The Business of improving a Supply Chain is a similar experience to digging a French drain.
My 1730 New England farmhouse sits a bit downhill from my driveway, and when it rains hard, or for long periods, the water will follow the slope from this watershed and make its way into my cellar. I have lived in my house long enough to have seen several wash-through events, and I have the remnants in my cellar of the alluvial mud to show for it. Cleaning up after one of these events is not my idea of a good time, so I decided to take steps to address the issue before it arrives in my cellar.
The solution that I arrived at was to build (read dig) a swale or French drain or foundation drain or something similar, and I wanted to do it on a small (very small) budget. While the details of the design are not important, the similarities between the situation and the implementation of the solution are striking to work I do in assessing and improving supply chains.
The Assessment: We all know water flows downhill, and since my house was built before basically anything was invented, my foundation is made from field stones and does not know that it should have been designed to keep the water out. So, when it rains hard or for more than a few days, the water forms a small river that washes mud into my cellar. Poor drainage and the inevitable forces of nature are the proximate and ultimate causes here. The latter is unavoidable; the former may be addressed.
The Plan of Action: With some small amount of investment in materials and a bit of effort, I set out to address the drainage issue, allowing the water to find another path to downhill that did not involve it tromping through my cellar.
The plan involved digging a straight trench next to the foundation that is roughly two feet deep and two feet wide the length of the wall (about 20 feet), installing a perforated drainage pipe, tying that pipe into an unused drainage pipe, and filling the remaining space with crushed stone to allow the water to find the pipe. Ok, so a pretty simple plan: dig a trench, install the pipe, backfill with stone, no problem… You done yet?
The Implementation: Digging the trench: I live in New England which is known for its rolling hills and rocky soil. I can attest to the validity of both these claims. Every time I set the shovel into the soil, I immediately hit a rock. No full shovel, no clear progress, nothing more than the dull clang of metal hitting a stone, and that jarring sensation in my arms. Sometimes the rock was baseball size, sometimes dinner plate size. But often it was larger, and in some cases much larger, think basketball, and keep going. Each rock needed to be explored, to find the edges, and fretted out of their comfortable deeply embedded positions with leverage, care, and diligence. Each rock was unique, not exactly like others before. While buried in the dirt, and on the first contact, it was rarely possible to tell the size of the rock to anticipate the level of effort that was going to be needed to extract the thing. Only after some time probing the contours could I tell whether it would better to pry it up with my shovel, use my crowbar, or just grab it and wrestle it out of the hole. Some rocks that I hit, I could not even ascertain their size, they extended beyond what I wanted to investigate.
I don’t know if this is common to many homeowners or not but digging a trench in rocky soil is a time-consuming task, that benefits from an abundance of patience, perseverance, and flexibility.
While contemplating rock 5, I was wondering if I was going to be able to complete this trench in the time I had given myself. Should I attempt this on my own? On rock 10 I questioned if the trench needed to be as deep at all that. Hey, was two feet deep necessary? Surely the critical design point was that it needed to be sloped toward the exit point… so that means that I could gradually relax the depth pro-rated over the length of the trench.
On what seemed like rock 20 it occurred to me that it may be better to follow the path of least resistance and go around some rocks. Pick your battles, right? We only have so much energy, right? The straight path trench design suddenly seemed over-rated.
On what must have been rock 400 it occurred to me that it is a sign of good judgment to not disturb some rocks since doing so might impact the foundation. Yeah, that’s it, good judgment. So, the straight path design was out. How naive was I really to think that a straight trench was what I wanted?
On what I am sure was rock 5,000 I wondered if I was ever going to complete this trench. And did I need it after all? Come on, what is the real downside to cleaning up some mud in the cellar every so often? I could easily just fill the trench in, and call it a day, pull the plug on the whole thing.
On, oh, about rock 70 million there is the nagging notion to call in the heavy equipment and damn the expense. Why didn’t I think of this earlier? But I don’t make the call since I look back and see that I have made it most of the way through the length of the trench I had intended.
On the last rock, I let out a huge sigh of relief and actually felt a little bittersweet that my rock removal task was wrapping up. It occurs to me that I have come to enjoy removing rocks.
The installation of the perforated pipe went in easily, just as planned, and tying into the existing drainage pipe went off without a hitch too. How clever I was to have it rain just as I completed the pipe installation to test the system. All are functioning perfectly. Perseverance and flexibility were all I needed.
The Wrap Up: And now, while waiting for the crushed stone to arrive, I am contemplating the similarities of my trench digging experience in exploring/improving the supply chain of a company. Often the supply chain assessment reveals a straight line between where you are and where you should be. And the plan to get there may involve several steps of systems change and process change, but again seem simple on paper. It is usually during the implementation of these changes that you find the real stones in your path, that has always been that way, and that resist being uprooted.
Perseverance is persistence in sticking to a plan. Flexibility allows you to modify the plan. For some organizations, perseverance, seasoned with flexibility allows you to achieve the plan.
Perseverance and Flexibility Builds a Better Supply Chain
In my company, we face these obstacles every day during our supply chain work. These stones might take the shape of intransigent managers, or IT systems that may not be changed, or security systems that must be navigated. Somedays, every probing question meets with that dull clang of an immovable object. Incompatible software systems, unknown syntax details, changing business process requirements, clang, clang, clang. People, too, throw up impediments to change. They don’t like to change; they like where they are. The ultimate business goal is often questioned, people sometimes lose energy when faced with the enormity of the task, they lose sight of the benefits, or they lose their way among the many tasks to be done to remove the stones in the path. Sometimes projects are not tested properly or are never finished. But there is always a way to get it done. I know, since I’ve been getting it done by making supply chains better for 30 years. I am glad that in my company we have the perseverance and flexibility not to be daunted by the stones that we find.
Change is hard, and real change even harder. Sometimes just exploring the nature of the obstacle is hard. What is the business need? What is the benefit? What are the degrees of freedom that a business is willing to explore? Why is that product make to order? Why is that inventory level so high? Why do you make that product that costs more to make than the selling price? (What kind of rocks are we talking about?)
Every clang of the shovel reminds me that it is easy to underestimate the effort to do a thing. Real change takes real effort, and expending real effort is hard. If you are in the business of improving supply chains, you will have some impediments obstructing your progress, but over time you become better at managing the stones that block your path to success, and you begin to embrace these challenges. Don’t give up. Perseverance, seasoned with flexibility builds a better supply chain.