You’ve heard the expression, “it’s like herding cats.” We intuitively know what it means.
For our supply management context, let’s consider a symphony performance where we must find a way to get people seated and quieted before the performance starts. It was part of the agreement when their tickets were purchased. Or, we might also think about what happens in an airplane when we land late. Attendants ask that passengers stay seated, with their seat belts fastened until the plane is at the gate, and additionally may ask that passengers with tight connections stand up and deplane first. This type of cooperation with flight attendants is also agreed to when tickets are bought.
In the concert, a number of “soft” tools are employed: ushers to gently gesture people into the doors, a series of bells, maybe flashing overhead lights, etc. On the plane, it’s the pleading of the attendant. In your supply chain, it’s the supply/demand balance that translates into influence.
Autonomy Versus Control
In these situations, we’re challenged with dealing with individuals over whom there is no real power, which is why we have the herding cats metaphor in play. The metaphor is used when the influence must be exerted in the background to avoid offending participants. Exerting power or influence in this situation is different from exerting power/influence in the context of a clear hierarchy such as in the armed forces, or even in a prison, where the power is direct and physical.
It’s not about intelligence either. It’s about a situation in which the strong sense of autonomy among participants may create a serious risk. It may, at worst, lead to a lethally dangerous outcome.
For example, if concert-goers wander in and out, speaking loudly while expressing this autonomy, they are ruining the outcome for the entire audience.
In air travel, the situation could be as simple as a delayed departure when people don’t sit down when asked or could result in physical danger when some passengers insist on dragging belongings with them to deplane down an emergency chute.
In the supply chain, risk is generated when suppliers and sub-suppliers do not test materials before shipment or criminally adulterate the materials and/or tests to achieve the appearance of acceptability.
Significant psychology is deployed by attendants to be sure to say and do the correct thing towards the best possible outcome. But as with “herding cats in a cave,” being effective is a challenge. It is even more challenging in the supply chain, where the long-standing paradigm has been to “trust our suppliers.”
Autonomy Versus Control in Supply Quality Management
Let’s apply the analogy to the supply chain.
The modern multi-tier network of suppliers and sub-suppliers that’s supplanted the monolithic manufacturer of the past.
The wider, deeper and more complex the modern supplier network becomes, the less it resembles the manufacturer of the previous era, whose production processes were firmly embedded within the power relations of a corporate hierarchy, or under the watchful eye of an owner or family. Those power relations were much closer to an armed forces model than to the much looser couplings that characterize affiliations today in a multi-tier supply network.
You, the Cat
To be fair, suppliers may see their many customers (you) resembling the same kinds of challenges as cats, although with more visibility. The relationships are less solid, more ephemeral, than in the solid hierarchies of the past. Now, customers are trading off suppliers to get a better price, lower transportation costs, or other better terms and performance. At the same time, suppliers can choose to contract with customers who are willing to pay more or have lower quality expectations. Both change the supply equation. Because of the relative looseness of the relationships, the autonomy of each party is inflated in all directions. It’s in that loose, less formal and permanent coupling, that risk is generated.
The Reality Behind The Metaphor
Just as the concert goers and airline passengers buy tickets and agree to their terms and conditions, in supply quality management the ticket analogy fits the Certificate of Analysis (COA). The plane ticket says that the person on the plane is who they say they are, and also establishes an explicit contract about mutual responsibilities. The COA is the only evidence by a supplier’s QA representative that the materials are what they purport to be, comply with specifications, and identifies where they were manufactured.
Where’s Your ID and Your Ticket?
The question that must be raised about behavior in the fluid environment of a complex, multi-tier supply chain is: what validates the materials flowing in the supply chain? What weight should a company give the imperative of validation, which may run up against the supplier’s resistance to disclosure and compliance of autonomous suppliers?
In the end, having materials moving through a supply chain without a Certificate of Analysis (COA) is like plane passengers without a ticket and without ID. Or it’s like a free concert, where you know to expect all kinds of people, and all kinds of crazy behavior. The COA in the B2B world is the only ticket that can avoid unwanted material behavior (variability).
Ask yourself the following questions:
- Why is the only supply chain quality document in play optional?
- Why isn’t it consistently demanded, and consistently provided?
- Why so much trust without verification?
The answer may be that companies are conceptually living in the previous era, the era in which so much was implicit and did not require this level of control. They may be living in a virtual reality of a clear, well-managed hierarchy, rather than in the actual world that resembles cats in a dark cave, demanding the adoption of approaches capable of fulfilling the ever-growing manageability gaps.
Customers who are unwilling to risk their reputations and are committed to customer’s safety and success require COAs as part of their process for ensuring specification conformance. This includes testing, recording results, checking against agreed-upon specifications and verification by professionals of all the required information.
Who Are You and Where Are You? Visibility and Traceability.
Where the “dark cave” part of the analogy comes in is at the boundaries of what the company can “see”, i.e., visibility, and the capability it allows: traceability. As tiers in your network increase, the “cats” will become less and less visible. With material flowing in an increasingly complex, multi-tier supply chain, visibility becomes a big-time problem.
The questions that you have to ask are:
- Do you know where your materials come from?
- Are you able to trace specific lots of materials?
- Do you have Advance Ship Notices (ASNs) tied to shipments/transfers with the e-COA?
- Do you have Batch Records that provide lot and serial number traceability to the practical ends of your supply chain?
- Are you able to model your multi-tier supply chain so that is accessible online so that you can monitor even the most complex product flow efficiently, turning complex data into information powered by Statistical Process Control (SPC)?
Answering “Yes” to the above questions means you will turn the light on in the cave, just as it means having the security of flying with fellow passengers who have been ticketed and vetted and having the right to expect an enjoyable musical evening with fellow listeners who share your goal.