Most supply chains do what they were designed for. They move and monitor parts, track inventory levels, and provide at least some insight into quarterly supply-demand requirements.
However, since supply chains, and the people behind them, have adapted relatively well to changing market conditions, cyclical economic booms and busts, and whatever else has cropped up in the last decade or so, executives keep expecting to glean even more from these operations. They anticipate innovative supply chain practices to drive financial growth, increase competitive advantage, and advance other strategies on the corporate agenda. The key phrase, though, is “innovative supply chain practices.”
As on the products and services side, supply chain improvements need to stay on the cutting edge to accomplish these worthy goals. The problem is that supply chains of yesteryear need an upgrade. And I’m not talking about the kind of upgrade that comes out of nicely packaged boxes of software.
To get where the supply chain needs to go next, supply chain experts need to examine the entire thought process embedded in current practice and experiment with new concepts. Perhaps, the electronics supply chain could use a dose of what Tim Brown, chief executive officer and president of design consultancy IDEO, calls "design thinking."
On the recent recommendation of a few colleagues, I’m reading Brown’s book Change By Design (Harper Business, 2009), which provides a conceptual blueprint for how companies can apply a non-linear, creative problem-solving approach to all facets of business.
As Brown describes it, design thinking is “fundamentally an exploratory process,” where inspiration, ideation, and implementation overlap and feed an innovation continuum. Though he comes at it from a designer’s point of view, he’s quick to explain how the principle has broad benefits: “The mission of design thinking is to translate observations into insights and insights into products and services that will improve lives.”
In the book, Brown advises companies on how to look beyond their established constructs to recognize patterns, develop forward-thinking environments, and enhance the product and customer service experience. In particular, he cites two examples relevant to the electronics industry. Intel Corp. (Nasdaq: INTC), for instance, has a team of researchers and social scientists that study various societal issues, such as the future of digital money and street life in a multinational metropolis.
Similarly, Nokia Corp. (NYSE: NOK) funds research related to human behavior and innovative ethnographic techniques. For these companies, the research goes far beyond trend-spotting and “coolhunting,” and insights drawn from it provide a baseline for future product planning and development, Brown writes. By understanding what’s happening on the ground and analyzing a multitude of scenarios through different lenses, Intel and Nokia can get a better sense of how their technologies may be used a decade from now.
If tech companies are taking such proactive steps to innovate end products and services, the question arises: Shouldn’t the supply chain mirror those efforts? How involved are supply chain experts in experimental leaps aimed at transforming entire organizations or product lines (obviously, whatever ultimately comes out of the product development silo will touch the supply chain)? Indeed, a supply chain is a living organism worthy of evolving in a way that provides insight and maybe even improves lives, not just profits and revenues.