation is currently passing the baton to the second generation.    I write this blog post so that all of you and your classmates may find rewarding jobs in the world of supply chain management.  Here I answer your question, and give advice to new graduates entering the world of Supply Chain Management

Making the Transition

The term supply chain management is new.  It was first used widely by the audience in the period of 1992-1995. As the baton is passed, let’s celebrate the legacy.  Within the last two years, leaders like Donald Bowersox of Georgia Tech,  Dick Clark of Procter and Gamble, Eli Goldratt leader of the AGI-Goldratt Institute, Tom Mentzer of University of Tennessee and Stefan Theis of SAP have died.  30% of the people that I am interviewing have retired or are ready to retire.  My first words of advice is spend time with these folks to learn the evolution of the concepts.  Understand what it was like before technology made the concept of Supply Chain Management possible.   These were the days when writing meant a pad of paper and a pencil, when a presentation focused on the right transparencies and bulbs for the overhead projectors, the creation of a report involved lots of white-out and typewriters, and the final report was sent by inter-office mail. Calculations were done on adding machines and mainframes.  The concepts of near real-time data and predictive analytics were as much a fantasy then as Santa Claus is today.

The second generation of supply chain professional (ages 35-50) is where we are currently seeing the greatest talent issues.  This is the generation that implemented ERP, ecommerce, and Advanced Planning Systems (APS). They were often the boots on the ground for the global supply chain.  Many of them were pioneers:  relocating their families and learning the nuances of global supply chain management the hard way.  In short, there are too few of these trained individuals to fill the gaps of the retirees. The good news is that if you learn fast, you can help fill-in the gap.

I see from LinkedIn, that you are in the third generation.  We give thanks that academic programs are fueling the wave for the third generation of workers, but we are unsure what your world will look like.  We think that the forecast entry-level jobs will be rosy, but we are unsure of how SCM practices will evolve.  To help you, I share five pieces of advice:

  • Get good at Math.  SCM is a world where math geeks excel.  Be proud of it, but learn how to use data to drive value-based outcomes.  Think analytically, and use it to influence cross-functional groups. Data for the sake of data or math for the sake of math does us no good.
  • It starts with Clarity of Strategy.  I cannot count the times that I hear that it is about “people, process and technology.”  Yawn, I say.  I think that the REAL secret to supply chain excellence is alignment on supply chain strategy.  If this is done right, it is the foundational building block to aligning people, building processes and selecting technology.  Without the clarity on what is supply chain excellence, the world circles, functional organizations cannot align, and the technologies never work.  Help to forge clarity in the organizations where you go on supply chain strategy.
  • Take what you have learned in School with a Grain of Salt.  No two supply chains are the same, and no one company has it all figured out.  Leave school with a solid foundation of the concepts, but realize that these practices are evolving.  The real world is not as absolute as the writings of textbooks.  Embrace the fact that SCM is ever-changing based on market drivers.  Learn to think outside-in.  Start first with what is happening in outside markets and then map the possibilities outside-in.
  • Learn to ask the Hard Questions, but nicely.  It is not a world for a “bull in a China Shop”, but there are a lot of paradigms that need to be broken.  Learn to ask the tough questions, but with respect.  Ask how processes evolved, and what they could become if we could improve data quality, reduce latency and build stronger cross-functional processes.
  • Learn to Dance with the World of Gray.  In SCM, there are no black and white answers.  Success happens when you can take the world of gray and see patterns, build processes and forge bonds cross-functionally.

I am spending the month of December, staring out my window, writing. I am working on a book on Supply Chain Management (SCM).  The working title is Bricks Matter, a Market-driven approach to Supply Chain Management.  To prepare, I have interviewed 50 supply chain executives.   It has been a time to reflect, and give thanks for a rich career in SCM. Abby, I hope you have the same.

I would love thoughts from others.  This is my start on insights for Abby and her peers.  Any advice to share for Abby?

 

10 Comments

  • Abby Mayer says:

    Hi Lora!

    What a great blog post. Thank you so much. And yes, I am the Abby Mayer of Plymouth University! I think it’s really true and important to learn from the people who were really the ground breakers in the industry before their skills are lost or retired or whatever it may be. I also think it’s important that there is no one “ideal” supply chain. Too often in school, we focus on the 6 or 8 or 10 things that make a supply chain “world class,” but every industry/geographic region/company has a different ideal supply chain. And it’s likely that that ideal is constantly shifting as a result of demand/disruptions/earthquakes/supplier issues/etc. I’m just a beginner here, but I just wanted to say thanks for your insight. And I’ll keep commenting!

    Abby

    • Courtney Landis says:

      I too found this blog informative. Your response to Abby’s post gives me great motivation to become the best that I can be. I too am on the tail end of the third generation. It is my goal to be just as ground breaking and revolutionary as you are Lora. The transportation side of things is reallywhere I have an advatage. I feel that this is a significant advantage since transportation is the supply chains largest cost. How do you feel intermodal transportation will affect transportation in the coming years?

      • Lora Cecere Lora Cecere says:

        Thanks Courtney!
        Oh my! Intermodal and the changes in the design of intermodal is a game changer for the US. As revolutionary as the bar code and the wooden pallet. One of my comments to the third generation is look at all of the items that we have standardized in the supply chain –the container, the pallet, the bill of lading, the bar code, the purchase order–and remember, that these are paving stones (but not the end destination for standards) for your career. Take up the MANTRA and help to drive standardization into work processes to improve the effectiveness. Intermodal is one of these standards that is evolving.

        And, Courtney, welcome to the world of supply chain management as a career. I hope that it will be as enriching for you as it has been for me.

  • Jim Ashmore says:

    I have been a Supply Chain Professional since about 1996. Of course, they did not call it Supply Chain Management in those days, but something like Product Coordinator or Production scheduler. The early days were crude matches of demand, supply and resources with massive data opacity, buffers and errors.

    Today, we have the term Supply Chain Management with much better ability to balance demand, supply, resources in different time buckets. One of the greatest advances is data visibility and the ability to mathematically model and quickly simulate various scenarios. Of course, we can respond to issues faster with more precision and accuracy.

    I would echo some of Lora’s points and add some of my own:

    1) Do the math. You must be able to do math, validate data and construct complex models.
    2) Be able to think in time phases and multiple “buckets”. You would be amazed that the dimension of time and offsets makes it difficult for non-Supply Chain people to understand issues and propose solutions.
    3) Supply Chain is all about People, Process and Technology. You must have the right people, executing the right processes with technology appropriate to the situation. Technology is often the leveraging factor enabling the people to do more in less time.
    4) In addition to living in a world of gray full of volatility and variation, forget about the optimum solution. There are none. Seeking the optimum will only frustrate you as well as fool you into thinking you have achieved some sort of Supply Chain nirvana when what you have likely done is introduced more supply chain risk into the process.
    5) Learn how to present the Supply Chain to non-supply chain people. You have a better chance of making your point if you can uses pictures and simple graphs than complicated charts and tables.
    6) Lastly, if you want a friend, buy a dog. No one is going to like the Supply Chain person. Production will hate you for short runs, low inventory and forcing a focus on the customer. Sales and marketing will hate you for pushing forecast accuracy and the inability to provide reasonable lead times as well as for the occasional and inevitable stockouts. The finance people will hate you for having larger amounts of inventory working capital than the theoretical models predict. Get over it and hang out with your fellow Supply Chain people.

    But, welcome to the greatest profession in this time and place.

  • […] also like to point everyone to a great piece by Lora Cecere on the maturation of supply chain management as a recognized profession and course of study. […]

  • […] also like to point everyone to a great piece by Lora Cecere on the maturation of supply chain management as a recognized profession and course of study. […]

  • […] fearless guide through the Supply Chain Index.  And yes, I am the Abby of Lora’s 2011 blog post Yes, Abby, There is a Santa Claus. But that’s a story for another […]

  • Luke Anthrobus says:

    Hello Lora,

    I think this is a fantastic article. I am a student, 21 years old, currently studying logistics at Aston University in the UK. I will finish university next year and will be looking for a job in supply chain. For my third year of university I took a year in industry at Cummins in the North East of England which was the best and most important experience of my life. I am hungry to get back out but an issue with today’s hiring is the tests before the face to face interview are ridiculous but that is another topic.

    I know there are current issues of misunderstanding of what SC actually is from my generation. I feel companies though could have a huge part to play in changing this. At the various Milkrounds that happen throughout the year it is like finding a needle in a haystack trying to find a job role that relates to SC even though SC is part of every business. Why is this when there will be a talent shortage?

    Currently I am doing my dissertation where my question is:

    What are the characteristics of an ‘effective’ supply chain professional? How are education providers helping people to develop these features? What needs to be done in the future to ensure the requirements of industry are met? This project will explore these questions with a view to making proposals for the future.

    Could you be so kind to provide some insight into this area so I can quote this in my project if you wouldn’t mind as it would be most useful. I have thoroughly read the article above and understand it has touched on some of my points already.

    Kind Regards

    Luke

    United Kingdom

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