Fail Fast, Then Move On
Jim Barnes did not have a mentor at the start of his career. “No one taught me how to become a leader,” recalls Barnes, chief executive officer of enVista, an Indianapolis-based supply chain consultancy and software firm.
Instead, observation and experience helped Barnes develop his leadership principles. “I’m a stickler about communication, building a culture around trust and conflict resolution, and taking calculated risks,” he says. Failure is fine as long as you fail fast and then move on to succeed. “Progress is not a straight line,” he adds. “Progress is curvy.”
Here are some insights we gained when we spoke with Barnes about his work and his leadership values.
IL: What was your first experience in supply chain management?
While earning my MBA, I worked as a senior process engineer and management trainee at Johnson & Johnson’s Iolab division. We made cataract lenses and provided all the equipment and pharmaceuticals cataract patients needed. I was assigned to a task force charged with streamlining logistics, which were broken. It took us weeks to get a lens to a doctor. Our goal was to become so efficient and effective that a doctor could place an order before 3 pm and have it delivered by 10 am the next day.
After taking a close look at our distribution network and transportation with FedEx, we took weeks out of the supply chain. We could deliver not only our own product the next day, but also product from sister divisions, such as sutures and garments, in what was almost a drop-ship solution. This was a huge request from our CEO; it taught me to believe in creating stretch goals for yourself and your organization.
IL: You talk about failing fast and moving on. Did you ever learn a lesson from a failure?
In my early career, I formed a business partnership that didn’t work out. I failed in picking a partner because I didn’t seek out someone whose core values and moral compass aligned with mine. That failure taught me to focus on building lasting business relationships based on trust.
IL: Has a customer ever given you an unexpected assignment?
We once helped the e-commerce division of a major retailer analyze its inbound freight as a percentage of overall costs. We also helped them select a transportation management system (TMS). Then the senior vice president informed me that enVista would run this operation for his company. I told him we had never run a control tower before. But we had reached a level of trust. He said, “You’ll figure it out.” I agreed to do it for a year or two, under contract, and then turn it over to them. As it turned out, that partnership lasted for nine years.
IL: What issues keep your customers awake at night?
They worry about how to produce a unique experience for their own customers. Everything is about creating brand loyalists and brand ambassadors. Also, our customers struggle with how to manage the cost versus service model, because obviously there’s no such thing as free shipping. Nobody would pay for Amazon Prime if Amazon didn’t keep its promise to deliver in two days. The fee underwrites the cost of that fast delivery. That’s what supply chain professionals are trying to understand: What is the balance between time and cost, and then how do you manage it?
IL: What’s your most important quality as a leader?
It’s always doing the right thing for the right reasons, even if it doesn’t benefit me. I have a concept within our organization that says my leadership team—including me—eats last. We take care of our customers first, then our associates, and then our leadership.
IL: Describe a typical week in your work life.
Here’s what I’m doing this week. Monday, I’m getting on a plane to Baltimore to meet with a robotics company. Tuesday, I’m at a customer site to talk about potentially implementing robotics technologies in their distribution center (DC). It’s not because robots will work faster than people, but because my customer can’t find enough bodies during peak season to support their order volume, and they are trying to reduce the performance variability. On Tuesday night, I take a train to Newark and spend the night in the city, where I’m meeting with a company that’s trying to figure out how to help stores at a mall manage last-mile deliveries.
On Wednesday, I fly to Charlotte, where I’ll walk through a DC with a retail client that is expanding its facility and network. I’ll also meet with its leadership team about an e-commerce strategy. Late Thursday night, I fly to Indianapolis for a Friday profit-and-loss meeting with enVista’s leadership. On Friday evening, I fly home to Milwaukee.
IL: With such a packed schedule, how do you maintain your energy?
I take my running shoes on the road and run between 10 and 15 miles each week. At enVista, we believe not only in high-level performance for individuals and teams, but also in sustainable performance. It starts with the right mindset, nutrition, movement, and recovery.
I used to think that sleep was overrated, but now I force myself to get seven hours of sleep every night and drink a lot of water. It allows me to keep the pace that I do every week.
IL: What’s at the top of your agenda these days?
We continue to build the enabling technology behind our Unified Commerce platform, which we created nearly five years ago. This platform puts retailers on a common data model to manage the end-to-end lifecycle of the customer order.
IL: Which aspect of your job is most fun?
When I see people working as a team, rowing together, getting to the finish line, and achieving results for our customers. It’s also fun when our customers come back and say, “I want more of that passion, that intensity, that innovation, that creativity.” They come back without us having to ask them for their business.
IL: How do you like to spend time outside of work?
I try to exercise as much as possible. I love cycling. I love to cook for my family and travel with them. And if I can be in the water—swimming, kite surfing, fishing—I’m happy. There are times when I get burned out, and I have to figure out how to recharge my batteries. To avoid this, rather than taking a longer vacation once a year, I take a mini-vacation every three to four months. I’ll run a three-month sprint, take two to three days off, and repeat.
Getting Advice, Paying it Forward
Jim Barnes lacked mentors early in his career, but he gets good advice today, both from peers and from two executive coaches. With one of those coaches in particular, he focuses on organizational behavior and how to create momentum in a company with more than 600 associates.
“I can’t be every place at all times, and I can’t touch everybody one on one,” says Barnes. “So how do we create a mindset where people understand our purpose and shared goals, and how to exceed that purpose consistently?” The key, he says, is to develop standardized processes that remain consistent and promote innovation as the organization grows.
Barnes also enjoys the opportunity to serve as a mentor to others. “I take great pride in seeing the success of other people I’ve had the chance to influence,” he says.