January 2009 | Commentary | Checking In

Success' Measure?

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Success has many fathers, failure is an orphan, as the saying goes. Economic news in many quarters is grim. The economy is in tatters, failure abounds. Who is at fault? Everyone else it seems. Those still standing look over their shoulders to see if the economic Grim Reaper lurks behind them. How then do we measure success in times like these? You can take small solace in the fact that your logistics skills are ever more important. When sales fall off and resources for excellence are scarce, your logistics skills shine even more brightly.

Supply chain and logistics practitioners solve seemingly insurmountable transportation problems daily by doing two things—they work the basics and they adopt failure, or at least the responsibility for it.

Let's tackle the second one first. Failure is a part of everyday life when managing a logistics network. Many variables are absolutely out of your control, some occur too fast, and a few are so extraordinary that they cannot be imagined, much less have contingency plans in situ to deal with them. Readers of this magazine certainly are the parents of logistics success, but failure is no orphan to them because of the difficulty of what they strive to achieve—aligning demand to supply. When breakdowns occur, it is their fault because it is their responsibility to keep product flowing. Tough, practical, responsible; that's success' measure of a logistics or supply chain professional these days.

Working the basics might mean stepping back to a simpler way of doing things. Is that failure? I say it is a new measure of success. Toyota and Honda Motors recently announced a shift away from their just-in-time (JIT) manufacturing systems to a more back-to-basics approach that involves accumulating inventories. Is Toyota adopting a failure of lean? Is JIT another victim of the economic Grim Reaper? No.

With auto sales at all-time lows, and shared components and parts suppliers facing possible bankruptcy, Toyota and Honda are preparing for stock outages by accumulating inventory. Getting back to basics, for now. When things get better, they will get lean and mean again. So while some observers might view stepping back from the decades-long investment in lean as failure, getting back to basics is, in fact, a remeasurement of success.

This practical back-to-basics approach not only makes the larger logistics challenge more soluble, but gives us the hope and optimism that provides the mental fortitude to keep going and to get the job done.

Speaking of mental fortitude, the stoic Seneca said, "ignis aurum probat, miseria fortes viros—just as fire tempers gold, privation strengthens man." Leveraging inevitable supply chain failures can make your skill set much more valuable to your enterprise in times like these, but overcoming these extra hurdles will strengthen them even more.

That is one measure of success.

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