The buzzword "optics"—meaning "appearances," or the way in which an event or course of action is perceived by the public—has wormed its way into conversation, analysis, criticism, and haranguing over political initiatives seemingly overnight. One may only hope that it fades as quickly as "at the end of the day" and other sloppy language attempting to pass itself off as deep insight and wisdom.
It does seem, though, that for the time being, we will be both seeing and hearing about optics from talking, if not thinking, heads on every television channel except perhaps Nickelodeon. Regrettably, leaders—political (no, that is not an oxymoron, although it could be a moron of a different sort), business, and other—are attempting to master the optics of situations rather than their substance.
Optics can be useful and beneficial. We often need prisms through which to bend light for better interpretation. Microscopes help us to see and work with impossibly small samples. Telescopes open windows to permit us to see farther—and farther back in time—than simply standing on a ladder allows.
But too often, public optics today are being used as a substitute for reality. Negative reactions to statements, initiatives, decisions, and actions are too easily blamed on the "optics" and not on authenticity.A FALSE FAÇADE
In government, in the private sector, in social services, in education, optics rule. It is the large-scale equivalent of spending all one's time and money on putting up new drapes in the parlor while conveniently ignoring the cracks in the house's foundation.
Sooner or later, the buzzards will come home to roost. It's a vain hope that the water in the basement will drain away, leaving a new owner to deal with its recurrence. But among the ruins of a sharp focus on optics accompanied by a blind spot obscuring looming realities, there remains a time and a place for optics, not least in the supply chain management universe.OPTICS AND THE SUPPLY CHAIN
We, by nature, are optics-shy. We are not much on, and aren't very good at, tooting our own horns. But as a profession, we really need to get better, to get downright good, at the optics of our situations.
Learning, even mastering, our optics is critical to personal success. It is also vital to the profitability and longevity of the enterprises within which we ply our magnificent profession. Here are a few examples to think about.
If you are a supply chain leader, your primary optic is visibility. Being there, being with the troops, gets you halfway up the hill all by itself.
Inclusion, providing visibility for the next generation of leaders you are developing, strengthens both you and your organization within the enterprise. If you toot their horns, consider your own horn tooted, too—without the annoying consequence of being seen as a braggart.
Your—and your company's—optics within key relationships is huge, for both you and the enterprise. You create win-wins left and right by making sure that your customers know, and see, that you deliver the goods, that you and your team anticipate challenges, and that, all together, you fix problems before they sink the ship with all aboard.
There is nothing wrong, and much right, in designating worthy key accounts as such things as customer of the year, valued partner, or preferred business ally.
At a more fundamental level, creating the optics that signal special relationships within your supplier community are critical to maintaining longstanding alliances, to receiving preferred treatment, to shoring up an extraordinarily reliable supply chain that benefits suppliers, you, and your customers.
Do not, in these processes, neglect the optics of how you communicate and show the contributions of the supply chain organization to the enterprise. Face it. Does the boss really care about perfect orders or on-time shipments, or order fill and stock-out consequences?
Of course not. He or she cares a lot about return on equity, about customer acquisition and retention, about finding the balance between capital investments and margins, about business continuity, and about happy smiling shareholders (whether the company is publicly or privately held).
Again, it is visibility, communication, and recognition that provide the optics that reinforce the basics of how you do business. Certificates, plaques, awards banquets, photo ops, and public expressions of success, of harmony, of service, of impeccable performance—all these create the right kind of optics.
Why the "right kind"? Because they are rooted in the reality of actual performance and accomplishment, with optics illuminating and brightening actuality.WHAT COULD GO WRONG?
As long as the horse is in front of the cart, you will be OK in the conscious application of optics to your world. But overdone, optics can easily lose their positive impact and become occasions of disbelief or ridicule. You can only have so many preferred partners, so many customers of the year, so many employees of the month. Not every accomplishment merits a pizza party, or a press release, or a personal introduction to the customer's CEO.
Stay grounded in authenticity, relative impact, and thoughtful intentions for engaging in a situation's optics. Never create optics around a hope or intention. Never announce an outcome that is merely a hope or a plan or a target. Always wait for the accomplishment before recognizing its architects or working staff. The deck hand calling out "Land ho!" is not the same as wading ashore in the New World.
And if you succumb to the pressure that makes it attractive to create an optic to deflect attention away from inaction in a priority environment, or failure in basic execution of normal expectations, look over your shoulder, all day, every day, until the end of time. Buzzards will be coming for you. And I will be cheering them on.OPTICS AT THE END OF THE DAY
So, as with so many things, optics can be a tool for good or the tool of those who are on a path to abuse. Created well, with proper intent, they can make our work lives richer and fuller, and more rewarding. Created with an intent to distort, misinform, or obfuscate, they can diminish us. How we use optics is up to us—to you, to me, to our leaders. We owe it to one another to call out those who choose the wrong path.