Who, us? Well, yes. And we swell a bit with pride whenever the strains of that anthem from the late, and much lamented, Freddie Mercury and Queen drift in on the iPod or XM/Sirius.
It is no longer very arguable. Supply chain management has usurped operations and/or manufacturing as the driving force behind corporate performance, financial success, and shareholder delight. A few cling to last-century paradigms, but an enlightened C-suite is making what our profession does: 1) a strategic differentiator, and 2) the magic that transforms vision to operational reality.
It is a very good time to be in supply chain management, and the future looks to be even brighter, in terms of organizational performance and individual opportunities.
WHO ARE THE CHAMPIONS?
Champions abound in our field. Some are people—the movers, the shakers, the thought leaders, the visionaries, and the talent scouts who create legions of superbly competent and highly motivated followers. They are (and have been) dispersed throughout our universe, to the benefit of their employers and the next generation of champions that they are nurturing. They were and are the academic pioneers and practitioners who virtually invented the profession—the Andraskis, the Bowersoxes, the LaLondes. They are the next generation, who lead powerful assemblages of supply talent and are busy creating more followers, those who build legends in the industry at places such as Kraft, L Brands, Johnson & Johnson, Apple, Coca-Cola, Tesco, and others, too many to be listed.
Some are the corporations, including those already mentioned, who lead the field in the collection of sundry annual listings of the however-many best supply chains.
WHAT DEFINES A CHAMPION?
Sticking with the corporate theme, the champions are, firstly, winners. They set the bar high in anyone's assessment of leaders and laggards, to use the popular but awkward consulting pet terms. Their costs are typically low, their service levels typically high; their asset leverage is powerful; and their companies' overall performance tends to lead the pack.
But "winning" is an event, a transient experience. What really counts is winning repeatedly over the long haul. Those annual lists of the "best" always seem to include a new name or two. Some pop up once, then disappear. Others stay, eventually supplanting many—if not most—of the names from the original list.
Winning once does not define a champion. Winning several times, then fading into obscurity, does not define a champion. Taking the noble science of pugilism as a metaphor, we expect a boxing champion to lose a little power over time and no longer be a champion. We expect, and should, that organizations can renew themselves and stay fresh and strong, if not forever, at least for some generations.
THE DIFFICULTY OF WINNING
Anyone, or any organization, with championship aspirations tends to concentrate on winning now, winning the next battle, being the best this year, as if a snapshot of the driver who has won the Indianapolis 500 pouring milk all over his hat defines him (sorry, Danica) for all time.
The fact is that, while trying to win every time out and leaving it all on the field of combat is a minimum requirement, winning it all, all the time, is extraordinarily challenging. And genuine champions have learned to live with that reality, even though the effort to win every time remains a defining characteristic.
The 1972 Miami Dolphins are much heralded for their unmatched unbeaten (16-0) season. While the NFL, its competitors, and its predecessors have seen other undefeated seasons, they occurred in the game's golden era, when Monsters truly ruled the Midway and Ohio was the football capital of the universe. No other Super Bowl winner has experienced a season without a loss.
The only heavyweight boxing champion to retire undefeated was the Pride of Brockton, Rocky Marciano, in the 1950s. Other legendary figures, including Mike Tyson, Jack Dempsey, Muhammad Ali, and Jack Johnson, all experienced losses. (Note: Marciano lost one fight, to Muhammad Ali, 13 years after his retirement and last previous bout.)
The Atlanta Braves, in baseball, managed by Bobby Cox and with Ted Turner finally smart enough to stay out of the team's affairs, strung together 14 consecutive divisional championships in 1991-2005, unequaled before or since. They only won the World Series once during that remarkable run. Winners? Of course. Champions? You bet.
WHAT MAKES CHAMPIONS DIFFERENT?
OK, so champions don't win each and every time. What's the point? There are several. One is that champions try to win every time, especially following a loss. Another is that champions look past this year, or this year's rankings, or next quarter's financial performance. They are focused on repeated and repeatable high performance levels for as far as they can see into the future. Sometimes that means sacrificing the short-term in favor of the long-term as a conscious management call.
A huge difference between champions and mere winners in the moment is that champions take loss not as a motivation to try harder, but as an experience to learn from. They build new strategies and fine-tune execution to overcome the factors that led to a loss, then catch and pass whomever beat them out. Then, they concentrate on widening the gap between themselves and the competition by continuing to restrategize and re-engineer and re-imagine what makes them special in the marketplace. This, coupled with integrated planning among supply chain management, senior management, sales and marketing, and information technology, continues to reinforce the likelihood of continued success—and more championships.
CHAMPIONS COME AND GO
We have noted that there is a lot of churning in the "best supply chain" listings, which, despite attempts at quantitative objectivity, are essentially subjective assessments by seasoned professionals. Household names appear, then disappear, for no apparent reason (at least as seen by distant observers). But others, notably Apple, hover at or near the top year after year. Are the placements and distinctions real? Is #8 really all that much "better" than #17? Perhaps. Time will tell.
But we do have some parallels in other measures. Xerox was an early technology-breakthrough darling. And now? 3M was a legendary innovator, with a constant stream of new products and new applications. Until Kodak owned cameras, film, and motion picture media markets, and even pioneered digital photo technology. And today Polaroid Eastern Airlines? Long-distance passenger rail? TWA? Arthur Treacher's Fish & Chips? And on and on.
From a supply chain perspective, did Best Buy's supply chain spell the end for Circuit City? And is that one-time advantage helping it now? Does Walmart's supply chain prominence help Sam's Club as it engages in mOréal combat with Costco? Can Aldi's low prices continue to overcome the disadvantage of a widely dispersed thin footprint? Do megaplayers (not limited to Walmart) stumble when they try to impose merchandising and supply chain techniques in unfamiliar markets?
FOR THE FUTURE
Are there no champions forever? The economic battlefield is littered with the bodies of one-time winners and sometime champions. Is the best we can hope for a couple of generations of dominance?
We don't honestly know. But we are pretty sure that taking a breather and enjoying a cooling breeze after winning one race is not the way to approach the demands of a steady stream of new days.
We are also pretty sure that champions go down fighting. And that champions get up and fight again. Sometimes they win—and win big—after losing. Oops, there's that pesky Apple again.