Seven Supply Chain Lessons from a Former Walmart CEO

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Inheriting an organization facing one of the toughest retail environments in history, Mike Duke helped Walmart, the world’s largest retailer and biggest private employer, navigate an intense period of economic, social, and technological change while delivering strong financial results. As CEO from 2009 to 2014, he worked to restructure the company and made sure it not only grew, but grew with integrity. Named one of Forbes top 10 most powerful people in 2013, Duke built his expertise by learning from and interacting with everyone—from world leaders to first time Walmart customers. Coming from a logistics and distribution background, he helped the company enter Africa and grow in China, Latin America, and other markets. As one of the keynote speakers during Gartner’s Supply Chain Executive Conference, he shared seven important lessons he’s learned over the years. While not directly about supply chain, they can all easily be applied to managing the complexities of this rapidly changing industry.

  1. Get Things Done

A lesson taught to Duke from his parents, the importance of hard work shouldn’t be underestimated. When it comes to supply chains, changes to the plan are inevitable, but the key to successfully overcoming unexpected challenges is to respond effectively and efficiently. That means getting the information you need quickly in order to make an educated decision collaboratively and with context.

  1. Know Your Strengths

A lesson Duke learned from his high school physics teacher, is once you know your strengths, leverage them. When it comes to supply chain, it’s all about knowing your market segmentation. Is there a particular geographic location you tend to perform better in? Is one product out performing another? It’s not necessarily about only focusing on those areas you excel at, since then you’d be limiting your growth potential, but rather, about examining those strengths in your supply chain to see if and how you can leverage learned best practices to improve other aspects.

  1. Focus on People

Walmart was built on the founding principle that everything the company does should have the customers’ best interests at heart. So should your supply chain. With the growing trend toward consumers wanting what they want, when they want it, and where they want it, your supply chain has to be adaptable and agile enough to meet those demands. By getting to know your end customer better, you’ll be able to make adjustments to your processes to serve them better. Speak to customers and colleague about what’s really going on. Then take those insights and put them into action to directly improve customer satisfaction levels.

  1. Set Aggressive Goals

By aiming high and providing a clear path to get there, you can help your supply chain grow. Allow your team to rise to the challenge and find innovative new ways to reach those stretch goals. But don’t be afraid of failure. One of Duke’s other words of wisdom is to fail quickly. Once you know something isn’t working, don’t be afraid to pull the plug and try something new. Experiment, evaluate, and repeat.

  1. Always be a Student

I’m a firm believer there is always something more to learn, and it would seem so is Duke. He explained how he took every opportunity to learn about his customers. He would go to various stores and speak with staff and customers. There’s benefit to doing the same with your supply chain. Learn from your suppliers and customers, and then take that knowledge and use it to improve your efficiency. Don’t be afraid to learn from others within your organization. Duke mentioned some of his most valuable lessons came from teammates, as they often have experience in areas you may not.

  1. Do Business With Integrity

Duke says this was probably his most important lesson. Act with integrity when dealing with customers and staff. In supply chain, this can be connected to the increasing push for supply chains to be transparent, sustainable, and ethically responsible. Know the impact your supply chain has on the environment and all the people along the way—right down to the worker who is harvesting the raw materials. Visibility is the key to achieving this, and only looking at your top tier suppliers is no longer enough.

  1. Trust Your Family

In this case, your team is your family. You have to trust and respect the people you work with. You have to believe they are doing their best for the business, just like you are. By building that trust, you build stronger relationships, and by building stronger relationships, you allow your team to work more collaboratively, more effectively, and ultimately, in a manner that’s more profitable for your supply chain. We’ve mentioned it countless times on this blog, but with the supply chain talent wars heating up, your team has rapidly become your most valuable asset in managing your operations. So make sure you treat them well.

What life lessons have you learned that translate to supply chain management best practices? Let us know in the comments.

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