The Supply Chain Renaissance Has Begun!

Supply Chain Renaissance

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The term Renaissance is widely associated with the 14th, 15th and 16th centuries in Europe, denoted by the dramatically renewed interest in, and advancement of, art, science, literature, learning, composition and exploration.

Dozens and dozens of perpetually famous individuals made their enduring mark during this period, including Leonardo Da Vinci, Michelangelo, Galileo, Shakespeare, Marco Polo, the Medicis, Martin Luther, and Gutenberg, to name but a few.

The 21st century marks a similar period for Supply Chain. Never in history have we heard so much about Supply Chain, its critical importance to every aspect of our lives, and its role in shaping the very fabric of our future.

The Supply Chain Renaissance has begun!

The Renaissance Examined

The Renaissance period in Europe occurred in the middle of the last millennium, beginning in the 14th century and ending in the 17th century. It is generally considered too have begun in Italy, notably cities such as Florence, Rome and Venice and Milan. From there the Renaissance spread throughout the other countries in Europe.

While the dictionary definition of the word “renaissance” means “the period of European history between the 14th and 17th centuries when there was a new interest in science and in ancient art and literature especially in Italy”, the word also means “a situation or period of time when there is a new interest in something that has not been popular in a long time” or “a period of new growth or activity or rebirth”.

Virtually everything was affected and shaped by the Renaissance: art, architecture, science, philosophy, exploration and discovery, music, religion, and literature.

The printing press, considered one of the greatest inventions of all time, was invented by Johannes Gutenberg during the Renaissance and the Gutenberg bible was published in 1454. Columbus navigated to North America in 1492. Leonardo da Vinci, the Renaissance man, painted the Last Supper in Milan in 1498 and the Mona Lisa in 1505, and made countless contributions to science, mathematics, and much more. Michelangelo completed his sculpture, the David, in 1504 and painted the Sistine Chapel ceiling from 1508-1512.

Machiavelli published “The Prince” in 1513. Martin Luther posted his 95 theses in 1517. Magellan circumnavigated the world in 1519. Ribiero completed his world map in 1529. Copernicus published “Revolutions of the Celestial Orbits” in 1543 declaring that the earth and other planets revolved around the Sun. Galileo and Sir Isaac Newton advanced science and our view of the world and the universe. Shakespeare wrote and performed his plays in the late 16th and early 17th centuries.

The list goes on and on and on. Much of what we know, what we do, and how we live can all be attributed to the phenomenal contributions of innumerable “Renaissance” people and their penchant for discovery, education and advancement in their chosen fields.

The Emergence of Supply Chain out of the Dark Ages

Much as the Dark Ages and the Middle Ages preceded the European Renaissance, this point in time in Supply Chain has been preceded by some times of lesser enlightenment.

While the term “Supply Chain Management” was first coined in 1982 it has taken a long time for Supply Chain to be a part of the common consciousness and emblematic of the current zeitgeist. Part of the problem is that for many people there is no clear definition of what Supply Chain is. It means different things to different people, and its place in the shadows has contributed to this ambiguity.

Supply Chain has historically not been a high profile function like other areas such as Sales or Marketing or Research and Development. It has been viewed, and perceived, as a back office function. It has been viewed as a necessary but non-glamorous business activity. And Supply Chain leaders of the past have not been successful is breaking through this misperception.

The activities historically viewed as being in Supply Chain have contributed to this second class view. Warehouses, trucking, material handling, inventory management and distribution are all necessary operational elements for any company. But these are not often pretty, or clean, operations.

Procurement or purchasing fundamentally requires dealing with suppliers, negotiating with them, dealing with contracts, placing and managing purchase orders, and handling supply issues. Again these are essential for any company to function, but they are not viewed as being glamorous activities.

And seldom have Supply Chain leaders risen to the upper echelons of Executive Management. Great Sales leaders, great Marketers, or great designers and inventors have often been given the preeminent senior management jobs because their contributions have been of a higher profile than that of the Supply Chain. Even though Supply Chain is essential for any company to even run, it has gone undervalued and under appreciated.

In recent years the importance and value of Supply Chain has started to break through and become front of mind for society. A major contributing factor has been the emergence of online shopping and E-Commerce as a core go to market strategy. Amazon is the best example.

In large part Amazon is a Supply Chain company. The backbone of the company is its pervasive Distribution Centre network, enabling rapid delivery of millions of products around the world. Enabled by Supply Chain, technology, logistics, supplier relationships, order fulfillment and management, Amazon has become the leading company of its kind around the world, disrupting numerous industries due to its Supply Chain business model.

Most companies must now have an E-Commerce market offering. To make that happen they need a highly effective Supply Chain infrastructure, business processes, systems, and leadership to make that a reality. E-Commerce only works because of Supply Chain.

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The more historic, exhaustive, and extensive factor in propelling Supply Chain to the forefront of human awareness has been the Coronavirus pandemic. The importance of Supply Chain was apparent from the beginning, and continues to this day, because suddenly the availability of things that everyone took for granted was compromised.

Very early on in the pandemic we heard about shortages of ventilators, medical masks, and medical equipment. Then we experienced shortages of household suppliers such as toilet paper and consumer goods. Later we experienced shortages of lumber, steel, clothing, electronics, fireworks, automobiles, Christmas trees and virtually anything else you can think of.

Backlogs in logistics at shipping ports and truck driver and equipment shortages are reducing the availability of goods of every kind. Companies have had to create ad hoc and spontaneous E-Commerce distribution channels including curb side pick up and takeout just so that they can survive during the recurring lockdowns.

The approval of vaccines was immediately impacted by the need for the entire supply and distribution network to be created and deployed in every community and in every country.

The common denominator in all of this is Supply Chain. Never in history have you heard “Supply Chain” referenced more frequently in the media, by politicians, by business people and by every day people. Every person on the planet now realizes that every aspect of their lives, every economy, every business and every government is dependent on Supply Chain.

Supply Chain has finally moved out from the shadows of the back rooms and into the centre of the spotlight. And everyone is finally watching, and waiting.

The catalyst for the Supply Chain Renaissance has begun.

Enabling Conditions for the Supply Chain Renaissance

There are many conditions which must be coincident to create the ecosystem conducive to launching a Renaissance of any sort.The unrelenting, pervasive, and unforgiving disruption of Supply Chains in every company in every industry and in every country around the world is the catalyst for change.

Long since the envy of companies everywhere, the Just-In-Time operational model is a case in point. This decades old model has served its purpose well historically. But in the face of a global pandemic this operating paradigm failed just as every other Supply Chain model did.

Automotive dealer lots have been empty and the opportunity to get a new car configured exactly how you want it has been severely inhibited, all because vehicle manufacturers have not been able to get all of the components they need to build a car or truck. The Just-In-Time model could not withstand a long term disruption in supply.

But the fundamental premise behind Just-In-Time is the concept of continuous improvement. For the most part this model will continue in the future, but without improvements to strengthen the robustness of this paradigm, it will fail again at some point in the future.

The dynamics which are necessary to ignite a Renaissance are:

  • Massive failures in the current environment making the status quo untenable
  • The creation and awareness of a level of advanced intellectual expertise
  • Reduced resistance to change and a desire to get back to a more stable condition
  • The availability of new technologies, or the tools to create new technologies
  • Extensive communication, information sharing and cross-fertilization of ideas and techniques
  • Resource availability to fuel and foster innovation and creativity
  • Awareness and recognition by Governments, Industries and Individuals of the need for change

All of these conditions exist today and are enabling the Supply Chain Renaissance we are beginning.

The historically unprecedented disruptions in Supply Chain everywhere are intolerable to everyone. Everyone wants Supply Chains that are more resilient, more robust and more sustainable, with greater guarantees of continuity of supply.

The number of University and College level degrees and diplomas in Supply Chain Management, or some aspect of this field is at an all time high. Students see the enormous potential and importance of Supply Chain for the future.

While there is always resistance to change when everything in your life is upended, as has been for so many of us because of the pandemic, people want things to be made better so that they can get back to normal, albeit a new normal. As such many people will be very receptive to and promote any change, for fear of reliving a painful history if no improvements are made.

The technologies that are available today to shape the Digital Supply Chain are almost too numerous to list: Blockchain, driverless vehicles, virtual reality, big data, cloud computing, robotics, augmented reality, control towers, end-to-end electronic connectivity, the internet of things, artificial intelligence, machine learning, predictive analytics, 3D printing, Supply Chain as a Service (SCaaS), voice recognition, etc, etc.

We live in a small world. The proliferation of the internet and real time communication through countless electronic devices makes it a small world. Information can be shared anywhere instantaneously. You can find out anything you want in real time on Google or other search engines. Ideas can be shared, built upon, honed and transformed into reality faster than ever before.

Given the need for change the availability of monetary resources and capital, human resources, equipment, information, materials and infrastructure is much more readily available. Crowdfunding for instance can enable anyone to raise whatever money they need for any cause they are advancing.

And finally we have the recognition and awareness of all levels of society that change in Supply Chain is needed. Never before have we heard politicians and governments, business leaders, the media, and the common person talk more about Supply Chain. And Supply Chain has this level of exposure because things are not going well, whereas everyone needs things to be going well.

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Furthermore, the level and quality of leadership in Supply Chain and the interest in Supply Chain is unprecedented. Nothing can be done without leadership, vision, conviction, drive and perseverance. The Supply Chain leaders of today have all of these qualities.

All of the conditions necessary to launch a rebirth, a Supply Chain Renaissance, have been met at this point in time.

So what exactly constitutes a Supply Chain Renaissance?

Defining the Supply Chain Renaissance

We are at the beginning of a Supply Chain Renaissance. To define exactly what it means it is appropriate to characterize what this new period of advancement will entail:

  1. The Digital Supply Chain
    • First and foremost we believe the future will be dominated by the Digital Supply Chain. Powered by technology and electronic end-to-end electronic connectivity throughout the entire Supply Chain, this will form the foundation upon which all other advances will be built. With real time connectivity in place visibility, instantaneous and computer enabled analytics, and informed decision making will enable a level of responsiveness and efficiency that will be unmatched.
  2. The Resilient Supply Chain
    • Resiliency is going to be the mark of progress and effectiveness in any future Supply Chain design. Virtually every Supply Chain failed to some degree during the Coronavirus pandemic. The level of disruption exposed the flaws in bad Supply Chains and the opportunities for improvement in good Supply Chains.
  3. The Circular Supply Chain
    • Sustainability is the watchword of the future. We must take the steps to reduce, if not eliminate, waste. Supply Chain touches all aspects of the end-to-end value chain and is best positioned to lead the deployment of actions that will ensure sustainability.
  4. Supply Chain as a Service (SCaaS)
    • The level of expertise required to lead, envision, implement and run Supply Chains in the future will need more intellect than many companies will be able to recruit, develop and retain. An alternative to leapfrog others will be to engage expert organizations and outsource aspects of your Supply Chain. That is Supply Chain as a Service (SCaaS).
  5. Global, Holistic Leadership
    • Supply Chain is no longer just a back office function. It is the engine which controls the operation of virtually an entire company. Most every activity runs through Supply Chain. To manage the entire business requires a level of more holistic, overarching leadership. Functional leadership is necessary but it is not enough to oversee an entire business. Leaders will have to be able to see the big picture, both tactically and strategically, and act accordingly.
  6. Head of the Table, Head of the Class, Head of the Room
    • Companies must have Supply Chain leaders in C-level positions, particularly in the CEO position. Supply Chain leaders must head academia and governments. No functional group has more oversight, more control, and more value to deliver than Supply Chain.
  7. Technology Everywhere
    • Technology is certainly more pervasive than ever before. That will only accelerate beyond all of our current comprehension. While there is a vast array of technologies, which we outlined earlier, there will be more and more greater advancements that haven’t yet been thought of.
  8. New
    • So much of the future will involve the creation of things that are new: new processes, new systems, new ways of thinking, new paradigms, new approaches and new people.

What Does the Supply Chain Renaissance Need to Progress

None of this can happen without people. We need people who are bold, courageous, unrelenting, out-of-the-box thinkers, and leaders. We need people who have a scientific background, an artistic background, environmental passion and sensitivities, and technological depth. And we need people who embrace and drive change and those who are innovative. None of this can happen without people.

We need a catalyst for change, which we have discussed earlier. If a global pandemic wasn’t enough to scare people into taking action, it’s hard to imagine what cataclysmic event would need to move them off of their obstinacy. The real danger now is that as the pandemic passes people will lapse into their old ways of doing things. We need enough people to overcome this inertia to move forward.

And certainly this change will need resources: people, money, infrastructure, time, materials, knowledge. On the one hand it will take time to make these changes. The European Renaissance took place over several centuries. On the other hand we don’t have time. The environmental impacts to the earth, and the disruptive effects of the Supply Chain on every aspect of our lives, suggest that time is not on our side

Who Will Succeed? Who Will Be Left Behind?

There has never been a more exciting time to be in Supply Chain! The global need, the appetite for improvement and innovation, the universe of opportunity, the wealth of technological advancements, and the promise of a better future all make Supply Chain the place to be. Who knows what great and amazing things our Supply Chain professionals will accomplish?

Our future will be shaped by the leaders of Supply Chain. Those who step up will be the stars of tomorrow. Those who revert back to their old ways will fall by the wayside and be forgotten.

The eyes of the world is upon us and history will judge whether Supply Chain stepped up to the challenge and began a new age.

The time is now. Is your business ready?

The Supply Chain Renaissance has begun!

Originally published on January 4, 2022.

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