People skills for an uncertain future in supply chains

Roger OakdenGlobal Logistics, Logistics Management, Procurement, Supply Chains & Supply Networks

WMS in operation at a warehouse

Current attributes in logistics

The coming decade will contain uncertainties for economies and enterprises, due to the effects of climate change and geopolitics. So, what attributes should be considered when employing supply chain staff for a changing environment?

A recent article by a personnel firm in Australia, identified the types of distribution and warehouse jobs currently in demand at shippers and 3PLs. It also listed the main attributes expected of applicants:

  • logistics efficiency focused
    • evidence of reducing costs
  • hands-on operational experience is a key requirement
  • diverse experience
    • a wide technical skill set which a candidate can utilise to their full potential
  • strong knowledge of systems and processes
  • analytically sound with a proactive approach to KPIs
    • track, monitor and manage a demanding KPI performance

The list emphasis what is required of a candidate in an environment where KPIs and cost reduction are the main drivers. This is not an unexpected observation, because logistics is still mainly regarded as consisting of short term operational activities.

In an environment where short term KPIs and cost reduction reigns, there is typically a ‘can-do’ urgency surrounding activities. The urgency to be seen ‘doing something’ means that time and resources are used, even when the issue does not have a real impact on the organisation, its customers or suppliers.

This approach is likely to result in the ‘urgent’ having higher priorities than the ‘important’. In a ‘can-do’ environment, ‘urgent’ is often that which sits at the top of your manager’s current ‘must-do’ list; even if it is not important to the longer term success of the organisation.

In supply chains, examples of important but not urgent tasks are: SKU rationalisation; inventory profiling; segmentation of items, suppliers and customers; supply network redesign and activity analysis of items flows in, through and out of facilities.

The imbalance between urgent and important can be influenced by a lack of understanding at senior levels concerning the strategic nature of supply networks and the flows of items, money, data and information.

Risk and people attributes

The question is whether the above set of attributes is sufficient for the future. This is because risk will take a higher profile, due to the range of known-unknowns that must be addressed.

But, a commercial business needs to achieve its current financial objectives. So, should staff be employed to achieve current objectives, knowing that, as conditions change, people with different skill sets will take over? Or, should enterprises recruit staff with an emphasis on achieving medium and long term ‘learning goals’, rather than just short term performance goals?

The challenge with an emphasis on performance goals is that once achieved, then what – more of the same? In our own lives, is it better to have a performance goal of losing 10kg in weight over a short period, or a learning goal of understanding ‘what and how to eat so as to maintain a healthy weight’?.

Supply chain learning goals will contain a number of steps that provide knowledge about uncertainty (complexity, variability and constraints) that surrounds the goal. This can assist in achieving a more consistent result against short term performance goals.

The book Honeysuckle Creek discusses the pivotal role of this Australian based tracking station for the first moon walk, together with a biography of the station’s director, Tom Reid, . The main factor about the moon walk was that it had never been done, therefore in spite of extensive modelling and simulation exercises and training for eventualities, there was an overriding unknown. With this scenario, what attributes were required of the technical staff?

The first requirement was technical skills – what can the person actually do? At tracking stations in other countries, the technical roles required people with high academic achievements. However, Tom Reid’s approach was that academic qualifications, while important, only provide evidence of an ability to learn, not to do.

Instead, he focused on technical skills, because people were needed with practical capabilities, who could quickly respond in an emergency. Some technical staff had not completed high school, but were trained in the military. Tom Reid considered that as Navy technicians were posted to ships and were away from base, they had to assume greater responsibility and use their initiative in emergencies.

After being appraised for their technical skills, applicants were assessed for:

  • Initiative
  • Motivation
  • Problem solving and
  • Calmness in a crisis

At Honeysuckle Creek, responsibility for key roles was given to young technical staff. The average age of the technical people was 32, with the director being the second oldest person on site.

But, this was a one-off project situation. In a scenario of the climate progressively changing and changes in world trade, are other attributes required of people in supply chains?

Additional attributes for supply chain people

The most likely shift in priorities of supply chain professionals will be from the ‘urgent’ cost control role to the ‘important’ roles of managing risk and building sustainable supply chains. A logistician will need the capability “to identify, understand and wherever possible, reduce uncertainty (complexity, variability and constraints) in their supply network, while managing the risks.”

Alongside the need for analytical and technical expertise will be a range of ‘soft skills’ such as: relationship management, which includes skills in influencing, persuasion and communication and internal team building.

A changing environment will require organisations to adapt and develop:

  • An awareness of sustainability and resilience
  • A mindset about the need for adaptation and change
  • The reputation of your business within a climate crisis environment
  • A creative problem solving approach
  • The allocation of resources (time, people and information) between the ‘urgent’ and ‘important’

In a situation where the ‘obvious’, short term solutions may not always be the best, supply chains professionals will require all the noted quantitative and qualitative skills to evaluate current and future events beyond the immediate, ‘urgent’ response.

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About the Author

Roger Oakden

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With my background as a practitioner, consultant and educator, I am uniquely qualified to provide practical learning in supply chains and logistics. I have co-authored a book on these subjects, published by McGraw-Hill. As the program Manager at RMIT University in Melbourne, Australia, I developed and presented the largest supply chain post-graduate program in the Asia Pacific region, with centres in Melbourne, Singapore and Hong Kong. Read More...