Barbie’s Creator Was Supply Chain Innovator Too

Have you seen the new Barbie movie?

According to Comscrore, this past weekend the movie brought in an estimated $155 million in ticket sales in the United States and an additional $182 million overseas. 

I haven’t seen the movie yet, and I’m not sure if/when I will. I’m more of an Oppenheimer guy, which I’m waiting to see with my son when he returns from his internship in Ohio in a couple of weeks.

All the hype surrounding the Barbie movie has spawned a lot of articles and blog posts about the toy company Mattel and the company’s co-founder and Barbie creator, Ruth Handler.

In this weekend’s Wall Street Journal, for example, Ben Cohen wrote an informative article about Ruth titled, “She Was the Oppenheimer of Barbie. Her Invention Blew Up.”

Ruth Handler was a risk taker, a rule breaker (“in ways that weren’t exactly legal”), and an innovator. Cohen gives several examples in the article, but this one caught my attention because it’s supply chain related:

[Ruth] didn’t know that it took six weeks for sales numbers to get from toy stores to manufacturers, and that lag meant the information was six weeks old by the time it finally crossed Handler’s desk…Despite selling one million toy guns in that first holiday season, the uncertainty had been so unsettling that she enlisted her own private army of employees who would pop into stores across the country and track sales in real time [emphasis mine]. The mission of her “retail detail” was simple: gather data and get it to her pronto. 

Soon she had better information after one day than her rivals were getting in six weeks [emphasis mine] — and Mattel could make smarter decisions faster than the competition.

Yes, way back in 1955, Ruth Handler understood the “bullwhip effect” in supply chain management and the benefits of having real-time demand data.

Demand sensing back then was enabled by boots on the ground: an army of employees visiting stores across the country. Today, it’s enabled by technology and large data sets: point-of-sale (POS) systems, supply chain software, machine learning and AI tools, and a variety of data sets that shed light on current/possible demand trends (e.g., social media, internet searches, weather, economic data, etc.).

In short, we’ve made great advancements in gathering and analyzing real-time demand data over the past 60+ years. However, we still have a lot more work to do, especially when it comes to sharing data with multiple tiers of trading partners and with trusting each other. That is why the bullwhip effect continues to rear its ugly head, as it did again during the Covid pandemic.

We also have a lot more work to do on the supply side of the equation — that is, with supply sensing. Many companies learned this the hard way during the pandemic as they struggled to shift their supply chains from being “demand-driven” to “supply-driven.” 

We’re a long way from 1955, but we still need innovators in supply chain management.

I don’t think there’s a “Supply Chain Barbie” yet, but maybe the time has come for one, not only because of the growing role of women in the field, but also because Barbie’s creator (as Ben Cohen reports) “climbed behind the wheel of delivery trucks […] was a glutton for data […] and was aggressive in adopting technology to pursue an edge.”

Ruth Handler might be best known as Mattel’s co-founder and Barbie’s creator, but she was a supply chain innovator too.