We're now a couple of months into what might be called the "Year of the Supply Chain." The Council of Logistics Management has become the Council of Supply Chain Management Professionals. All around us, logistics managers are being promoted to supply chain managers.
But calling us so does not make us supply chain managers. And I worry that too few of us realize what it takes. Managing a supply chain calls for much more than technical skills. It also requires expertise in collaboration, cooperation and relationship building; mastery of the arts of negotiation and persuasion; and most important of all, sensitivity to others both within and outside the company. But from where I stand, it seems that we simply don't treat each other very well.
Take, as Exhibit A, the halting progress of CPFR. It's been a full 10 years since we first began hearing about the benefits of collaborating with supply chain partners and nearly seven years since the Voluntary Interindustry Commerce Standards group began serious promotion of Collaborative Planning, Forecasting and Replenishment. Though a few retailers—Wal-Mart and Ace Hardware come to mind—have established successful CPFR programs, the idea has failed to catch on in a big way. Though people often cite technology as the major obstacle, there's considerable evidence that points to a lack of cooperation among and even within companies. In the end, collaboration's success will hinge not on technology, but on the ability of leaders to build relationships, smooth the way and make things happen.
Exhibit B could be the industry-wide lack of interest in participating in research that could benefit the entire profession. If you read the fine print in the latest benchmarking studies, for example, you may be surprised to learn how few companies responded. Only 222 of the 2,384 people who received the 2004 outsourcing survey conducted by Capgemini, Georgia Tech/FedEx bothered to return their questionnaires. Less than 10 percent of the Fortune 500 took the time to respond to a similar survey sponsored by Northeastern University.
As Exhibit C, I would point to a decline in simple courtesy. As a service provider, I'm often frustrated by people's failure to answer letters and e-mails or return telephone calls. That frustration turns to bemusement, however, when the tables turn.
Recently, my phone rang. On the line was someone I'll call John, who greeted me with, "It's been a while and I just thought I'd check in. I'm networking." Now, I haven't talked to John since 1999, and he'd never thought to "check in" with me before. Obviously, he was out of work and had engaged in a crash program of networking.
He might as well forget it. It won't work. Building relationships is a long-term project; it can't be accomplished overnight. You have to nurture your relationships, making it a point to call people periodically just to make sure all is well. The same goes for networking, which is not something you do when you're in trouble or need a favor. If you wait for a crisis before you attempt to develop a network of people who care, it's already too late.
There's an old story about a group of boys who were trying to walk one rail of a railroad track but could only negotiate a few feet of track before losing their balance. Finally, two of the boys bet they could walk the rail without falling off. Challenged to make good on their boast, they each stepped up on a rail, extended a hand to each other and walked the entire length of the track without difficulty.
Over the long run, we will accomplish much more by helping each other. Wouldn't it be nice if we could make 2005 the "Year of True Collaboration and Cooperation?"