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Teach Yourself Supply Chain Management in Ten Years

May 11th, 2011 | By: Martin Arrand

(with apologies to Peter Norvig)

Some time ago, the wise and well-respected computer scientist Peter Norvig wrote an article called “Teach Yourself Programming in Ten Years”. I read it recently and found it so full of good sense I couldn’t resist taking the spirit of Norvig’s thoughts and applying them to supply chain management.

Norvig’s attention had been taken by the slew of books – you may have seen them yourself if you’ve walked past the computing section of a bookstores – with titles such as “Learn C++ in 3 days” (not a made-up title).

Study hard... only 9 more years to go - photo by Mateusz Stachowski

In response to the misleading claims, trivial treatment and impossible promise of instant gratification of these titles, Norvig set out a series of practical ideas for how to “Teach Yourself Programming in Ten Years”. He draws on well-attested notions of deliberative practice: the way learning comes from long and repeated application of “not just doing it again and again, but challenging yourself with a task that is just beyond your current ability, trying it, analyzing your performance while and after doing it, and correcting any mistakes”. (These ideas have recently been popularised by Malcolm Gladwell in Outliers – you will have come across his “10,000 hours” rule.)

I’ve seen a lot of bright young people apply themselves energetically to supply chain management positions, and while many do remarkable things they have all admitted there is an incredibly steep learning curve. Not only that, more experienced managers often say that the more they know, the more they recognise the gaps in their knowledge. Whereas the most experienced people often have seemingly effortless intuition for getting to the root of problems, seeing pitfalls, identifying workable solutions and guiding them to completion. I believe that intuition comes from long and varied deliberative practice in supply chain and general management.

Here are my ideas for how to do that:

It doesn’t matter where you start from, whether you have a degree, what kind of degree. You need some aptitude (including good numeracy and a capacity for conceptual thinking), but you also need a curiosity about the world and an interest in solving problems and making things work better.

■ Get experience of some general operational excellence approaches, preferably outside a strictly supply chain role. Most supply chain issues are enmeshed in general business issues, and knowing how to improve the quality and productivity of processes in general is extremely useful. Learn Lean from a manufacturing engineer – for my money automotive engineers have the most depth of skill. Join a project with them and get out onto the shop floor. Pay attention to the soft skills too – bringing people along with the change. Learn John Seddon’s Systems Thinking approach on a project in a service operation, and see how customers interact with processes. Try not to get caught up in sectarian conflicts between supporters of different approaches – keep an open mind to the merits, weaknesses and appropriateness of various methods.

Spend time doing a job with daily operational responsibility – be that in a distribution centre, running a fleet or ordering stock, it doesn’t matter. Do this even if you prefer project work and more strategic stuff. We all need an appreciation of how the ever changing demands of customers and the business push and pull operational staff and leave no time for reflection. You will learn to provide solutions that help and not hinder operational staff (you know, the ones that actually do the work) and you will be able to speak with authority. And you will have rolled your sleeves up and done something practical.

Go and find out about the rocket science – the really clever stuff that Operational Research guys have done that underpins modern supply chain management. Look at forecasting, stock optimisation, route planning algorithms, location modelling,… Much of this stuff is hidden under the hood of proprietary tools and planning systems, but you need to be able to interpret the output of those tools and to configure those systems. Go to University websites and find out about branch-and-bound optimisers. Books help too (such as Factory Physics ). This stuff is a mystery to most people, and they end up making bad decisions because of it.

Learn how to deal with people. All people. Any people. At work and in your personal life. Appreciate how people tick, and how different people are different. Call it emotional intelligence if you like, or psychology, or just being a functioning human. But it’s a team game, and if you can’t deal with suppliers, colleagues and clients, especially when things get hairy, you will make life a lot more difficult than it needs to be.

Become a consultant. Do this even if you prefer operational responsibility. If you find yourself in a large organisation you can join an internal project team, but much better is working for a consulting company. I can think of no other role in which you will so rapidly get exposure to such a range of organisations. Your clients will range from good to appalling, across sectors, with an array of operational and strategic challenges. They will also have different organisational cultures, which you can observe and appraise. And when you decide you no longer want to be a consultant, you will have an address book full of contacts you can approach for a job.

Keep up with the trends in business thinking (because they are social currency with your clients, colleagues and superiors), but don’t feel you have to spend too much time chasing them. You will learn more by delivering a project than by reading a business book.

Become seriously good at Excel. Find Excel gurus (every office has at least one) and hoover up as many tricks from them as you can. Learn how to use all the functions. Learn the keyboard shortcuts. Data manipulation is boring but necessary, so make sure you can do it really efficiently, and you’re not dependent on an “analyst” to do this for you. The same goes for Access (or equivalent database). If you have the inclination, learn how to program – not only will it open up more analytical opportunities and shortcuts it will expand your capacity to think about problems.

Work in another country, and learn another language. For those in North America or Europe starting out in SCM, expect that for most of your career the most interesting (and highest volume) of supply chain work will be in the emerging economies. Get some knowledge of those markets early on, and get used to operating in different cultural environments. If you have the aptitude, learn the language, because even where English is the dominant business language getting to grips with a local language will give you all sorts of insights, contacts and warm recognition from local clients and co-workers. If you are from an emerging economy, try to get an overseas secondment or posting within your company – there is a lot to learn about SCM from the way it is done in mature markets.

Be the best on some projects, the worst on others. You will learn different things from those roles. Where you are the weakest link in a project, suck as much experience from your fellow team-members as possible. Try to model successful strategies and behaviours. Find out about and reflect on how they solved problems. Where you are the star performer, try to coach and train the rest of the team. Learn how to delegate something you can do well to a team member with less skill – and work out how much control and support is necessary to get a good result. If you want to run projects without becoming a control-freak nervous wreck (not good for you, nor a happy experience for team members) learn how to do this.

Get involved in a professional organisation. Maybe APICS or ISM in USA, or CILT (also globally), IOM or CIPS in the UK. Extend your network outside your organisation. These bodies are always looking for enthusiastic volunteers to run interest groups or events, and they are a great way to get exposure to broader industry issues. Membership organisations like these also have an ageing demographic, and should be welcoming of young members (CILT has a Young Professionals Forum).

Find a mentor. Mentors give you a sense of proportion when you feel things are getting beyond you. Mentors have contacts in the industry. Mentors can help you think though your next move. They can give you honest advice about your strengths and weaknesses, and they can do that while watching you develop over time.

Fix a disaster. There will always be supply chain disasters. Fixing a disaster will help you learn how to avoid a disaster in the first place. You will also learn how to design solutions, make decisions, prioritise actions and work with people under time and emotional pressure. Try to avoid moving house or breaking up with your partner at this time – the cumulative stress will injure your health.

Reflect, individually and with trusted colleagues/mentor on how projects went and are going. If you take time to reflect, you will accelerate your learning. What’s more, if you reflect during a project, your learning will influence the outcome. Reflection is easier with someone else, away from your desk – over a meal for instance.

Don’t limit yourself to one area. Don’t stereotype yourself. Who knows what tomorrow may bring? You need the capability to alter the direction of your career as the economic winds change. So you need a range of skills, and you need to make sure people don’t just know you as “the warehouse guy” or “the forecasting lady”. Show a bit of range. Use your mentor and professional bodies to help if your manager can’t facilitate this.


I think there’s plenty to digest there. Ten years? I don’t know, but it’s going to take some time to get through that lot. Good luck, and as always, all comments welcome.


Comment from Sergey Zyryanov
Time 1 July 2011 at 12:07 am

Many thanks Martin! Excellent article!

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