7 Steps to Building and Sustaining High Performing Teams

High-Performance Team“Can you walk us through how you would create and sustain a high-performance team?” The question caught me off-guard. I was interviewing for a middle-management role at a pharmaceutical manufacturing site. Since the position was accountable for the site’s supply chain function, I fully expected to be grilled on leadership skills and experience. But the nature and specificity of the interview question threw me off. I stumbled my way through the answer, talking about vision, teamwork and development, but not really addressing the question coherently. Part of my difficulty in giving a crisp answer was that I had never built a team from the ground up. I had only led the one I had inherited. So it wasn’t clear to me, in that moment, how to talk about my experience to address what the interviewer was seeking.

Fortunately, I’m in a much better position to answer that question now, with the benefit of hindsight and more experience. Since that interview episode, I have had the privilege and opportunity to build new teams from scratch. But I have also (to the point that the interviewer was trying to get at) worked with existing groups to mold them into sustainable, high-performing teams. Side by side with my own experiences, I also watched exceptional leaders in large and small organizations unleash the potential of their people. And here’s what I learned.

Begin with the goal in mind

In the ultimate analysis, leadership is simply a set of beliefs, behaviors and actions that help an organization achieve its desired purpose. Whether you inherit a team, or have to build one from the ground up, it’s important to have a clear sense of the purpose of the team in the context of what the organization intends to achieve. Take the time to articulate the mission in your own mind. As you will see next, everything flows from this.

Find the right people

On the face of it, this step looks simple enough: we start by defining roles in terms of the competencies needed to meet our organizational goals, and then we find the right people to fit those roles. It’s no different from recruiting for team sports, except that in football or baseball, the positions are well-defined from long history. It can be a little trickier in a business environment where the skill sets needed may change often, but the principles are similar. You still need the right mix of people who can be pitchers, hitters, short stops and outfielders, who can play well with each other, and have each others’ backs. Equally, the future potential of the individuals and the team needs as much consideration as past experience and track record.

In fact, what often defines good leaders is the subjective judgement and intuition that they bring to this critical step. The key is to make the call as well as possible in the given circumstances, and be fully prepared to change the composition of the team if things don’t work out as planned.

Create a shared sense of purpose

This is a fundamental part of the leadership imperative. For the team to work in alignment with the organization’s purpose, the members need to be vested in it. Imagine that you’re trying to get the team to embark upon a journey with you. To make a compelling case, you need to coherently explain why the journey is necessary (the burning platform), what’s in it for everyone (the value proposition), what it will look like when you get to the destination (the vision of the future), give a sense of how you can collectively make that happen (the strategy),  and be clear about what everyone should expect from each other (the mutual commitment). That sounds like a lot, but if someone wanted you to tag along with them, wouldn’t you want to know the answers before signing up? The visual image I have of this step is Sean Penn in the movie Milk, standing in front of his constituents with a megaphone in his hand, saying, “My name is Harvey Milk, and I’m here to recruit you.” Except that you have to say a lot more than that, with credibility, passion, and authenticity.

Empower the team

If you have heard more about the empowerment buzzword than you can take, you’re not alone. So let me say this differently, to avoid any baggage that may come along with that term. If you have the right team, and they are clear about their shared purpose, your job as a leader is to give them the resources and the tools they need, and a clear line of sight from their individual goals to organizational objectives. Good teams need coaches and enablers, not micro-managers. Invest people with a sense of ownership, hold them accountable, and help them achieve their full potential. At the same time, don’t forget you’re part of the team too, so do whatever you can to help the team succeed — as a coach, mentor, role model, and blocker-and-tackler-in-chief.

Make feedback an inherent part of the process

There’s a simple reason why feedback is so important. Nothing ever goes exactly according to plan, even if you have a great team and the right set of resources. While some members of the team are hacking through the jungle with their machetes, others have to shimmy up the trees and see what’s coming up ahead. The scouts have to be on the lookout for danger, while the rearguard has to secure the path. A safe and successful journey is all about continuously getting feedback from the environment, processing it, and adjusting course accordingly. It works much the same in organizations. Don’t wait for annual performance reviews or project milestones – that’s like waiting till journey’s end – instead, provide guidance and course correction on an on-going basis. Appreciate good performance, but also  show that poor performance and toxic behaviors are not tolerated. And just as importantly, collect feedback fearlessly and enthusiastically. You too need guidance and course correction  – from your supervisors, peers, direct reports, customers, and suppliers – to become a better leader.

Invest in talent development

Let’s go back to a key word in the title of this article for a moment: sustaining. Your job as a leader doesn’t stop once you have a high-performing team that works collaboratively in the pursuit of a common purpose. You cannot declare success unless what you have helped create can live and thrive on its own. That means investing in the development of the entire team — the people you lead, as well as yourself. Talent development is a broad enough topic that one could devote an entire series of posts to just that. Here’s the Cliff Notes version: first, development needs to be owned by the colleague, with support from supervisors, mentors and HR (not the other way around). It’s up to each one of us to figure out what our development goals are, what experiences, knowledge and resources we need to get there, and a realistic set of expectations about where it’s going to take us. Second, we should think about development in terms of the two orthogonal axes of performance and potential, in order to monitor and guide the development process. If we don’t make a clear distinction between performance and potential, it’s very difficult to identify, develop, and retain talent. And third, succession planning should be an essential component of the development activity. The guiding principle for all of this is to make individual, team, and organizational performance sustainable.

Don’t be afraid to let go

I have seen many successful leaders do a fabulous job of the first six steps, but stumble at this last one. Having picked the right people, motivated them, and helped develop their capabilities, I can understand a strong desire to hold on to what you feel you have created and nourished with care. Letting go is never easy. But if you’re sincere about development, both you and your team members need to be thinking about what’s next. Remember, your role as a leader is to help fulfill the organization’s purpose. And what the organization may critically need at a particular point in time may be precisely that rising star that you have nurtured. What’s more, when that person moves on to the next stage in their development, that in turn creates an opportunity for someone else to spread their wings.

Sometimes, however, letting go may involve losing a high-performer to the outside world. This can be even tougher to handle. You may feel like someone else, maybe even your competitor, is “unfairly” benefiting from your investment in the colleague’s development. But think of the alternative: if you don’t invest in people’s development, not only do they have less of a reason to stay, but while they are with you, they are less than what they could be.

So, in hindsight, this is how I should have answered the question I was asked in my interview many years ago. To create and sustain a high-performance team:

  1. Begin with the goal in mind
  2. Find the right people
  3. Create a shared sense of purpose
  4. Empower the team
  5. Make feedback an inherent part of the process
  6. Invest in development
  7. Don’t be afraid to let go

Taken together, these  7 steps provide a logical, actionable path to creating and sustaining high-performance teams. This is not just based on my own experience as a manager over 20 some years in large and small companies. More than anything, it’s a distillation of what I have internalized and learned from the great leaders I have had the privilege to work for and observe during my many years in the workplace. So I know from their teachings and my own experiences that this 7 step approach works in practice. You just need the right mindset, and the leader’s commitment to do whatever is necessary to help the organization fulfill its purpose.

Supply Chain Metrics That Matter

supply chain metrics

Photo credit: Celtrino.com


I’ll start with an admission – although I’ve spent the majority of my career as a supply chain professional, I’ve never been formally trained in the field. Like many others in the industry, I’ve had my share of on-the-job training and continuing education (APICS, for instance), but my formal schooling was in chemical engineering. So I came to the supply chain field as somewhat of an outsider – which may not have been such a bad thing. For example, my chemical engineering background helped me think about supply chains in terms of inputs and outputs, and dependent and independent variables. Perhaps because of this outsider’s perspective, I’ve never been shy about challenging the status quo, or pushing back against conventional wisdom. And one aspect of the conventional wisdom in supply chain management that has always bothered me is the framework of metrics that we use to measure, operate and improve supply chains.

I know what you’re probably thinking  – aren’t supply chain metrics pretty well established by now? Haven’t we beaten this topic to death over the last several decades talking about KPIs and balanced score cards, and adding increasing sophistication to the measurement of forecast accuracy, service level and cost? Yes, this is indeed true – over the years, much work has been done on metrics in order to define, measure, analyze, improve and control supply chains. Frameworks like SCOR have been introduced to provide a formal basis for modeling and quantifying supply chains. Armies of management consultants have come up with ways to integrate supply chain metrics into the balanced score cards that are used to run companies. Processes like Sales & Operations Planning have been designed to align supply chain performance with financial, operational and commercial performance. I have no disagreement with any of this – on the contrary, each of these developments has been beneficial in moving the field forward, and making supply chain management essential to the success of businesses of all kinds. My more fundamental, nagging issue is this: are we critically looking at the metrics we use, and asking ourselves (1) if they are the right ones for our business, and (2) if they are driving the right behaviors? And I suspect the answer to those two questions is “No,” in many cases.

Let’s go back to basics for a moment. The need for metrics is underpinned by something Lord Kelvin is purported to have said, “If you cannot measure it, you cannot improve it.” I’m paraphrasing what he said, of course, but while his basic message is simple enough, it doesn’t really tell us a whole lot about what to measure. We all know that there are measurements that unambiguously point to how we can improve things, but there are also a host of others that either offer no clue to what actions should be taken, or provide information well after the time to act has passed. And then there are others that are purely diagnostic in nature, that tell us something about the health of the system, but are not relevant to improvement, necessarily.

This is where the notion of leading, lagging and diagnostic indicators comes in, and the best way to explain it is through some examples. Let’s say we are trying to measure a student’s academic performance.  Grade point average is an obvious and important metric, but it bears noting that GPA is an output measurement, or lagging indicator. It’s a dependent variable, not one that we can directly manipulate to improve outcomes. So if we want to improve a student’s GPA, what should we measure and work on? It could be time spent in class, or in doing assignments, but more fundamentally, we need some way to measure how well the student understands the material (one could argue that this was the original intent of grades and GPA). One way to do that would be through assessments done as and when the material is being taught. When a chapter in the textbook, or a segment of the course syllabus is completed, the student takes an assessment, and the scores on the assessment provide a measure of how well the student understands the material. This metric in turn could drive improvement on the student’s path to the final grade on the subject. So a metric that measures understanding of the material is a leading indicator — an independent variable, an input that can be manipulated to drive better outcomes. Next, there are diagnostic measures – metrics that measure the health of a system, or provide a baseline for the system as a whole. For example, if a student is preparing to take the SATs, he or she might take a diagnostic practice test at the start of the process to establish a baseline and identify problem areas that require particular attention during the preparations.

Now that we have done the groundwork to understand the different types of metrics and what they are good for, where does this take us? Should we focus on leading indicators for our supply chains? Lagging indicators? Diagnostic measures? Not surprisingly, the answer is that we need all three. Output measurements are critical for any system – to understand performance, we need to measure what the system delivers. So, for a supply chain, we need lagging indicators that capture the reliability, responsiveness, cost effectiveness, efficiency and flexibility with which goods are delivered to the satisfaction of the paying customer. Many of the familiar supply chain metrics that we know and love fall into this category: forecast accuracy, perfect order, lead time, inventory turns, cost-to-serve, and return on assets. And how do we drive improvement in these output measures? As we have discussed before, we need leading indicators that we can influence before delivery happens. What metrics could help us do that? Basically those that measure how well we source, make and move products in readiness for delivery. Are suppliers delivering raw materials on time? Is capacity available to make the product when needed? Are work centers able to complete production as scheduled? The metrics that can answer these questions include actual vs target supplier lead times, plant availability, schedule adherence, and actual vs takt time. The last of these, takt time, is a metric borrowed from the world of Lean Six Sigma – it is the rate at which product needs to be manufactured in order to meet customer demand. The third and last element of the metric framework is diagnostic measurement. Again, I find myself strongly influenced by the Lean Six Sigma approach to process improvement – and from this perspective, cycle time is a particularly compelling measurement for understanding the health of a supply chain.

Now that we have our leading, lagging and diagnostic indicators, what remains is to put them together for a particular supply chain and business. Remember, we cannot drive the right behaviors and get improvement if we don’t have metrics that make sense for the business. For example, forecast accuracy at the mix level may not make sense for some products. It may be better to direct those resources towards a just-in-time operation that replenishes components to a reorder point, and assembles to order based on known (not forecasted) customer demand. Similarly, many fast-moving consumer goods operations are moving to a delivery metric based on “sell-through” rather than “sell-in” (meaning that delivery is considered complete not when the product is shipped to the retailer, but only when the product is sold off the retailer’s shelf – which is what ultimately matters).

So, there you have it – not a new set of metrics, or a new type of balanced scorecard, but rather an attitude of critical appraisal towards what is measured and why. In summary, then, here are the three main points I’m trying to make –

  1. View every metric with healthy skepticism. Focus on the ones that make sense for your supply chain and your business.
  2. Ask yourself what the metric is for, whether it’s a leading, lagging or diagnostic indicator, and what behavior it’s intended to drive.
  3. And then critically examine whether the chosen metrics in each of those three categories are meaningful in the context of making the business successful.

Because we shouldn’t forget that there is a dangerous flip side to Lord Kelvin’s maxim – if you measure the wrong thing, you won’t improve what really matters!

© Tharuvai Ramesh

Learning How to Lead

leader in me

Leadership is critical to global economies — the evidence is all around us. Leaders of nations impact economic growth through the executive actions they take. Leaders of global, multinational companies impact employment, investment, and consumer spending through their decisions. Cultural and religious leaders bring about changes in entire societies through the ideologies they promote, and the initiatives they spearhead. Yet, MBA programs notwithstanding, leadership is not something that is easily taught. Colleges and universities teach students the arts, the sciences, medicine, engineering, accounting, law or any number of other disciplines, but it is rare to see a degree program focused exclusively on leadership.

Perhaps this is because leadership is not something that can be addressed in a vacuum — it requires context. Who is being led, and for what purpose? Is leadership an activity, a set of skills, or both? In fact, even defining leadership succinctly is a challenge — one that influential management gurus have struggled with. Warren Bennis, an early pioneer in “leadership studies,” defined leadership as the capacity to translate vision into reality. Bill Gates, who presumably knows a thing or two about leadership, described it in terms of empowering others. Yet others define leadership in terms of the behaviors and attributes of exceptional leaders. Peter Drucker, for example, famously said that the only definition of a leader is someone who has followers. I have to assume he was being facetious, since his definition tells us very little.

My own view is admittedly rather simplistic — I believe that leadership is an acquired skill, no different from learning how to work effectively with others, or how to communicate better, or how to deal with conflict. And as with those other soft skills, some are more naturally gifted at leadership than others — but that doesn’t have to stop the rest of us from learning by doing, by watching great leaders in action, or by being taught by coaches and mentors. I’ve been fortunate in this respect — at various points in my career, I’ve had role models who taught me through their own example. In turn, I did my part — I internalized those lessons, tried them out, honed my skills, and whenever I had a chance, tried to impart those lessons to the people I had the privilege to coach and mentor. Here are three of those leadership lessons, and the role models I learned them from.

Do whatever it takes to get the job done

Years ago, in my first month in graduate school, I went to talk to the Chair of the Engineering Graphics department regarding a graduate teaching assistantship. On getting there, I saw a distinguished gentleman in a coat and tie, sitting at the administrative assistant’s desk near a row of faculty offices. Seeing my look of surprise, he pointed to the sign on the desk, which had his name, with a handwritten note below it: “Chair, Professor, Administrative Assistant, Whatever is Needed Today.” He went on to explain that the department’s administrative assistant had quit unexpectedly due to personal reasons, and he was filling in until he could get a replacement. The message was clear — as Chair, he wanted to ensure the continued smooth functioning of the department and was willing to do whatever was needed to make that happen. No job was “beneath” him if it helped further the department’s goals. The footnote to the story is that I got the teaching assistant job — which gave me the opportunity to watch my role model in action for another couple of years.

Value the people who work for you

My second story is one that I have written about before, but in a different context. Straight out of graduate school, I went to work for a manager who was as accomplished and driven as they come. She had a Ph.D. from Berkeley, had done ground-breaking research in her field, and at a fairly young age, was one of the top technologists in the R&D division of one of the largest companies in the world. One day, in a quiet moment over lunch, I asked her what her most outstanding career achievement was up until that point. There were any number of things she could have said, but I was not prepared for her answer. It was simple and powerful, and I have never forgotten it: “My greatest career accomplishment is the success of the people I have managed, coached and mentored.” I knew she meant every word of it because she was always direct and forthright. Not only that, but thinking back about her managerial traits in hindsight, I realized that she had indeed demonstrated that principle through her actions. Although she was a demanding manager, always impatient for results, and one who did not suffer fools gladly, she never passed up an opportunity to let her team shine. She didn’t hesitate to let us try and fail. And she always listened thoughtfully to our ideas even if she didn’t always agree with them.

Inspire, motivate, and challenge

My third leadership lesson came a bit later in my career — and I have previously written about this as well. At the time, I was the head of the supply chain for the specialty care product portfolio at a large pharmaceutical company. The specialty care operating unit was facing some significant challenges at the time — technical, operational and financial. At our quarterly leadership team meeting, one of our operating unit leaders gave an inspiring talk on how our response to the challenges would define our character as a team, and how that shared sense of purpose could empower us to overcome those challenges. This wasn’t a pep talk to a high school soccer team before an important game — it was addressed to a room filled with people with specialized skills and years of experience in a whole range of areas. But the message was powerful — it reinforced the importance of our mission and our confidence in ourselves, and it issued a challenge that we needed to rise to. Sometimes, all we need it that little reminder of what we can accomplish if we believe, together. There is a happy ending to the story — we solved the immediate operational issues by securing capacity elsewhere, which gave us the time to fix the technical issues, while another part of the team managed to find the cost savings to keep us going financially.

We can all learn how to lead. Like other fields of human endeavor, the keys are in the desire to do it, the willingness to try and fail, and the drive to get better at it. Leadership lessons are often right within our grasp — in the actions of role models, in the words of coaches and mentors, and in our own self-awareness of what behaviors and actions work well or not.

Leaders as Coaches and Mentors

coaching mentoring

Early in my career, I reported to a manager who was as accomplished and driven as they come. She had a Ph.D. from Berkeley, had done ground-breaking research in her field, and at a fairly young age, was one of the top technologists in the R&D division of one of the largest companies in the world. One day, in a quiet moment over lunch, I asked her what her most outstanding career achievement was up until that point. There were any number of things she could have said, but I was not prepared for what came out of her mouth next. Her answer was simple and powerful, and I have never forgotten it: “My greatest career accomplishment is the success of the people I have managed, coached and mentored.” I knew she meant every word of it because she was always direct and forthright. Not only that, but thinking back about her managerial traits in hindsight, I realized that she had indeed demonstrated that principle through her actions. Although she was a demanding manager, always impatient for results, and one who did not suffer fools gladly, she never passed up an opportunity to let her team shine. She didn’t hesitate to let us try and fail. And she always listened thoughtfully to our ideas even if she didn’t always agree with them.

Fast forward to a much later point in my career – I was the head of the supply chain for the specialty care product portfolio at a large pharmaceutical company. I enjoyed what I did, had a passion for the products I was responsible for, and felt motivated to come into work every day. But I felt there was something missing, and I couldn’t put my finger on it. The specialty care operating unit was facing some significant challenges at the time — technical, operational and financial. At our quarterly leadership team meeting, one of our operating unit leaders gave a talk on how our response to the challenges would define our character as a team, and how that shared sense of purpose could empower us to overcome those challenges. Something in those words flipped a switch in my head. Back at the hotel that night, I was finally able put a name to the vague misgivings I’d been having. Simply put, it was a “development vacuum.” Enjoying your job and having a sense of accomplishment is different from personal growth and development, and I realized that I had lost track of that important facet of my working life due to my narrow focus on getting things done. Listening to the words of an accomplished leader reminded me that I had a responsibility to further develop my own leadership skills and shape my career arc.

What I did next was a critical stepping stone in my leadership development – much more so than my on-going participation in the development programs my company had set up for nurturing leaders. I reached out to the operating unit leader who had triggered my introspection, and asked him to be my mentor. He readily agreed, and we set up a series of discussions that took place over the next few months. The first thing he asked me to consider doing was a “blank sheet exercise” – essentially starting with a blank sheet of paper to try to articulate my strengths and areas for improvement, my career aspirations in terms of specific types of roles, and the kinds of experiences and development opportunities I would need in order to be ready to fill those roles when they became available. He encouraged me to think of this as a living document, one that I would add to, maintain and change as I made progress, and as the environment and circumstances changed. The underlying thought process was to have clarity on where I wanted to be and how to get there, and for me to take charge of steering that ship. Looking back on my sessions with my mentor, what strikes me is how engaged he was, without driving the process one bit. It was very clear from Day One who was in charge of charting the course, navigating and steering to the destination – that was going to be all me. But my mentor was with me every step of the way, making me ask myself the right questions, so I could discover the answers and take action.

What can we learn from these two real-life stories? Others have spoken eloquently about the critical attributes of good coaches and mentors (here’s one example I shared recently). And there are important differences in what coaches and mentors do (here’s one perspective). But leaders who are good at being coaches and mentors do share some common attributes – and my own personal stories illustrate at least 3 of them:

It’s not about you
Good leaders put the person being coached or mentored at the center of the process. That person’s success and that person’s development is what the process is all about. The leader’s sense of accomplishment derives entirely from the success of the individuals they work with, not from how knowledgeable and experienced they themselves are. That means giving the individuals they coach or mentor a “safe space” in which to develop themselves, find out what works and doesn’t, and learn from the process.

Be a good listener
Leaders listen actively. They give the individuals they work with the room to think, to ask the right questions, and to discover the answers for themselves. Active listening is all about building mutual understanding, being attentive, probing, and provoking thought – but not directing, or prescribing. It builds trust, and provides a channel for the best ideas to be heard, regardless of where they come from. Teams trust and follow coaches who are invested in the collective outcome, not in having their plays followed blindly. Mentees are better able to take ownership and accountability for their career development if their mentors help them find what works best at a personal level.

Be present and be engaged
This is probably the most vital element, and a little bit of this runs through everything else that good leaders do well. Both the stories I shared were about leaders who made the time, and were actively engaged in developing talent. My manager took deliberate actions to give her team the exposure they needed to become better at what they did, and to learn how to do new things. The operating unit leader made the time to mentor me, and made it evident that he was ready for the long haul. In our sessions, he was right there, engaging, asking for clarification, and being my “career conscience” in a manner of speaking.

So think about your own leadership journey and the people you have coached or mentored. Or if you haven’t embarked on the journey yet, find a mentor who exhibits these characteristics and start the journey. Either way, think about these stories and lessons, and ask yourself if they ring true.

The Large and Small of Effective Organizational Communication

effective communication 4In my career in industry, I have worked in both small and large companies – all the way from a 10-person organization to one that had over 100,000 employees. There is a common perception that large organizations are full of impenetrable silos and systemic communication barriers, while small ones, by virtue of their size and intimacy, somehow automatically foster better communication and alignment. I have found out the hard way that neither of these perceptions is necessarily true, in particular the latter. Even more pernicious is the myth that George Bernard Shaw so crisply exposed: “The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place.”

Why is any of this important? Because for organizations to fulfill their purpose, their constituents need to have a sense of commitment to that purpose, and a means for translating that into meaningful, tangible tasks that they can act upon towards the fulfillment of that purpose. And communication is one of the most important keys to creating that sense of shared purpose and the ability to execute against it.

Fortunately for all of us, there are many experienced leaders and management gurus who have learned and lived valuable lessons in effective organizational communication, and have been able to share them much more articulately than I can. So, I have an easy task – all I have to do is to provide you with a road map to the wisdom that already exists, rather than try to rehash it in my own words. And the ideal way to lay out the road map is to address the why, the what, and the how, in the words of those that know it best.

Connect the Dots
effective communication 1First, the why, and it’s important to always start with that. We live in an age of increasing data overload and shrinking bandwidth to handle it. It can be overwhelming to internalize and make something meaningful and actionable out of the barrage of mission, vision, values, strategies, goals and objectives that are intended to provide structure and purpose, but often create confusion instead. Employees need ways of connecting the dots in ways that resonate personally with them. Noted management guru, Ram Charan, sums it up as follows (1): “The aim of organizational communication is to ensure that everyone understands the external and internal issues facing the organization and what individuals must do to contribute to the organization’s success. Communication should be a core competency of the organization, not just a function.” The italics are mine, but the statement is inarguable. That’s the why, period, full stop. Ram Charan goes on to say that the main reason that many organizations fail to achieve their aims is not a lack of vision, a lack of ambition or even a lack of desire. Rather, the reason is a lack of execution. And his research found that of the top 10 reasons for failure, 4 are related to communication.

Clear, Frequent and Meaningful
effective communication 2Next, the what. And the short answer is: whatever is needed to address the why. That includes all of the elements that, taken together, might potentially muddle the heads of employees and render them ineffective: mission, vision, values, strategies, goals and objectives. The trick is how the message is communicated. That doesn’t mean we should ignore the what and move right onto the how. The message is undoubtedly important, but how it’s conveyed is what makes it trustworthy and credible, and ultimately what makes it stick. So to put it another way, the what can be understood by describing the attributes of an effective message. Here’s how Forbes magazine puts it, in a nutshell. The message should be authentic, personal, and specific. It should have a narrative that resonates and inspires. And it should be credible – the person communicating the message should know what she or he is talking about, backed by sound business rationale.

Early and Often
effective communication 5And finally, the how. I already touched on this a little, but this aspect of communication is probably where the well of existing knowledge is both broad and deep. Again, I see my task here as helping you navigate that thicket of wisdom. Let’s start with my friend and serial entrepreneur, Srikrishna. In his blog, Design of Business, he says: “When in doubt, communicate early and often.” Avoid surprises. Make sure your constituents and stakeholders don’t hear about important issues facing your company from someone on the outside. Michael Hyatt echoes this concern as well, and goes on to provide a set of guidelines on how to do it well, to ensure alignment. The essence of his advice is: make sure there’s frequent contact, provide a clear sense of what to expect, and connect with each individual in a way that resonates personally with them. Just as importantly, much of the advice that’s out there regarding the “how” emphasizes two-way communication. The feedback loop is just as important as the message. Listen as much as you speak. And as CK Prahalad, another noted management guru, emphasizes, “Never accept silence as agreement because you will regret it later.”

And that’s the large and small of effective organizational communication. It doesn’t matter whether you’re in a 10-person company or a giant corporation with 100,000 employees. The vision may be large, but it needs to be translated into the little nuggets that make the message stick and resonate on a personal level. It’s that type of communication that ultimately can be pivotal in making organizations successful. And it is a fundamental leadership responsibility.

© Tharuvai Ramesh
(1) As quoted in Curt Howes’ book, Organizational Performance: The Key to Success in the 21st Century


Supply chain lessons to live by


Supply chain management, as an organized field of study, is relatively new. Depending on what key event we choose in order to peg the birth of the field, it is either about a hundred years old (dating back to the publication of the seminal book The Principles of Scientific Management by Frederick Taylor), or about thirty or so years old (when the term “supply chain management” was used in print for the very first time). Either way, we can agree that it is a young field, and perhaps because of that, supply chain management has generally valued the practitioner’s knowledge quite highly. Theory and tools are always useful, but especially in fields that have not been studied academically for very long, life in the trenches has a lot to teach us.

I have been quite fortunate in this respect – in addition to my own experiences, I had the benefit of absorbing the distilled wisdom of several mentors who were generous with their time and their knowledge. Here’s what I learned from them, on how to succeed at managing supply chains well.

Get your fingernails dirty

This may seem obvious, but if you want to learn lessons from the trenches, then spend time in the trenches. Don’t take any aspect of supply chain management for granted, whether it’s plan, source, make or deliver. While it may not be practical to spend your entire career working on every aspect of supply chain management, make hands-on learning a cornerstone of your career planning. When you visit a warehouse, don’t just admire the automated pick-and-pack system and make polite noises – be insatiably curious and find out what goes on there, day-in and day-out. When you visit a manufacturing plant, find out how goods are produced, how they are tested, and why products sometimes fail inspection. Try to understand why lead times are what they are, and what plant management is doing to make their operations predictable and efficient. You never know when some little nugget of information you pick up from touching and seeing supply chains will be critical in saving you and your company someday.

Know your supply chain

On the surface, this may seem to be a repeat of #1 above – but it’s not. This is not about learning supply chain management first-hand – it’s more about knowing every nook and cranny of your own supply chain, from one end to the other. This notion of end-to-end supply chain management is very important – many novices, and even some experts, mistake supply chain management for finished goods distribution. It’s obviously a lot more than that – all the way from the sourcing of raw materials to the production of intermediates and finished goods, to distribution, logistics, customs and regulations. The point is, if you’re accountable for delivering a product to your paying customer, you need to know every inch of the path it traverses to get there. This obviously includes the metrics that you measure supply chain performance with: lead times, capacities, inventories, costs, fulfillment rates, and cycle times to name a few. But it also includes an understanding of your constraints, vulnerabilities and strengths, as well as the people who are responsible for the product at each node along the way.

Plan well

In this results-oriented world we live in, it’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking that good execution is everything. And perhaps it is, but good execution doesn’t just happen because people are focused and do their jobs well. Good execution is a natural consequence of relentless planning, while failure is a frequent consequence of the lack of it. As Eisenhower once said, “Plans are useless, but planning is indispensable.” And in the context of supply chain management, planning means determining what should happen and when at every node of the supply chain, from end-to-end. If you just focus on finished goods distribution, without due consideration of what happens upstream, then you may be setting yourself up for a bumpy ride. Planning also means consideration of different time scales – from the longer business planning time horizon, to the much shorter time periods associated with production plans for the manufacturing floor. As the time horizon becomes longer, the level of detail in the corresponding plan and the frequency of the planning activity both diminish.

All this may seem like an awful lot of work, especially when the plans themselves often bear little resemblance to reality due to changes in the assumptions or the environment. But believe me, the alternative is much worse. You will either end up working twice as hard to react on the fly, or not having any work at all by virtue of having been fired from your job. And finally, planning well means using the right tools. Depending on the size and complexity of your supply chain, make sure you have the horse power to get it right. If you have an Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) system, leverage it to the hilt. If you don’t have an ERP system, lobby vigorously to at least get the planning tools you need, and deploy them so that their use becomes a part of daily life in your supply chain.

We live in an information rich universe, where we are bombarded every day with news of the latest innovations and techniques for improving supply chain performance, whether it’s demand-driven networks, lean supply chains or advanced planning tools. But in the midst of all that, we shouldn’t forget the basics that provide the foundation for making the improvements possible. And there’s no better way of reminding us of the basics than some lessons from the trenches.

© Tharuvai Ramesh