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Adaptability is Key for Supply Chain Success

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Image courtesy CCM

By Mike Wilson 10-30-2020 05:15:15

Having had a long career in this industry with many diverse challenges, I’ve come to know first-hand the importance of adaptability. In fact, being able to adapt to change has been a consistent theme in my career and I believe has been integral to my professional growth and success. 

The “when you can’t change the direction of the wind, adjust your sails” philosophy is central to my leadership style and I, along with my leadership team, aim to infuse this thinking into our corporate culture of CCM. This agile, resilient and adaptable approach to doing business is especially important when an industry is going through an evolution.

One doesn’t need to look further than the Fortune 500 or S&P 500 for evidence of this in the business world.  Go back ten years or even twenty years and one can see the amount of turnover in those companies.  Clearly there were many factors that led to the rise and fall of corporations such as Kodak and Blockbuster, among others, but just as clear is that these companies were more rigid rather than flexible when facing change and were less able to adapt to the evolving and changing environments that lay ahead.  

As an evolution brings massive change upon an industry, there is no time to dwell on what was or what used to be, there needs to be a swift acceptance of what is and what can be.

COVID-19 has impacted the way we do business in a more significant way than any other event in recent history. Within the supply chain, traditional ways of approaching customer relationships, efficiency and product leadership need to be—and are being-- revisited. What we are seeing now is that the ability to adapt to our current reality and seizing upon the opportunities being presented will be at the heart of each supply chain stakeholder’s success.

Designed to be responsive and agile, a strong supply chain addresses changing variables in how goods are moved from one place to another.  When one views the challenges we’ve faced recently, we see a supply chain that has been able to adapt, change, and even transform, to assure the continuous flow of goods.  It goes without saying the efficiency, dependability and fluidity of the global supply chain has never been as crucial as it is now. The effectiveness of each partner in the supply chain, and their willingness to collaborate, cooperate, and integrate their services, creates an environment that supports the evolving business needs of today’s supply chain and are at the heart of adaptability.  Driven by necessity and a desire for efficiency, competitors have become collaborators.

New factors impacting supply and demand

The industry is adapting to new dynamics that were not encountered prior to the pandemic. It is critical to remain agile enough to respond to the rapid changes in demand, the nuances of how vendors and customers handle their restart, and the shifts in geographic production.

Here are three key areas that will pressure the adaptability of supply chains in the coming months:

Technology – It is one thing to understand that technology is shaping the future of supply chain.  It is quite another for established businesses who may have operated in a lower-tech fashion to now integrate and maximize new technologies throughout their business.  This requires a deeper level of investment than the technology alone—it requires a technology partner and a well trained staff to ensure the technology is being optimized. Embracing technology is central to adapting to a crisis such as COVID-19, and requires a holistic approach that can support the work culture needed to maintain stability and progress. 

Working Remotely – Virtual work is most likely here to stay in some form and will have a lasting effect on how people work and learn, and how companies function.  Not only will investment be needed in technology platforms and collaboration tools, but perhaps even more so in regards to cybersecurity. As the business world enters more fully into cyber space, the vulnerabilities begin to grow exponentially. On the = business culture side, we need to look at how we keep a workforce connected—not just electronically, but to each other and the entire organization. Building loyal, committed teams without shaking hands, sharing a coffee or making direct eye contact presents a challenge that the leadership within any organization needs to take very seriously. A lack of focus in this area will likely bring a revolving door of dissatisfied and under-motivated employees.

Daily Workflow and Operations – At the foundation of any successful organization are the processes and workflows that define and support the business. These “paths of working” will undoubtedly be changing and evolving, while we incorporate new technologies and adjust to what will be a hybrid model with some working from home, while others are in the office on rotating schedules. How we ensure seamless operations for our customers is driven by our ability to ensure smooth, efficient workflow behind-the-scenes.

Creating a Culture of Adaptability

The key to developing a culture of adaptability is to adopt an agile, responsive approach to your business and its challenges, backed by a strong technology core.  But culture is not something you change like a light bulb or recalibrate like a scale.  At the core of a company’s culture is a mission statement that encapsulates the value the company brings to the marketplace, while providing focus and direction to the organization.  While a mission statement must be focused enough to steer the business, it must also be broad enough to respond to an evolving marketplace. To realize our mission of consistently driving and creating value for our customers, we must remain agile and strategic as we navigate the evolution that is upon us.  Our enthusiasm for our business is centered on our belief that challenges are opportunities waiting to be harvested, and the solution to any problem is before us as long as we seek it through honest and thoughtful dialogue.

Empower your leaders to communicate – In times of rapid, dynamic change there is so much information coming from so many sources, employees can be left confused and uncertain, resulting in slow adaptation to change.  Research has shown that the most trusted source of information for employees is their immediate manager.  Leaders should not only communicate broadly throughout the organization, but encourage their managers to work one-on-one with their team members, and provide them with the tools and training to effectively engage at this level.

Review skill sets – In evolving business models, companies must figure out how they can help employees adapt to rapidly changing conditions so that they can continue to add value to the enterprise. Learning to match those workers to new roles and activities is key to sustaining production and quality.  For example, global companies may shorten their supply chain and move closer to the point of sale.  As a result, more strategic roles may be on-shored or moved geographically to different locations.  With continued digitization, employees will also be expected to understand multiple functions in operations and may no longer be executing functionally specific roles. 

The Social Contract – Employees don’t like ambiguity and COVID-19 is forcing many companies to address social contracts – the spoken and unspoken agreement between employers and employees.  This includes travel, office space, safety, technology adoption, reporting and accountability, among other things.  Only when employees feel safe and understand their role in the midst of a change can they begin to make customers feel the same way.

Collaborate, Connect and Share Information – The ability for employees, departments and leadership teams to collaborate effectively depends on a willingness of sharing information. While this may not be central to every organization’s culture, I believe it is key to building a community that is striving for the same goal. With many teams still working remotely, it is critical to develop processes that ensure teams connect and share information. More meetings may feel like wasted time, but we need to look at efficiency differently as we learn the value of connectivity during a time when it is so easy to feel disconnected.

I think we also need to take a different look at efficiency when it comes to the future of supply chain.  While lean, efficient operations have been necessary to meet the needs of just-in-time marketplace, that approach will no longer be enough to ensure success.  More important than lean supply chains will be those that are designed with the agility and adaptability to withstand change and market disruption. These changes will be crucial to keeping the supply chain robust.

Driving value and future success will depend greatly on the ability to identify and capture opportunities in the marketplace that put the company’s strengths to work.  It is clear that in the weeks, months, and years to come, the supply chain must work together to harness our collective strengths and elevate those parts of the chain that need fortifying, in order to create the fluidity and resiliency that the industry needs.

Only time will tell. The path to building a culture of adaptability is not easy. Many organizations have not and will not commit to the discipline, support, creativity, insight, openness and commitment to values required to build truly change-adaptive cultures. Those who choose to follow the path consistently will benefit with strong results.

Mike Wilson is the CEO of Consolidated Chassis Management (CCM).

The opinions expressed herein are the author's and not necessarily those of The Maritime Executive.