Balancing the E and the We in the Supply Chain

Can humans and technology coexist in the digital supply chain? They’d better.

It was not many years ago when the countdown to the death of the bookstore was nearing zero. The print book was on the edge of extinction as seemingly everyone was in the process of converting to e-readers.

But a funny thing happened. Some readers liked print, and some liked digital.

Some actually liked both.

An equilibrium was established, and there is now a renaissance in bookstores as the market balances.

Readers can indeed have it both ways.

[Photo: Min An/Pexels]

Those managing supply chains need to seek equilibrium as well. There is a way to maintain the human side of supplier relationships while leveraging the value that technology brings us.

We cannot just hide behind anonymous e-commerce applications and hope to maximize supply chain operations.

Just how do we balance the e with the we?

The key to success

Consider this scenario: It’s 4 p.m. the day before a holiday shutdown.

You are about to leave the office when you get a call from the field service manager explaining that a customer is in crisis with an equipment malfunction. One of your suppliers holds the key to successfully resolving the problem, but you know they are closed for the holiday.

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Leverage the technology to improve process and reduce costs, but above all, maintain the relationship.

But during your last quarterly review, you exchanged contact information with the operations manager. You catch her on her cellphone, loading her car for a ski trip, and explain the problem.

Within minutes, you receive a call from the applications engineer ready to solve the customer problem. A quick e-mail with a software patch is sent to the customer, and the problem is quickly resolved.

Crafting the human touch

The digital supply chain did not solve this problem. It was solved by a string of human relationships that took time to nurture and develop. And to me, that is where our value sits: crafting the human touch.

Of course, I understand the merits and needs of the evolving digital supply chain. It supports increased global trade, changing customer demands and high service expectations.

Supply chains need to get faster, more granular and much more precise.

I get it.

Perhaps I am just a holdover from a past generation. I may eventually go the way of the drafting board, the blueprint machine, Windows 95 and free coffee in the workplace – but I don’t think so.

Most of my world these days resides in the Cloud. But I come down to earth early and often to build and cultivate my relationships.

[Photo: Rawpixel/Pexels]

In the late 90s, I was in graduate school working toward a master’s degree in management. When it was time to select a topic to explore for my thesis, I chose to research the impact of the internet on supply chain management.

More specifically, I wanted to look at the impact of this new technology on buyer-supplier relationships. This was an exciting time as the internet was just coming into its own … what we now call Web 1.0.

My employer supported my efforts, as they were trying to figure out the impact of the web when working with their customers clamoring to increase digital workflow and communication.

An extensive survey within the supplier community – and many interviews with supply management experts – allowed me to come to an interesting conclusion:

Relationships on both the buyer and supplier sides were too important to sacrifice to technology. Leverage the technology to improve process and reduce costs, but above all, maintain the business relationship.

Thinking more human

That conclusion is still valid a couple of decades later. The concept of supplier relationships has been under assault, driven in part by those who do not work regularly with suppliers.

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Human relationships are often simply ignored in the rush to a false digital nirvana.

Just look at the supplier relationship management module of many enterprise systems – lots of e and not a lot of we. In fact, human relationships are often simply ignored in the rush to a false digital nirvana.

When 3D solid modeling came into vogue years ago, my employer hired several engineering students fresh from the local tech university.

They did a wonderful job designing beautiful models on their mega workstations … many of which were wrong.

They knew the program inside and out but didn’t feel the need to walk on to the manufacturing floor.

I remember my colleague Dan dragging an engineer away from his desk and to the factory floor one morning after a call from a local supplier – with yet another error on a print.

The last words I heard from the designer were, oh … that’s where it goes!

An overreliance on technology, an abandonment of interpersonal skills and the fragmentation and decentralization of the supply chain management fails the extended supply chain.

Rather than using technology to distance themselves from suppliers, supply chain professionals need to use these tools to enhance those very relationships.

The fundamentals of business have not changed: collaborative relationships, clear expectations and mutual goals.

Equilibrium exists in nature and in economics. It needs to exist in the supply chain as well.

Go humans!

[Top photo: Kevin Ku/Pexels]

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Rich Weissman is an experienced supply chain management practitioner and educator who works with businesses to build scalable and sustainable supply chain strategies. Rich writes and speaks extensively on issues impacting the global supply chain.

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