Focus on Pace, Not Place: Track Lessons for Supply Chain Management

Author’s son at finish of first varsity 2-mile race

“Remember, focus on pace, not place,” I call out to my son as he and the other runners step out on the track and to the starting line.

My son is a freshman in high school, and although he has played baseball since he was 5 years old, his new passion is running, which was my sport in high school too. He is running his first outdoor race of the season: the varsity 2-mile race. The other runners are mostly upperclassmen and faster than him.

The gun goes off.

The runners dash off the line and jostle for position around the first turn. I am timing my son’s lap with my phone, and as he crosses the 400 meter mark, I yell out his time: “77, a little fast buddy, find your pace, find your pace!”

Seven more laps to go.

Do you run for place or do you run for time? That is the primary question all competitive runners face before each race, and the answer dictates your strategy.

The 2-mile race is a good fit for my son. It requires speed (but not as much as the mile and the shorter distance races) but also a good measure of endurance, which he has a lot of.

The 2-mile race, in many ways, is also a good analogy for supply chain management, and like the runners on the track, supply chain executives face the same question: Do you focus on place or pace?

In my experience, especially when it comes to technology adoption, the focus for many companies and supply chain executives has been on place — that is, whether to burst ahead in front of the field as an innovator or take a position as an early adopter (fast follower), early majority, late majority, or laggard.

I believe, however, that focusing on place is the wrong strategy for most companies today. Some retailers, for example, have become so fixated on beating Amazon, they’ve run themselves out of business (nine retailers have filed for bankruptcy so far in 2017, which equals the total number for all of 2016). While other companies, content for so long with being a laggard (because, until now, it hasn’t really hurt them that much), are now so far behind the field, it doesn’t matter how fast they start running now, they’ll never catch up.

(As he crosses the mile mark, my son is now only slightly ahead of pace, drafting just behind another runner.)

Who sets the pace? In my son’s case, it’s his coach, based on his assessment of my son’s current fitness level and abilities. In supply chain management, more and more, it’s your customers that are setting the pace.

Yes, some competitors may choose to run at a much faster pace, while others may choose to lag behind or simply lack the abilities to keep pace, but I believe the focus moving forward should be less about coming in first and more about understanding the pace you need to keep to delight your customers and making sure you have the right people, processes, and technologies to remain competitive and in the race.

It’s the bell lap, and even though the leaders are far ahead, my son is right on pace with his goal, still at the heels of the runner he’s been drafting behind. “Dig, dig, dig!” I yell out as he comes down the final straightaway, passing the other runner, and he finishes in 11:38 — two seconds faster than his goal.

A week later, he runs 11:34 in another 2-mile race. He will race again this morning, with a new pace goal: 11:30.

Every week the pace speeds up just a bit. The same is true in supply chain management.

Focus on pace, not place.

Supply chain management is a never-ending race. Speed is important, but so is endurance. Let your customers set the pace. They’ll continue to dial it up over the time, but if you continue to improve your training and fitness level (that is, continue to invest appropriately in people, processes, and technology), you’ll not only keep pace with their expectations, you’ll also leave many of your competitors behind, and in the long run, you might actually find yourself in the lead.