What is Supply Chain?

Future of Supply Chain Network Design

Recently I was at an event where I knew the host and her family but not too many other people. As the guests introduced themselves to each other, the dreaded question came up. What do you do?   I have come to dread this question. For the first part of my career, my answer was Chemical Engineering. Sometimes I would say I am an engineer but most people asked the follow-up and I had to tell them the discipline. The reaction was the same even from other engineers. “Really?? I hated chemistry and math…” Because I know all the areas that I am not good at, I try to assure people that I am just good at two disciplines that the majority of people dislike – math and chemistry. Sometimes I put people at ease, but most of the time the conversation ends there. Then in 2001, a career opportunity presented itself, and I shifted into Supply Chain Management. Production Planning was my entrée into the Supply Chain arena, and I loved it. Now I support Production Planners and Schedulers, but what I also loved was that I have a new answer to the dreaded “What do you do?” question.

I thought finally I will be hip and cool and no longer looked at as the geeky ChemE. But alas, for the last 17 years or so, my new answer of Supply Chain Management or Supply Chain Consulting has yielded blank stares from people of all age ranges and education levels. Some people ask “What is Supply Chain?” but mostly I get blank stares. At least it doesn’t send people running away. I quickly follow-up with an explanation that all consumers can understand. Everything that is manufactured needs some sort of Supply Chain to get all of the raw materials to the right place, at the right time to make the product. Then the finished product had to be shipped and staged in warehouses around the country or world to be ready for the consumer to purchase. My job is to support the Production Planning and Scheduling teams in learning and to troubleshoot their tools, optimizing their processes or better visualizing their data.

At this party, I got a new reaction to my answer. It turned out that the couple’s son is working in San Francisco for a retail company in Inventory Management. Not only did they know what a Supply Chain was but they wanted to know if their son should get APICS (American Production and Inventory Control Society) certified and how he could make his mark in his new career. Their questions made my day. Since their son is just starting out in his career and he doesn’t have a Supply Chain degree, I recommended that he get APICS certified to strengthen his resume especially if his new company is willing to pay for it.  The couple told me that their son enjoys developing reports, so I recommended that he first help the company to make the inventory data visible to as many employees that need to see the information as possible. This will be a perfect way for him to make his mark. Once he makes the inventory data visible, then I suggested that he help the company tackle any accuracy issues that will inevitably surface by having more people seeing and questioning the data.

Production Planning, Scheduling and Inventory Management are some of the job functions in the Supply Chain.  In the C-Suite in companies, there are now Chief Supply Chain Officers (CSO), and some Supply Chain leaders have become CEO’s of their companies (i.e., Tim Cook at Apple). Today, Supply Chain Management is being taught in colleges/universities, and a new generation is starting their careers in Supply Chain jobs. Maybe I won’t need my follow-up explanation for much longer.

About Karen Bird

Karen Bird is a Senior Planning Analyst for Profit Point Inc. She has over 25 years of Engineering and Supply Chain Planning experience working in the Specialty Chemicals, Consumer Packaged Goods and Wine Industries.

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