Business Education and the Challenges of Operating a Global Supply Chain

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As I sat down to write the introduction to this blog, I learned that one of my long-time colleagues Dr. Mary Holcombe had passed away. While I am not exactly sure when I first met Mary, I am certain that we worked together while I was at John Deere, she was teaching at Iowa State and the world was moving from an international to a global economy. It is with this backdrop; I dedicate these words to our friendship. 

One morning, many years ago, I was summoned to the Executives suites and told I was to take Chairman E. Toyoda to meet with one of my suppliers at the Augusta National Golf Course. While I had been taught to always stay very quiet in situations like this, along the way, Mr. Toyoda began to talk with me. He asked me what lessons I had learned since joining Toyota and so we talked about topics like Customer first; cooperation within the industry; respect and mutual trust for our people; along with fundamentals including Just In Time and being budget-conscious, but not budget-responsive.  After this, Mr. Toyoda asserted how it was now incumbent on me to pass along these lessons to the next generation of leaders. 

Contributing to Knowledge

Throughout my career, I’ve been blessed to study under some of the great minds of the twentieth century. I learned how to run a railroad from Dick Davidson at Union Pacific, and how to think from Ohno at Toyota. At John Deere, I discovered how a company’s culture works very hard to resist change. While at Honeywell, Dave Cote taught us to manage working capital in a globalized world. These were the rough and tumble lessons from 40 years of running a business—the way we put theory into practice; sometimes fraught with dramatic failure, but most often a spectacular success. 

In late 2019, I pondered what to do with my life now that I was no longer a corporate guy.  Mr. Toyoda’s words kept resonating in my thoughts, and I felt this tremendous pull to pass my knowledge onto the next generation supply chain leaders. I attended a workshop on writing a Ph.D. proposal. We learned how to do a literature review, how to understand our methodology to examine our subject, and how to determine which methods of analysis to use, both from a qualitative as well as a quantitative perspective. 

Supply chain knowledge

Naturally, I decided that my ‘contribution to knowledge’, would focus on my strength, and be titled Does Managing Cycle Time Improve A Business’s Working Capital Performance? So, I wrote and began to pitch my paper to a host of some of the finer higher education institutions in the US. This was met by a deafening silence; no one was interested in the subject, nor me. And I was continually asked:

Why at your age do you want to do this?  Why not just go retire?

I have not talked to these Pharisees of Higher Education of late but have often wondered what they think now in this COVID world where we have imbalances of trade, little ability to predict supply and demand, and a collapse of many supply chains. Is this topic pertinent now?

I moved on from my disenchantment and attended a conference to have a conversation about some important questions related to supply chains. One of these was about managing the supply chain talent gap. Having worked in large global supply chains, I knew what world-class looked like, but not necessarily for how others manage the subject. This topic of designing the workforce of the future intrigued me. So, I changed my thoughts to this enigma that had challenged me as a global manager—how to recruit, train, and retain a global team in distant places. I ran into the proverbial brick wall again. This time, everyone wanted to talk about the subject; however, no one wanted to look beyond the tired practices of the last 20 years.

Filling the Talent Gap

What seems to escape everyone’s thoughts is that as we moved into this global economy, with supply chains stretching 16,000 miles, many of the people that actually do the work are no longer in the west.  In an emerging region, where do you find competent, trust-worthy people to fill the rolls in production, logistics, sourcing, or trade?   Then, how does a business drive their values into these distant places?  Especially in this COVID world now, where travel is discouraged or outright forbidden, managing across regions, cultures and functions provides extra challenges towards maintaining a business’s values, principles, and systems. A manager needs to be able to clearly convey roles and responsibilities while attempting to give some local latitude to how they are executed.

Supply Chain Talent Gaps

Through the next few weeks, my goal is to help raise the awareness that we have a critical problem finding educated people to run our global supply chains.  The purpose of my research was to answer these questions:

  1. What are the talent requirements for the supply chain of the future?
  2. How do these needs differ in developed in emerging, or frontier nations?
  3. Are universities (local and/ or globally) filling these requirements?
  4. In what manner does a business find adequate personnel to run its operations?
  5. Has the current global pandemic had an impact on this?

Hopefully, over the next few weeks, I will be able to spark to a flame for action.


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