In a world where so much seems to be spinning out of control, the idea of voluntarily giving up even more of that control is unsettling. It understandably makes us feel uncomfortable, especially if we are the type of manager who likes metrics, statistics, and flow charts.
But for at least the past 20 years, every analyst, futurist, and business guru has been warning us that if we want to keep pace with the volatile business market of the 21st century, we have to move faster. In particular, we have to make decisions faster, and that means not controlling so tightly who gets to make them.
After all, one of the reasons why it often takes so long to make a decision is that the “final say” keeps getting kicked up the corporate hierarchy until it reaches the person with the “right” title. How much quicker could a supply chain move if the people closest to the problem were the ones who decided how to react?
One of the biggest supply chain success stories of recent times speaks to that precise point. When the pharmaceutical giant Pfizer was designing a brand-new supply chain to manufacture and distribute its Covid-19 vaccine, it changed its decision-making culture, removing some review steps and compressing traditional timelines.
“It was all about breaking down bureaucracies. It wasn’t about governance and meetings and Power Points anymore,” says Pfizer’s Jim Cafone.
Cafone is vice president of network design and performance for Pfizer Global Supply, and he headed the team tasked with creating the supply chain for the vaccine. But even though he was in charge of the project, his team made many of the network design decisions in meetings he wasn’t in.
“I was perfectly happy not being in [those meetings] because people were accountable for getting the work done,” Cafone said in an interview. “It was all about speed, agility, innovation, and the breakthrough mindset, which means by default, you have to feel comfortable not being a part of everything. Let the organization as a whole do its work.”
Other companies adopted similar tactics during their own pandemic pivots. For example, when raw material was in short supply in March 2020, the padlock manufacturer Master Lock empowered a small project team to set priorities and decide which products to manufacture and which customers to serve first. When Justin Matuszek, director of product management for Master Lock, talks about the process, he sounds a lot like Cafone.
“There was no waiting for executive summary meetings,” he recalled in an article in DC Velocity’s sister publication, CSCMP’s Supply Chain Quarterly. “We had the authority to make decisions, and, if needed, executive leadership was brought in to make sure we remained aligned [with the company’s overarching mission].”
Matuszek’s comment hints at something the renowned supply chain consultant and thinker John Gattorna has been writing about for a long time. For example, in a recent article in CSCMP’s Supply Chain Quarterly (“Supply Chains: The platform for driving true business transformation,” Q4 2021), Gattorna and co-author Pat McLagen noted that we now have technology that provides us with the real-time information and analyses we need to make sound, fact-based decisions. “As a result, individuals and teams will be better able to manage themselves, work together, and make [operational and tactical] decisions without guidance from management,” they wrote.
So perhaps it’s time for C-level executives to rethink their roles. Maybe their job is no longer to make decisions—or at least not the operational, everyday ones. Control and power no longer need to be tightly held by those at the top of the org chart. Maybe, instead, upper management’s focus should be on articulating the strategic goals of the company and supply chain, and on making sure everyone is aligned with those goals.
This is no longer your parents’ supply chain. (Yes, yes, I know, they most likely didn’t even call it “supply chain.”) It may be time our org charts reflected that.