Does Your Supply Chain Organization Need to Throw a Theme Party?

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My daughter turned six earlier this month.  As her birthday approached, she was undecided as to what she wanted to do and not open to my many suggestions (which is nothing new).

Two weeks before the big event, with no ideas and nothing booked, I knew that we needed to have a party at home, but I was at a loss as to what to organize.  Obviously, I knew the basic elements of a children’s party (cake, games, loot bags, etc…), but was less than inspired about pulling it together.  And then she had her brainwave.  She decided she wanted a Christmas-themed birthday party.  The minute she said it, the focus of the party was clear, I was totally on board, I was eager to be really creative and so excited at making it as successful as possible.  The loot bags were Christmas stockings, they played musical chairs with Christmas carols, the birthday presents were put under the Christmas tree, my husband was Santa, and my son was a party helper elf. So what turned the party from something that I felt I had to do, but was hazy and doubtful in how to approach it, to something that I passionately wanted to do and knew exactly how? The theme:  A Christmas Day in May. What on earth does this have to do with supply chain? I was at the Gartner Supply Chain Executive Conference May 21 - 23 and was struck with how many times I heard the notion of having a “theme” – and that was the specific term that was used … repeatedly. It really came through in Matthew Davis’s session: “The Yes, But…” Value Chain: The Path to Profitable Trade Offs; however, I heard it in other sessions, and some elements of it during the keynotes with Johnson & Johnson Health Care Systems and with Cummins, and even with Jim Collins, renowned speaker and author of “Good to Great.”

In Matt’s session he showed a laundry list of CEO priorities, many of which directly conflict with one another (expand into new markets and create new products and services … but reduce enterprise costs and standardize/streamline operations). If you tried to maximize each priority with every decision, you wouldn’t ever be able to make a decision.  Matt suggested that often the CEO priorities are both a combination of business results and the initiatives that will act as levers to create those results. The trick is to categorize the priorities according to which describe the long-term vision (broad and steady) or the short term strategy (specific and changing), and then from there, understand the unifying strategic theme.  The theme is what helps translate the vision into the cascading set of initiatives to act on. Consider the case study example of one company’s vision to be the fastest to market. The theme centers on achieving differentiation through speed. You can then translate that into everything from the metrics you want to affect to the processes and programs you need to focus on. By having the context of “fastest to market”, when supply chain decision makers are faced with a trade-off, there is a guiding principle in how they make their decisions.  There is a direct or implied value to certain performance measures over others. Defining the unifying theme ultimately helps operationalize corporate strategy, which is evidently a struggle for most. In 2012, Gartner asked 100 supply chain professionals what was impeding their demand driven value network (DDVN) maturity progress. Of the respondents, 85% were tied to people understanding what is needed and being convinced to participate. Jim Collins talked about this issue in the context of leadership. His definition of a “Level 5” leader was one who was able to communicate a clear theme that their organization could identify with and rally around.  It gave direction and purpose to their cause. And, it can bring people together under the same set of values (and weed out those that may not share the same principles.)  Level 5 leaders don’t incite people to follow, they impassion people around ideas and goals. Consider again the Gartner’s CEO study that listed off 15 varying priorities. Jim Collins said that if you have more than three priorities, you don’t have any.  If you have the direction to maximize this, while minimizing that, and achieve this while still achieving that – you can get lost along the way really easy. What is needed is an overall context for decision making.  What’s your motivation? In every action you take, what should your intention be?  In the face of complex and conflicting considerations, a unifying theme can give clarity to what decisions should be made, and what tradeoffs make sense. I think the question everyone should be asking is, “Can you hold a theme party for your organization?”  

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