What could businesses do to improve their chances of success when leading transformational strategic supply chain initiatives? The research suggested that there were a number of leadership behaviors and implementation characteristics that businesses should aim to ‘get right’ to achieve success—leadership behaviors and implementation characteristics such as better change management, better risk management, cross-functional involvement, a focus on ensuring that initiatives were ‘vision led’, high levels of boardroom sponsorship and involvement, writes Richard Wilding OBE, Professor of Supply Chain Strategy, Cranfield School of Management.
MAKE a Google search for images of ‘leadership’ and see what the word still implies: there’s one person at the front of the spearhead, at the top of the triangle; one leader fixing the direction and pulling the rest along with them. It’s an idea that been embedded into our thinking of managers since the 1980s - and I should also say, instilled over the years by business schools - as the ideal to aim for. In the old world of supply chains, where change was slow, when products and patterns in demand were fairly predictable and stable, it was simple. The traditional command and control mode of leadership was clear and effective. In the VUCA context of global markets in general (Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity, Ambiguity), and with the effects of digitization on supply chains in particular, it’s just no longer the right approach for leaders - at least not by itself. Managers need to be looking at equipping themselves to have a toolkit and look beyond the pervasive and monolithic example of the ‘good leader’. When we talked to supply chain leaders last year, the most challenging barriers to success were found to be around leadership and dealing with the human dynamics. Number one was “a lack of resources”, second the “overload of change”, third “too many conflicting priorities”, followed by “overambitious timelines”. “Perceived risks of change” and “fear if change” were in there too. The findings raise fundamental questions over leadership styles and whether they are fit for purpose.
Mix and Match
There are three essential models of leadership: command and control, consensus and collaboration. It’s not so simple as saying the first is old fashioned and bad and we all need to just move to collaboration. All models work well in some contexts and poorly in others. So, command and control is good for getting results against a plan, where a hierarchy defined; it works poorly in larger organizations, where innovation is a priority. Consensus, which works via a small group and matrix across an organization, has been shown to be useful for smaller organizations, but less good when speed is needed. (The recent machinations in Parliament to find a consensus over Brexit has been an interesting demonstration of this principle in action). Collaborative is when leadership activities are dispersed across a whole network, with roles for all levels and locations as well as external stakeholders - something that works well for operations including diverse groups and players, and for introducing innovation.
The ‘Get Rights’
Our research with supply chain leaders has led to a list of ‘get rights’ – what companies need to do to stand the highest chance of success with their strategic supply chain initiatives. These include making sure the supply chain is paid attention to as an end-to-end value chain, a whole ecosystem; the realization and acceptance among leaders of the need for their personal contribution towards achieving change goals; continuously adapting strategy to changing circumstances; and, not dropping the ball during the implementation of change in terms of service, continuing to generate short term wins, delivering benefits and building credibility. What’s obvious from this is that one leader, using one style of leadership is going to struggle with the ‘get rights’. The best supply chain leaders will find ways to use different forms of leadership at the right time, to share leadership roles with others across the operation and the supply chain itself; a bi-modal approach, so knowing when to focus on predictability (areas like efficiency and cost reduction, managing predictable swings and inventory fluctuations, risk mitigation and prevention), and focus on exploration (speed, and strategies for solving the unexpected or adapting to new technologies). That’s not as simple as it sounds. Supply chain leaders need to learn to manage both modes simultaneously, and that will involve having the self-awareness and skills to give up on being the single point of the spearhead, and the strength and courage to empower others.
In our rapidly changing world, implementing new supply chain strategies has always been recognized as a challenge. With change moving so fast, having a policy of sitting back and waiting to see what happens can in many situations be dangerous and actions need to be taken today to ensure a supply chain remains competitive. New business models and disruptive technologies are changing the way organizations effectively apply strategic supply chain initiatives. A competitive model that forces supply chain leaders to deliver results today, while simultaneously building a future proof business for tomorrow. Our research at Cranfield School of Management with EFESO’s suggests that Supply Chain remains at the forefront of business, in fact in some organizations is the business! Having to satisfy customer needs and delivering top line growth. New kinds of leadership and behaviors are required to orchestrate and deliver successful change across the Next Generation of Supply Chains. New business models, disruptive technologies and cross-generational talent pools are all challenging the traditional approaches to supply chain and change management.
Taking action: Things for today's 'To-Do-List'
To make sure that businesses stand the highest chance of success when implementing strategic change, there are four actions you need on your “To- Do list” today:
REFLECTION - Learn from experience: reflect on the successes and failures of previous initiatives.
At what stage were problems identified?
What were the root causes?
How could these have been avoided? At what stage? By whom? How?
Reflective practice should be regular habit, the danger in a fast changing world is we rush onto the next new project and forget to reflect and learn from the past to enable the new project to succeed.
BENCHMARK - Benchmark your organization and its initiatives (present, future and past - see Reflection!), using the six key success factors as a checklist.
Does the organization exhibit global and holistic thinking, embracing the end-to-end value chain?
Is there a top-down, bottom-up realization—and acceptance— that personal contributions make a difference in delivering the objectives?
Is there a focus on generating short term ‘wins’ and building credibility, backed by pilot implementations, proof-of-concept ‘demonstrators’, and demonstrable tangible benefits?
Does the organization maintain a solid focus on customer-centricity, and on continuing high levels of customer service during implementation?
Are the objectives updated and adapted in response to changed circumstances and evolving competitive paradigms?
BREAKDOWN BARRIERS - How is your business addressing the major barriers to success that have been highlighted?
Lack of resources
COMMUNICATE - Speak to the senior leadership across the business, looking to obtain a cross-functional view of the key success factors and overcoming the barriers to success. To stand the highest chance of success when implementing strategic change, the Reflection, Benchmark, Breakdown Barriers and Communicate the need to be at the top of any supply chain leaders’ 'To-Do list'. The impact of a failed strategic initiative should not be underestimated. Not only in terms of the wasted resources and management time expended on a frustrating project, but also potential damage to brand reputation and the strategic consequences stemming from the business finding itself in a sub-optimal position, or lacking clear direction in a fast-moving competitive market place. The article is reproduced with kind permission of Prof Richard Wilding OBE, originally published by Cranfield University.
"The ‘get right’ leadership behaviours and implementation characteristics have a direct bearing on the observed variability of outcomes. Simply put, it appears that the more of these ‘get right’ leadership behaviours and implementation characteristics are in place, and the more thoroughly they are pursued, then the more likely it is that businesses’ strategic supply chain initiatives will succeed. Put another way, high levels of performance in all of these leadership behaviours and implementation characteristics correlate with achieving the highest chance of success with strategic supply chain initiatives.