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"Life is what happens to you while you're busy making other plans," John Lennon sang, and at the risk of trivializing his words, I believe one could substitute the word "business" for "life" and still have a true statement. What is a supply chain, after all, but a complex organism that behaves in unpredictable if not capricious ways? Planners play a vital role in the organization, even as the real world conspires to makes hash of their efforts.
We'll never eliminate the unforeseen, although we can soften its impact through strong, focused leadership. A planner should do just that - plan - and not be diverted by the needs of the moment. Unfortunately, the opposite happens all too often in companies today, especially in trying economic times. "There's nothing like taking a job as a planner, believing you're going to get into the role of interacting with a number of stakeholders, only to find yourself chasing down production batches and trucks," says Paul Strzelec, chief executive officer of Digital Tempus, Inc., a designer and implementer of planning systems.
Too much of a planner's time is taken up by putting out fires. The inevitable result is high turnover and job dissatisfaction. "When you bring people into your planning organization and they get vacuumed up by execution behavior, they don't stay long," says Strzelec. What's more, their on-the-job experience makes them unsuitable for high-level planning positions. It's all well and good that you spent lots of time on a loading dock or in a warehouse, but how does that equip you with the skills that are needed to craft accurate, long-range supply and demand forecasts?
One reason for the disconnect is a persistent lack of understanding of what constitutes a supply chain, and the skills that are needed to manage it. Industry groups are working to promote a standard definition of the term so that executives, employees and universities can have a coherent conversation about the topic. Until they succeed, many will continue to think of "supply chain" exclusively as a term for execution-type processes such as warehousing and transportation. What's needed, says Strzelec, are programs that stress the analytical and social skills necessary to manage the flow of goods, information and capital from initial planning to final delivery and customer care.
Strzelec is actually optimistic that we'll see a change in attitude by business and academia in 2011. He thinks companies are about to make a big investment in their people, having focused mostly on technology and systems over the past few years. If he's right, they'll be putting their money on programs that develop the skills of high-level supply-chain planners.
Why change now? Strzelec says companies "have been starved in terms of taking care of their people." He sees a widespread recognition among top executives that the planning process is "broken." It's time to put an end to the firefighting, as well as the idea that technology can solve everything. "There are only so many times that you can stare at a Visio diagram," he says. Maybe the next big purchase of enterprise software will include fewer bells and whistles, and better training for the people who have to run it. (Even more shocking, maybe some of those pricey applications that companies purchased in better times, then stuck on a shelf, will actually get implemented.)
So where does that leave the university programs that are supposed to be churning out the talented candidates who can fill that role? Far short of where they need to be, according to Strzelec. Too many schools are still training their students how to process purchase orders instead of perform high-level planning by product, market, customer and geography. And too many businesses are still asking for that elementary level of tactical competence. "Businesses come in with underdeveloped programs and ask universities to fill the gap," Strzelec says. The two sides can't seem to get together on what constitutes a valuable entry-level employee, and they're both at fault for the confusion.
There is progress in that direction. Strzelec recently was appointed co-director of the Sales and Operations Planning Benchmarking Consortium at Penn State. With the participation of a number of major consumer-products companies, the initiative aims to align education and industry practices related to the development of supply-chain talent.
Another key to meaningful change is the business internship, whereby students can balance university training with real-world experience at an early stage of their careers. The best candidates have a foot in both worlds. "I'm optimistic that there's recognition of the power of solid internship programs as a means of developing talent and feeding it into the system," says Strzelec.
At the same time, he's nervous that companies with successful internship programs will lose momentum as they focus on other critical issues in the post-recession era. (Are we really "post-" yet? That's a topic for another time.) I wrote previously about the need to raise awareness of supply-chain careers at the high school level, but Strzelec believes that's a wasted effort that could siphon off resources that are better directed elsewhere. "If you have college [students] in a university who aren't getting the nurturing they need," he asks, "why are we diluting our opportunity to develop them by spending time with people in high school?"
I'm not sure he's completely right about that - we ought to be making some effort to clue high-schoolers in on the existence of this thing we call the supply chain - but there's no arguing the urgency of the issue. As many have pointed out, the Baby Boomers are retiring in droves, and we need an army of fresh talent to step up to the front lines of global supply-chain management. First, though, the generals have to get their act together.
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