Zen and the Art of Supply Chain

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Late last month, Robert Pirsig died. For those who haven’t heard of him, he wrote the classic philosophical novel whose title I have bastardized for this column: Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. I first read it in the early 1980s while searching for a purpose in life. Its lasting message for me was all about the pursuit of quality.

Reflecting on it now, I believe this is the essence of supply chain excellence.

Strategy, Tactics and Work

Writing in a time of sweeping social and cultural change, Pirsig used the hard reality of the motorcycle to explore the meaning of life. The setting is an early 1970’s cross-country road trip and the logical cleaving point pits the rise of technology against the still fresh glow of 1960’s romanticism. The narrator’s mental quest is a search for some universal meaning that binds both. In the end it comes down to quality.

Quality is a familiar concept to supply chain strategists, even if clear agreement on metrics and definitions is elusive. In manufacturing terms, the Six Sigma movement gave us one way of pursuing quality that offered precision. In logistics and fulfillment, we’ve been comfortable chasing the “perfect order” or OTIF (On Time In Full). In planning, we aim for forecast accuracy. 

And yet, none of these goals is really enough. Today we strive for agility, which sounds good but is still too slippery a concept to measure well, and in any case is a catch-all for doing everything well.

This is the heart of the challenge. To govern work we need metrics. To apply tactics we need targets. To manage strategically we need a mission. Old school purchasing, production and distribution had it easy since everything was about cost. 

No longer. Customer centricity now means enabling a renewable cycle of customer delight and repurchase. Rapid innovation now means failing fast to find winning products and services. Supplier engagement now means cultivating co-developed technologies to build defensible gross margins. Cost cutting alone won’t do the job. We need a higher ideal, and that may be quality.

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