Chain of Thought

Avoid Political Pollution in Your Supply Stream

The spinning of campaign propaganda is the ugliest part of politics. Unfortunately, this being a presidential election year, the webs of deception being spun are unavoidable. The candidates are busy trying to trap each other in lies and half-truths. They often succeed. But politicians don't have a monopoly on such gamesmanship. It's part of business too, especially in supply chain management.

Take supply chain mapping, for example. I'm reading a cool new book on this process, titled “Seeing the Whole Value Stream,” by Dan Jones and Steve Womack and published by the Lean Enterprise Institute. They define the mapping process as “directly observing the flows of information and materials as they now occur, summarizing them visually, and then envisioning a future state with much better performance.”

That's what politicians should be doing, isn't it? “Envisioning a future state with much better performance?” The difference on the business side is that the sausage-making process designed to get them there is more hidden—although just as ugly. The authors illustrate this in a section of their book that addresses the role of the product line manager (PLM). Just as our presidential candidates have to build campaign teams, PLMs need a good eye for the multidisciplinary talent responsible for producing and distributing their sausage—er, product. But here's where business politics can get ugly.

The authors don't like the idea of a “product team” structure, where engineering, operations, purchasing and marketing employees collaborate on a team. They write that “doing this causes a large amount of organizational disruption during the transition and this structure still does not address the behavior of upstream partner firms.” For them, it's up to the PLM to take mapping responsibility by taking an “energetic approach” to the job.

The funny thing about this is an admission the authors make about such a PLM: “The very managers most able to benefit from [this book] don't currently exist in many firms!”

So where will today's value stream mapping leaders come from? Let's consider purchasing.

In my last blog I quoted Ralph Rupert, manager of unit load technology for Millwood, specialists in palletization and product unitization. He said procurement needs to be part of the shipping and fulfillment team, but that procurement is often structured as silos within a silo, with purchasing agents assigned to different pieces of a product—kind of like the committee responsible for inventing the camel. Well, the authors of this book give another reason to be careful about involving procurement, at least in a leadership role, and that's what got me to thinking about the politics of supply chain management.

“Assigning a buyer from purchasing to be a mapping leader can lead to problems if upstream participants believe that the real purpose of mapping will be to uncover waste at suppliers, followed by demands for immediate price reductions.”

Any PLM hearing such a cynical accusation from a supplier might either get angry or be hurt. A politician might feel complimented for the recognition of his brilliant strategy.

If your company is developing a new product, I recommend reviewing books like this one to get a feel for selecting the best candidates to serve in your value stream. And remember, this isn't politics. When vetting the candidates, ignore their spawning habits.

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