Unlearning Supply Chain Management

The near-infinite processing power Cloud computing provides (along with other technological innovations) will cause everyone in the supply chain and logistics field to unlearn the way we’ve always done things, everything from the way we design software applications to how we design and manage supply chain processes. Simply put, what was once impossible or impractical due to computing power constraints, is now possible, at least technologically. The great unlearning process, however, won’t be quick or easy.

The “Great Unlearning Begins” I wrote back in December 2014; it was one of my supply chain and logistics predictions for 2015.

More than two years later, we’re still at the early stages of unlearning “the ways we’ve always done things” in supply chain management.

This topic surfaced again for me last week when my friend Kate Vitasek (architect of the Vested® business model for supplier and company innovation) published a great blog post titled, Learning is Hard; Un-learning is Harder! Here’s an excerpt:

Unlearning is something that we see people struggle with every day in the University of Tennessee’s Vested Outsourcing and Collaborative Contracting classes. A great example is a procurement professional who has spent the last 30 years perfecting the art of “buying.” The Vested methodology teaches that the partnering with strategic suppliers outperforms “buying,” but it is very difficult for procurement professionals to let go of old-school dogmas that focus on price and not value. The old way has been embedded into their brains for so long it is a struggle to change.

To illustrate her point that unlearning our ingrained ways of doing things is very difficult, Kate shared this video by Destin Sandlin, an engineer best known for his educational video series called Smarter Every Day, where he tries to ride a bicycle that goes to the left when you turn the handlebars to the right and goes to the right when you turn the handlebars to the left. Sounds like something you can adapt to quickly and easily? Check out what happens:

As someone who cycles more than 100 miles per week, it would probably take me at least a year to unlearn how to ride my bike “the way I’ve always done it” — and I might break a few bones trying!

So, what do we need to unlearn in supply chain management?

Certainly, we need to unlearn the “I Win, You Lose” approach to business relationships. As Vitasek writes in her book “Vested: How P&G, McDonald’s, and Microsoft are Redefining Winning in Business Relationships”:

In today’s rapidly evolving world, business relationships based on an outdated ‘win-lose’ mentality won’t withstand a market that demands constant change and adaptation. Only by focusing on ‘win-win’ relationships can companies drive innovation and increase their competitive edge.

In short, we need to learn and embrace a new approach to developing truly collaborative business relationships, which has been the focus of Vitasek’s academic and consulting work for many years. I’ve been a long-time advocate of the Vested model, ever since I took one of the first courses on it at the University of Tennessee in April 2009. And I’ve been highlighting Vested in my writings ever since, including:

We also have to unlearn “supply chain management” itself — that is, unlearn the terminology and concepts we continue to use. The term “chain” implies fixed, linear, rigid — things that are the exact opposite of today’s operating reality, where trading partner networks, business processes, and customer expectations (among many other things) are more fluid and constantly changing.

Unlearning supply chain management will be very difficult, maybe even impossible. It’s tempting to just keep the term and change the definition, which is what many of us have done. But I believe that adopting a new vocabulary, such as talking about networks and network effects, will open the mind to new ideas and perspectives that will launch the next wave of innovation in the industry. I’ve shared my thoughts on network effects in previous posts, including:

Risk management, decision making, and planning are other examples of where unlearning “the way we’ve always done it” will become increasingly important in the years ahead. See some of my past posts on those topics:

Are you ready for the great unlearning? Do you believe it’s necessary? What else needs to be unlearned? What are the biggest hurdles in the way? Post a comment and share your perspective.

I’ll end with a final observation. When Sandlin, after several months of trying, finally learned to ride the new bicycle, he tried to ride a traditional bicycle and discovered he couldn’t do it anymore. His mind had already been rewired to the new approach. I believe a similar rewiring is possible in network effects management (see, I’m trying!) and when it happens, we won’t be able to — or want to — go back to the old ways of supply chain management.

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