Is collaboration the next supply chain optimizer?

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On June 15th, I had the privilege of presenting at the world first Chief Supply Chain Officer Summit alongside a very well-known and respected Supply Chain Leader. I say alongside because Angel Mendez, Senior Vice President of Customer Value Chain Management at Cisco (NASDAQ: CSCO), really did the majority of the work. On this occasion, his message focused on the path he’s taking towards creating the “Next Generation Value Chain to Deliver Customer Value” for Cisco. While still a work in progress, with over 9,000 strong under his influence across 90+ locations and 32 countries, my money is on Mr. Mendez succeeding with his endeavor. It begins with what he believes defines the customer experience value chain:

“Network of internal and partner processes, people and capabilities that translate innovation into customer value while delivering an unrivaled customer experience”

While closely formulated from Forrester’s definition, loosely defined as “activities through which companies create value, competitive advantage, and superior customer experiences”, what I find unique and interesting about Cisco’s definition is the specific attention and promotion of “people” and their “capabilities”. Perhaps this resonates so much with me because I have long believed that collaboration is the next supply chain “optimizer”, and collaboration is decisively a purpose-driven human activity.

To be more precise, it is the unifying of actions taken by uniquely capable people for a common good (more on this later). Angel identified four legs required to support the creation of strategic advantage; Customer Focus, Agility, Collaboration and Sustainability. At first glance, you might find these to be obvious and perhaps not so unique – and indeed, many companies are talking about these elements in one form or another.

What is different about Angel’s message, for one, is the maturity and execution of the model. For example, I’ve never met a company who would say they are “not customer focused”; however, most continue to govern themselves according to traditional, and very operationally focused, metrics (e.g. cost, quality, delivery and speed). Cisco, on the other hand, measures their customer focus by focusing on perfect product launch, perfect order, order-to-invoice cycle time and last but not least “moment of truth customer satisfaction measurements” – thus, redefining their balanced scorecard to align with its customer focus.

A significant portion of Angel’s presentation was spent on the Flexibility/Agility leg. What caught my eye most is a theme I am seeing across multiple manufacturing segments, and is becoming a key requirement for many looking to improve their supply chain management and S&OP processes: the growing gap between Demand Chain and Supply Chain.

Today, it is not uncommon to see completely disjoint demand side planning (S&OP) and detailed supply chain planning solutions, and yet, it is in between the two where a significant amount of efficiency and performance can be lost. I believe the gap is widening at a steady rate, and this is what is driving the need for new and innovative solutions to “collaborate and effect change in real time”.

So we’re back to Collaboration – the third leg. In my humble opinion, it will be in this area where excellence will be won or lost. You might look at collaboration as the combination of people + processes + technology/tools, but I was very impressed to see a slight variant of this long standing equation. In Angel’s vision, it is “culture” + process + technology/tools. I admit never having thought about it as a cultural challenge, but having worked with many large organizations on this problem, I’ve come to realize how unique a problem this is… collaboration amongst peers and employees is often challenging enough across departments.

The type of collaboration Angel is talking about is inter-enterprise – which means that on a given day, you may very well be collaborating with a complete stranger living on a different continent. Indeed, there are cultural implications to achieving this level of maturity. Again, I might say there is nothing new about promoting collaboration as a key to success; however, it is what Cisco is doing about it that distinguishes them from the rest.

They are leveraging many of their own technologies to produce what they call an “Integrated Workforce Experience” (IWE) platform capable of bringing teams together to collaborate and solve ‘moment of truth’ problems that occur in the gap between demand chain and supply chain planning. Unlike social networking platforms, such as Facebook, MySpace and the like, which use friends, family and fun as a hook, I believe platforms like IWE will motivate productive usage and involvement through content, context, and consequence.

Finally, we have Sustainability, which is extremely topical these days as we watch in horror the catastrophe still hemorrhaging under the Gulf of Mexico. Here, we heard some common themes on creating efficiencies and innovations in product design, educating and increasing employee involvement, and a particularly catchy tag line: “Don’t just ‘comply’, lead, innovate, differentiate”.

The one resonating message around sustainability, more of a lesson really, is the reminder that sustainability should not be viewed as a factor for competitive advantage, but rather, the one common flag around which everyone can unite and learn from one another. Industry collaboration will be the key to effecting a meaningful and lasting change.

Does Angel’s vision align with yours? Do you see effective collaboration as an emerging competency that will distinguish your company’s performance?


Christian Verstraete
- June 24, 2010 at 1:56am
While I fully agree about the importance of collaboration, I would argue it is not enougn. Indeed, collaboration can help you achieve operational efficiency. It's like keeping the plane in the air. Making sure things happen as they were planned. But that is only one leg of the stool. There are two others, that many people forget about. The first is trying to understand why something went wrong. Whjat happened before it, what was the root cause. While the operational people are working at resolving the problem to minimalize the problem for the customer, the analysis should ensure the problem does not happen again. In our analogy this would be related to making the plane fly better or more effectively. With the information gained from that analysis, you can now understand the dynamics of the ecosystem you operate and simulate it. Once a mathematical model is available, multiple scenario's can be tested and the ecosystem redesigned and improved. This will really make it more resilient, agile and flexible. It's like building a new and better plane alltogether. Once the new supply chain has been implemented, it all starts over again. That's what I call "closing the loop". I wrote several articles about it at
John Sicard
- June 24, 2010 at 8:26am
Christian - thank you very much for your added commentary. Indeed, you're raising very good points. I would agree that many companies are in "reaction" mode most days, and don't step back to reflect on and improve their overall supply chain designs. There really is no excuse given the maturity of tools available to analyze and model alternatives. I'd be interested in your views and observations related to the maturity of tools/process establishing competence in collaboration - especially cross-continent, and cross-enterprise collaboration.

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