Over a 35-plus year career, I have witnessed the supply chain management profession evolve from a behind-the-scenes role to a center stage star. Early in my industry and academic careers, I had to frequently explain to my mom (and many others) what I do for a living. Fast forward to 2021, and we have the national media opining about supply chain performance and a presidential executive order to conduct a 100-day review of four critical supply chains.
This public awakening did not happen overnight or by chance. Across this evolution, supply chain executives have doggedly pursued a higher level of engagement in their respective organizations. More than 16 years ago, I co-authored an article on the topic. Later, participants in Auburn University’s inaugural 2009 State of the Retail Supply Chain Report (SRSC) proudly discussed their newfound inclusion in C-level steering committees. While it has been a slow grind to get a seat at the table, supply chains are now well-represented in strategic planning processes. Chief supply chain officers can shape, rather than react to, critical decisions that affect the sourcing, production, and distribution of goods.
It is important to remember that the center stage spotlight burns brightly and highlights every performance flaw. Risks grow larger, and CEOs become more attuned to supply chain cost and performance. Also, faraway supply chain incidents generate anxious questions, extended conversations, and unplanned analysis. For example, I suspect that very few boardroom executives thought much about the Suez Canal until the MV Ever Given ran aground and blocked canal traffic for six days.
The ability to deftly handle the heightened awareness and greater responsibilities will determine if supply chain leaders retain their seat at the table in the long run. Maintaining engagement and control is well within our capabilities when demand is relatively smooth and operations are stable. That is certainly not the case these days. The global pandemic has skewed consumer demand, disrupted production, stretched capacity, and imbalanced critical equipment.
While the challenging middle to late stages of a pandemic may not seem like the ideal time to be promoting supply chain as a solution, now is the time to be a star. It reminds me of an interview I did at the height of the Great Recession when a supply chain executive said, “It’s just a very tough environment, but it’s actually a great time to be in supply chain management. This is sort of our Carnegie Hall. It’s our time to shine.”
That level of bravado must be backed up with strong supply chain capabilities and execution. That strength comes from:
Adopting these practices and making these investments will not fully eliminate the risks of stepping onto the bigger stage, but they will give your supply chain a chance to shine now and in the future.