Building an Effective Supply Chain Team

Tags: 3PL, Supply Chain Management

A successful team needs the right mix of talent, skills, and personalities.

Whether it's assembled to lead a single division or the entire organization, or whether it's brought together for a short-term assignment or a long-term project, an effective supply chain team needs the right mix of talent, skills, and personalities. It also needs a clear mission, the freedom to pursue it, and the structure to succeed.

That's the ideal anyway. But all too often, it's hard to achieve. Just ask Gregg Richard Macaluso, an instructor specializing in supply chain strategy and innovation at the Leeds School of Business at the University of Colorado in Boulder. When he surveys the state of team performance within the supply chain sector, he sees plenty of room for improvement.

"We're challenged for a number of reasons," he says. "And we can do better."

As a longtime logistics consultant, Macaluso lays that "do-better" challenge right at the feet of company leadership. Too often, he says, senior officers put together teams, task them with a vague challenge, and retreat to the executive suite. Then, if the team reports back with unorganized findings, or solutions to the wrong problems, the executives wonder what went wrong.

A glance in the mirror might offer a succinct answer. "The amount of effective coaching that takes place among the ranks is—not for lack of interest, but for lack of knowing how to communicate—still nascent," Macaluso says.

In other words, the company's leadership fails to make its expectations clear, and to provide useful context, forcing team members to consult tea leaves for insight. Without the full picture, one team member might see the task at hand as an engineering assignment, while another views it as a mathematical problem. And both of them might be missing the point. It's up to senior leadership to make sure everyone is on the same page.

At the very least, a team needs clear objectives and an understanding of how to "present solutions and analyses that correspond to the challenges and context as senior executives see them," Macaluso says.

That's easier said than done, he acknowledges. Even with all the communications technology at an executive's disposal, it's difficult to connect—especially across the supply chain, where key players are scattered geographically and busy with myriad day-to-day challenges.

"We're less able to communicate across the supply chain than ever before," Macaluso notes. "The number of times team members actually meet in the same place where they can communicate effectively is limited."

Still, team success depends on a certain amount of "helpful coaching on an individual level," he says. Without it, the team is likely to flounder.

Put me in, Coach!

Coaching is certainly key to team effectiveness at Menlo Logistics, a San Francisco-based third-party logistics (3PL) provider with operations on five continents. Menlo's senior leadership believes that decision-making and problem-solving should occur "as close to customers as possible," says Carl Fowler, Menlo's vice president of field sales and solutions.

To achieve that goal, Menlo assembles teams from the ranks of employees and managers who deal with day-to-day problems, and know customers' challenges intimately. Senior management, meanwhile, aims to empower that team to "unlock the value in the supply chain," Fowler says.

"Management becomes the nurse in the operating theater who allows the surgical team to do its best," he adds.

Any company that hopes to use teams to solve problems and foster innovation needs to hire, support, recognize, and value the right people, according to Alex Stark, director of marketing at Scranton, Penn.-based 3PL Kane is Able.

But doing so within in the logistics sector, where complex technology and intricate systems dominate the landscape, requires a mindset shift—from a preoccupation with skill sets to an emphasis on what Stark calls "people logistics."

"People are the raw ingredient to any supply chain initiative, and people who care will find a way to do a good job, " he writes on the Kane is Able blog.

With that in mind, family-owned Kane is Able asks its hiring managers to put more emphasis on personality and character traits than on proficiencies in systems and programs.

"We hire for attitude, and we train for skill," he says. Attitude is next to impossible to teach and involves finding people who want to do the job, versus those who simply can do it. Just as important, hiring for attitude means staffing the company with people who will sync well with teams.

At Menlo, teams are encouraged to challenge the status quo, so when hiring, Fowler takes a close look at applicants who have departed from the script. First-generation college graduates often fit that description nicely. After all, they've challenged the status quo just by pursuing a degree—and that means they're probably good problem-solvers, team players, and even management material.

"Deciding to do something different is the most risky decision an executive can make," Fowler says. That's a concept first-generation college graduates understand. By the same token, people who grew up on farms often understand resiliency, as well as the idea of pitching in.

"A strong roll-up-your-sleeves work ethic is important," Fowler says. "It's not just about being the smartest."

Todd Berger, president and CEO of Chicago-based third-party logistics provider Transportation Solutions Enterprises (TSE), places high value on what he calls "stick-to-it-iveness," but also an appreciation for group, rather than personal, achievement and success.

For companies that want to make maximum use of teams, "there is no room for ego or self-serving behavior," he says.

Not even in the executive suite. In fact, Berger expects TSE's seven-member senior team, as well as unit-level managers, to join as well as lead. Under that philosophy, a senior executive might be expected to serve on a team led by a subordinate.

Leggo my Ego

"We all exist on local teams," he says. "You put your ego in your back pocket, and get to work."

If their egos are in check, team members are less likely to bring preconceived ideas to the table and more likely to view an assignment as a challenge rather than a problem. "Eighty percent of project teams believe a problem is someone's fault, and they have to punish the guilty," Macaluso says.

When that's the case, the team not only fails in its task, it runs the risk of making a situation worse. To avoid that calamity, hiring managers might want to look for people who ask questions rather than answer them, and who rely minimally on the first-person pronoun.

"I first look for those who are insatiably curious, speak in few declarative sentences, and are willing to look at a problem in its natural state," Macaluso says.

Hiring team-minded employees is only part of the challenge for companies wanting to harness the power of collaborative problem-solving. Putting them together with the right teammates and matching them to the right challenge is also essential.

Kane is Able assembles its teams with the personality traits and work styles of potential members in mind, Stark says. To do that, the firm needs a good understanding of how its employees think, approach challenges, and interact with one another.

These insights come not just from getting to know employees personally, but also via testing. The Myers-Briggs personality tests, for example, show how individuals prefer to process information and make decisions. Assessment tests also reveal a lot about individual preferences regarding work structures—whether someone prefers to make decisions and stick to them, for instance, or whether they'd rather remain open to new information and evolving circumstances.

Kane is Able also uses the DISC behavior assessment test to ensure it doesn't overload teams with people who are, say, domineering or too compliant. "We want to understand a person's propensity to behave a certain way," Stark says. "It's important as you build your team."

Take Me to Your Leader

It's especially important when designating a leader. "Many people just want to charge ahead—if they're the leader of the group, it's my way or the highway," Stark says. While that kind of leadership might be effective for some teams, it could be disastrous for others. Knowing how the team's leader behaves and thinks can avert dysfunction.

The information derived from personality and behavior tests helps Kane is Able train workers for effective team participation. When people recognize their own traits and preferences, as well as those of others on the team, they can learn to accommodate and adjust—a prerequisite for an enjoyable and productive team experience.

TSE's Berger likens the team-assembly process to populating a bus. From a human resources perspective, employees have to be enlisted in teams they want to join and where they can be effective. "You've got to find the right seat on the right bus for them," he says.

It's also essential that every bus have a driver, as well as a clear destination. With that in mind, TSE structures its teams with a clear leadership chain, even though the team might be composed of peers.

"We don't want spaghetti from an accountability standpoint," Berger says. It's important that one or two people are expected to drive the process, keep the bus on course, and report findings and results.

Berger also wants TSE's teams to reflect perspectives from across the firm's operations—a requirement that often introduces valuable surprises into the team's findings and proposals.

For example, TSE established a Voice of the Customer team to keep senior leadership apprised of customers' experiences, frustrations, challenges, and business concerns. Naturally, the team includes sales and operations people who routinely interact with customers. But it also includes employees from functions far removed from the face-to-face customer experience. Suddenly, a customer's challenge no longer falls into the "not my problem" abyss. It becomes real for the entire company, and the entire company can focus on solutions.

"How the voice of the customer is synthesized varies across the team," Berger says. "But it's always powerful."

Like TSE, Menlo wants its teams to reflect differing perspectives and to serve as a test lab for new ideas. This is essential for innovation. To pull it off, the team needs members with a diverse set of hard and soft skills.

For example, it's important that teams include players who possess what Fowler calls "situational awareness." Because Menlo uses teams to identify and address customer challenges, someone on the team needs to understand the customer's context, enterprise goals, and performance metrics. Someone also needs to be able to communicate with the customer effectively.

Other essential skills include project management and information presentation. And, most teams need someone who can design the solution, whether that involves improved systems or new technology.

The Big Picture

No team can succeed without at least one big-picture thinker who understands the entire supply chain in all its complexity. "Someone needs to see the integrated whole, and have more than the quarterly objectives in mind," Macaluso says. "Someone has to see how and why the team's project fits into the long-term view."

Every team also needs "someone who is capable of knowing where the data is and gaining access to it," Macaluso says. "Just as important, someone on the team should know how to structure data and prepare it for analysis."

In addition, every team—but especially those interacting with customer representatives or outside firms along the supply chain—needs "a person who works the relationships, somebody who can run détente and engage in shuttle diplomacy," Macaluso says. "That skill is hard to find."

For supply chain professionals, such skills can be a stretch, particularly for employees accustomed to the rarified air of a specialization. "You are asking an engineer to be an effective and gregarious change agent," Fowler says, pointing out just how big the leap might be. "You are asking people to think about work in a different way."

Although that shift in thought might not come easy, Fowler believes it's critical for an organization's survival. Successful companies, he notes, are distinguished by "the ability to harness the power of the team."