What Angry Birds taught me about supply chain improvement

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A while back I was watching my youngest son play Angry Birds. It was interesting to watch because he would start a level and not really spend too much time looking at how things were set up. 

He might look at what kind of birds he had to work with, but for the most part he’d just start playing. Once or twice he got lucky and freed all the birds on the first try.

Mostly he’d play several times and finally figure out how to beat the level. When he beat it, he went on to the next level. He didn’t try to get the highest score; he was more interested in completing all the levels in each of the different themes.

I would go back and play the levels he completed. My goal was to get the highest score and to get all three stars completed for the level. So I would study the layout, see what kind of birds I had to use and devise my strategy. Of course it almost always took me a few tries to pass the level (and sometimes lots of tries)!

What I realized was that it’s a lot harder to improve a score than it is to just pass the level, especially if you do a lot of collateral damage the first time you win – that first winning score is high.

It can also be frustrating (sometimes I had to put it down and come back to it later). The other thing I realized was that I probably could have approached it just like my son … just start playing. 

No matter how much I studied the level before starting, I rarely got the highest score on the first try. Although I didn’t often have to change my strategy, I did have to make some adjustments to what the birds were doing ...  and yes, there were a couple of cases where I had to adopt a totally different strategy. 

But truth be told, I got the high scores and totally completed the level the same way he got the original win: by seeing how things worked out and making adjustments – trial and error.

So what does this have to do with Control Towers and Supply Chain Optimization? Before I get to that, there are a couple of other pieces of the puzzle for this particular “what I learned” lesson. One came from watching a TED video, “Tim Harford: Trial, error and the God complex”.

What Harford set out to show is that the common link among successful complex systems is that they all evolved through trial and error. The other came from participating in a “Human Centered Design” course that emphasized being willing to experiment; being okay with not having the “right” answer, trusting that you’ll find one. And what was the method of finding that "right" answer? You guessed it, brainstorming/collaborating and prototyping … iteratively!

The dots that were connected and what I learned from this as I thought about Control Towers and Supply Chain Optimization was:

  • You need maximum visibility when you’re planning your next move – you can have what you think is a great strategy, but if you can’t see how all the pieces fit, you’re going to churn for a while.
  • You may not have to totally change your strategy, but you do have to be flexible enough to make adjustments to how you configure and execute your supply chain.
  • It’s hard to improve your supply chain performance if you are starting off with a decent score but the faster and more agile you can be at adapting your supply chain, the better chance you have of maintaining and improving its performance, even when there are disruptions.
  • Supply chains are continuing to get more complex with more players that need to collaborate, and if the success of complex systems inevitably comes down to trial and error, then you need a way to speed up the trial and error process to become a lot more successful a lot sooner (“Knowing Sooner, Acting Faster”).

No matter how well you’ve blueprinted your processes (“studied the level”), you’re probably not going to totally hit the mark (“get the highest score with all three stars”) on the first try. So it’s important to stay flexible and ready to adjust, remembering that when you’re trying to be optimal (get the ‘high’ score), it will probably be less frustrating if you follow the example of a child: Just try a bunch of stuff and see what happens, knowing that’s how most successful complex systems come about anyway. Undoubtedly I’m biased, but this all confirmed for me that RapidResponse is ideal in terms of giving you the ability to see your supply chain end-to-end, collaborate with the various players and perform a slew of what-if scenarios to determine in real-time what the impact of adjustments would be. Oh, the other thing I learned … Angry Birds, like supply chain improvement can be addictive!


- June 26, 2014 at 11:58am
This was a very insightful article, and I totally understand how improvement is harder to achieve if your score is already high. No matter how hard you work to lay out a path some unforeseen thing can pop up and be a distraction. I am working to obtain a degree in Business with focus area of Supply Chain management and e-commerce. Keep it Moving
- June 30, 2014 at 3:16pm
Nice article! I've often thought that supply chain was like Whack-a-Mole (tactical operations) and Tetris (planning and optimization.) This is also a nice metaphor in capturing the value of being flexible, iterative, and experimental with process improvement. The only time the iterative approach breaks down, though, is if you don't have endless retries; for example, a "big bang" systems release. If you only get one shot, then you better do a lot of thinking before launching the birds. :-)
- July 01, 2014 at 11:48am
Thanx for the feedback and best wishes in our educational pursuits - great combination!
- July 01, 2014 at 12:32pm
I like your Whack-a-Mole / Tetris analogy. That's another cool way I could use of describing it to elementary kids - thanx! In terms of the iterative approach breaking down, I agree that nobody ever has endless tries. That's why I'm so enamored with RapidResponse - you can do a LOT of iterations quickly. Your response made me think about something else: Pre-Mortems & Risk Management. How can businesses better use their supply chain team's expertise to identify 'potential' threats/disruptions and then use the power of this "what-if" tool to quantify, analyze, and prioritize preventative actions and/or contingency plans. There's a whole world of Supply Chain Risk Management that can benefit from doing strategic scenario analysis across the supply chain. Thanx for helping me think broader. Look forward to other creative views you have on supply chain.

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