Soft is the new Strength

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Soft is the new Strength

“Be hard on the issue, soft on the Person” sums up the right approach managements all over should take at the workplace. Most of the time we strive to hone our hard skills, be it functional, technical, or data-centric or any other aspect that we think can give us tangible, measurable, and quick returns. What most of us fail to understand and practice is that people give results, sure with help of a variety of functional skills but what drives them to learn and deliver effectively is in the realm of what we call the soft skills, deciphers JVB Sastry, Consultant – Supply Chains & Sales Management.

JVB Sastry

Business-like life is all about relationships within and outside organizations – be it with customers, suppliers, peers or team members or bosses or anyone who might be a cog in the wheel…each one contributes his or her own, in keeping the wheel moving.

The supply chain is all about managing the relationships both within and outside one’s own organization, mitigating business risks, demand, and supply volatility, managing functional siloed thinking and attitudes, external and internal business pressures, meeting customers spoken and unspoken expectations, managing suppliers demands or frustrations, change management dynamics and many other such situations.

Procurement and logistics support production and sales functions in volumes and cost to make and serve and impact the top line and bottom line of a firm. Consequently, the supply chain makes a very significant impact on a business and its results. This all-encompassing nature of its function would require close and effective coordination from supply chain managers and buy-in from other functions, suppliers, and customers. However, each segment of this influencer/ operational group has its own goals, values, and motivations, often resulting in conflicts. The Supply chain function has both the unique opportunity and responsibility to synthesize the divergent outlooks and expectations of all these functions, groups, and individuals and achieve a near-optimum outcome and profits for the company.

To illustrate the above a little more, my professional experience showed the following:

  • Manufacturing wants to maximize capacity utilization and reduce the production cost, irrespective of the demand volatility and raw material supply cycles. Yes, a laudable objective, but this requires collaborative working with sales and procurement and finding an innovative and smart solution. However, often we see conflicts and blame games at each other’s functions.
  • Similarly, marketing and sales expect best-in-class service delivery to every customer, often overlooking its business impact, cost-value analysis, and the fact that the “one size fits all” approach in service levels is not a good idea. A more calibrated approach based on segment-wise needs and cost/benefit would help a firm optimize its service levels and maximize service to a more long-term and profitable market/ customer segment. This can be achieved, only if there is a matured & informed engagement between supply chain and sales rather than cross-functional fights.
  • Customers demand a variety of customized products or services but at the cost of standardized products or services.
  • Suppliers want long-term commitments but insulation from supply disruptions.

Sure, there are clear solution frameworks/processes to handle situations as above and their likes. For example, manufacturing can collaborate with the supply chain and plan production to meet demand and manage optimum inventory levels in the firm. Alternate input products or different specs products can be tried out to ride over input shortages or steep cost increases. It is also quite possible that breakthrough innovations that are long-term and sustainable might come out under such opportunities. We have seen one such step change in cement manufacturing where a few years ago, one innovative firm used pet coke instead of coal as fuel to tide over coal supply led shortages and, in the process, started a manufacturing process innovation through alternate fuel option & at the same time, reducing supply risks and cost of solid fuels in the cement industry. But this was possible only due to the collaborative and active working between manufacturing and supply chain teams, supported by the top leadership of the company.

Similarly, marketing/sales can improve their demand forecasting and /or introduce push or pull back sales drives to handle production level changes/disruptions in the short term.

Again, I can cite an example from the cement industry. One of the many cement products is PPC, a fly ash-based cement. Many times, the supply of fly ash gets disrupted due to breakdowns of supplying power plants. At these times, due to quick communication from the supply chain, the manufacturing plants change the product mix, and the sales managers respond with speed and flexibility and sell alternative products like OPC or slag-based cement or composite cement, which have a similar value proposition and benefit to the consumer. This kind of working together with the supply chain has proved beneficial to all including the customer. This is the way rather than sales shouting at logistics for non-supply of product and losing sales and customers and the business.

The above two might be routine examples, but nevertheless important as they speak of the need for collaborative working in an organization that should be driven by supply chain function and its true spirit of collaborative working.

The importance of soft skills

Before I attempt to highlight what, I consider to be important soft skills for a supply chain, I would point out why these soft skills become important. Some of them could be a repetition from above but are worth repeating as it is important to know the problems and the reason for the problem before we suggest the solution. Some of the issues diluting the importance and due place for soft skills based on my experience are:

  • Functional goals make managers look more inward than outward
  • Most of the performance management systems in organizations lay more emphasis on achieving functional
  • KPIs, which are often contradictory to each other and to the business goals and strategy
  • Lack of job rotation make managers less appreciative of challenges and contributions that other functions can offer
  • An unexpressed feeling of insecurity in the functional managers that their role, function, and importance will be lost if they optimize a holistic solution in a collaborative way rather than maximize from their functional perspective. This kind of approach is fuelled more by the overall culture of an organization
  • Pure ego games of an influential and strong manager in a function mostly in sales or manufacturing/ line function
  • The general culture of an organization – do they target the issue or the person when a problem comes up? If it is the latter, then each function and manager try to safeguard their turf
  • KPIs for employees/managers are mostly business linked (volume, cost, contribution, growth, etc.). Sure, it is important but the soft skills and demonstrated abilities in that realm are rarely measured, rewarded, or spoken about
  • The general attitude of societies is that soft people are weak managers and the belief that fear drives work and compliance. Undue /over-emphasis on aggressive behavior as a required trait of leaders also contributes to this malice
  • Related to the above is the approach of many firms who do not understand that a different view is not disobedience and as such employees must be encouraged to challenge, ask, and work in a collaborative way. In spirit, they tend to follow a command and No questions please approach Lack of formal training in soft skills except cost/price negotiating skills in purchase and sales. Other skills like active listening, empathy, assertiveness, timely communications, creativity, learning innovation management, being respectful to suppliers and vendors as partners, persuasion skills, flexibility, are usually quickly spoken about in Town Hall meetings but soon forgotten at the workplace
  • Lack of support from leadership who think that maximizing each functional goal and returns will maximize the business results is true only up to a point. If pushed too far would result in damaging the internal cohesion and business. Hence, the leadership need to manage a fine balance between functional and overall goals
  •  An incorrect belief of procurement managers that suppliers are self-centered and not trustworthy, and one must suck out the maximum from them, hinders building partnerships with suppliers for innovation and cost reduction.

I am sure everyone has their own experience and reasons as to why we mostly do not hone soft skills or highlight them much, especially in the supply chain. Supply chains are seen as delivery and cost-reducing engines but what is lost is that the fuel for this engine is a good set of soft skills, which will work on collaboration and cohesion in business.

We can ill afford not to work on soft skills as supply chains face challenges often risking the business and can also deliver opportunities to the business if we work in alignment. Logistics safety issues result in fatalities and injuries to people, demand and supply volatility, price and cost volatility, in-transit and storage hazards resulting in financial losses, changing customer expectations, competition and regulatory pressures and restrictions – all of them pose challenges to supply chains. So, the following soft skills become necessary to face these challenges:

  • Collaboration
  • Clarity while talking and active listening
  • Persuasion
  • Adaptability
  • Flexibility
  • Agility
  • Ability to drive innovation
  • Job mobility
  • Cross-cultural outlook and nature
  • Empathy and supportive nature
  • Training each other
  • Transparent feedback and communication
  • Planning and working together

I am sure there are many such attributes that managers especially supply chain managers need to develop so that team members from other functions are brought on board and end-to-end business is managed as a synchronized orchestra. Getting demand forecasting right and improving predictability will help reduce conflicts and stress, enabling a more trustworthy atmosphere.

To sum up, it is to be remembered that soft skills in supply chain management are like the blood that runs in a body, nourishing and keeping all organs working together… in a business-keeping, all functions work together in a seamless manner with least disruptions, conflicts, and impact on morale.

For that supply chains must take lead. But how???

I propose:

  • Proactive communication within and outside the organization
  • Active listening and understanding
  • Formal training on soft skills too
  • Balanced KPIs covering both functional and soft skill result demonstration
  • Transparent feedback sessions and rewarding managers demonstrating both strong functional and strong soft skills.
  • Cross-functional teams’ approach to addressing special goals
  • Encourage cross-functional innovation labs
  • Job rotation and exposure to different work locations
  • Accepting genuine failures and encouraging people to take risks
  • Game-based assessments in addition to year-end results achieved for deciding increments
  • Use of AI tools in soft skill education and on-job training.

Supply chains have a great future, and they will be the lifelines for organizations. My final message through this article is just this, “What happens if you try and remove S (soft) in Skills.” I am sure everyone must have got the hidden meaning and is poised to work towards making SOFT SKILLS an important criterion in their HR strategies.

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