LOGISTICS TODAY: What is your background, and how did it prepare you for your current role at Georgia Tech?
LANGLEY: I received all of my degrees at Penn State, including a PhD in business logistics, which prepared me for a career in business logistics. Then I spent 28 years at the University of Tennessee, doing all the things you’d expect professors to do – teaching, research, and also a lot of corporate involvement with companies that were hiring our students, funding our research, populating our executive forums, and so forth. And now in my current role at Georgia Tech, I am far more involved with trying to integrate supply chain processes across disciplines – business as well as engineering – in all the standard functions and processes of the business firm, like marketing and logistics and so forth.
My background has prepared me to at least try to respond to some of the challenges companies are facing today with supply chain management, as something that is far more than just an extension of logistics.
LT: To what extent has technology and the Internet propelled the current interest in supply chain management?
LANGLEY: I think technology has been a key driver of the interest, and I believe that we are still at the early stage of adopting the power of technology to supply chain applications. For anyone who thinks we’ve made a lot of progress so far, I believe we’ll see all kinds of new and improved ways of leveraging technology in the future.
We’ve got some of the building blocks there – RFID is a good example of one. Most people understand what RFID is and they’re aware of the fact that a few major companies have asked their suppliers to be RFID-capable -- Wal-Mart, Home Depot, Target are the biggest ones, and then the Department of Defense. But longer term, the use of that technology will lead to a very wide range of improvements that will help to take costs out of our processes and improve service to the customers. So we’re really in the very early stages of applying these new technologies.
I was speaking to a group of students at Auburn University two nights ago, and I said that I’ve been in this business for about 30 years. If I could change anything and make this my first day on the job, I said I’d really like to do that because I think the last 30 years have been exciting for those of us that have been interested in logistics, and now that there’s much more visibility for what we’re doing and much greater expectations. If you think the last 30 years have been exciting, the next 30 years are going to be outstanding.
LT: Are the stakes a lot higher now though than they were 30 years ago for supply chain alignments?
LANGLEY: I think they are because in today’s business environment, competitive pressures are obvious. The other part about it is companies are becoming pretty good at leveraging resources of all types. The good news is companies are beginning to understand how to measure the value of all their resources. The bad news is, if you are a resource – whether it’s a person, or a process, or an asset that’s not necessary or creating value – sooner or later, and probably sooner, you will be displaced. I think 30-40 years ago it wasn’t quite that way.
That’s kind of a harsh reality for a lot of people and a lot of companies, to find that if you’re not needed you’re not going to have a job. But on the other hand, the beneficiaries of this are the customers and the consumers that are buying the products and services. If you look at the smart companies, they’re continually changing and adapting and reinventing themselves so as to have a justifiable place in the supply chain.
LT: Is it important that a company get its own internal supply chain figured out, in terms of having everybody understand that they’re working towards a common goal, before they try to connect up with their extended enterprise, or are those two separate activities?
LANGLEY: They’re related, and I would say that in a perfect world, that would be the way that you’d want to do it – get your internal house in order before you worry too much about the external relationships, but the way things are changing, you can’t afford to do that – you have to do them at the same time. I think this is one thing that actually holds companies back, who are so consumed with internal challenges that they temporarily bury their heads in the sand instead of trying to make progress with supply chain issues. You absolutely have to deal with them both at the same time.
LT: What’s your specific role at Georgia Tech, particularly in terms of helping companies with their supply chains?
LANGLEY: One thing I do is private consulting with different firms, dealing with the overall strategic priorities in the logistics and supply chain area. It’s kind of a high-level type of thing -- I wouldn’t be the person to go in and design a warehouse or figure out how many distribution centers they ought to have and where they should be located, but I would help them understand what they’re trying to accomplish in their business and then recommend broad supply chain approaches they might want to consider. That could be anything from improving relationships with customers and suppliers, the use of outsourced logistics services, redesigning their logistics network.
For example, when you see a company that has a proliferation of distribution centers, I’m not the one to figure out how many they really need, but I can tell when there are too many. At the same time, they may be trying to introduce global sourcing, which can have significant applications for the way the whole network is structured. I do that on an individual basis, in terms of my consulting involvements.
I also do it at Georgia Tech, principally through our Supply Chain Executive Forum, that we started about a year ago, which brings together senior supply chain decision makers from all kinds of companies – manufacturers, retailers, 3PLs, technology firms. We collectively identify supply chain issues and try to resolve some of the challenges. My involvement with that is I’m the director of the Supply Chain Executive Forum. The Forum does not exist for the purpose of directly assisting any individual member, but to work with them as a group. Essentially what people do is, we meet a couple times a year and have some conference calls in between, and they go away with new ideas on how they can improve their supply chain practices, and a lot of times through what we’ve done they’re able to develop relationships with other companies in the supply chain where they can benchmark or they can share information.
LT: What about students who have gone through your programs over the years? Do you have any way of gauging what impact developing that many minds over so many years has done to benefit the industry?
LANGLEY: I feel pretty strongly about that. I once tried to count up how many students I had the privilege of educating and it was something like 3,000-4,000. I never really understood the good feeling I would get from seeing former students of mine not only succeed in their own careers – because over a 30-year career I have former students who are C-level people in different kinds of companies and so forth – but I never really thought about how good it would feel to see them be as successful as they’ve been. The impact is one that at this stage in my career I sometimes reflect on that and say, “I guess I did something right.”
Many of these people have been so successful in their own right that I’m really privileged to be involved with them. I think if you talk to other logistics educators, they’ll probably tell you too that it’s one of the most rewarding parts of their career -- to see people they’ve had the chance to work with while they were in school achieve great things in their careers.
It also goes for executives, because we educate a lot of executives, so the concept of taking somebody who’s in your classroom that’s been in the business for 15 years and seeing them go even further is the same kind of phenomenon.
LT: Are there any other career achievements that you would point to?
LANGLEY: I have had the privilege of working with genuinely good people throughout my career. I think that’s really important. We’re all to some extent a product of our upbringing, and having been educated at Penn State, there’s kind of a Penn State way of doing things. At the PhD level, you’re living with these people every day, and at the PhD level at Penn State they actually treat their PhD students like junior colleagues, and I’ve always enjoyed doing that so I’ve carried that through my career.
There are also some things that I’ve been proud of that have been material, like the CLM Distinguished Service award, and something that I’m equally proud of -- I was named outstanding alumnus of the Penn State Business Logistics program.
The real thing I’m most proud of is the opportunity to work with good people and develop relationships that last a long time. If you look at what I’m going to be doing over the next however many years, one thing for sure will be to enjoy the relationships I’ve got and continue to develop new ones. Functionally I’ve got things I’m doing that hopefully if you come back in 10 years and ask me what have I done in the last 10 years, there will be things I can tell you that will relate to the advancement in the state of the art of logistics in a functional kind of sense, and the way I will do that will be through continuing to have good relationships with people throughout the profession.
LT: What should people in the logistics profession anticipate coming in the next year or two?
LANGLEY: Something that’s been a popular topic with me for a while has been that people should be thinking about themselves as individuals and the company they work for – the whole issue of core competency. Where are your core competencies? There are three things that implies: In what areas do you have expertise? What kinds of responsibilities are a good strategic fit within your organization? And third, are you producing an adequate return on investment? So every person, every process, every company ought to be looking at everything they do and asking, “Is this something we should be doing ourselves, or should we be looking for someone else in the supply chain to assist with this?”
There’s an obvious commercial side to that in the use of 3PLs. But in a conceptual sense it’s more like continually looking at everything you do and asking, “Are we capable? Is it worth doing ourselves? Does it fit strategically with what we’re trying to do?” If it doesn’t meet all those criteria, you might want to think about relying on a supply chain partner for whatever it is you’re talking about.
Part of understanding your core competencies is being able to quantify the value of all your assets and all of your resources. I think companies are becoming pretty good at that.
C. John Langley
The Logistics Institute professor of supply chain management
Georgia Institute of Technology (www.tli.gatech.edu)