100 Is The New 99.5

In supply chain and in life, why are we selling ourselves short?

Keep counting
Keep counting. Getty Images

In 1953, when Sir Edmund Hillary and Nepalese Sherpa mountaineer Tenzing Norgay set their sights on Mount Everest, they didn’t set out to climb 99.5% of the way to the top of the tallest mountain in the world.

In 1969, when astronauts Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins soared in Apollo 11 toward the moon – they didn’t make it their goal to make it 99.5% of the way there. 

And in 1974, at the Academy Awards ceremony, when Robert Opel streaked past David Niven and millions of television viewers, did Opel only take off 99.5% of his clothing?


No, these men of adventure kept it at 100. 

So why do we keep selling ourselves short? 

Often these days, I see supply chain service level goals set at 99.5%.   99.5% on-time delivery goals.  99.5% inventory accuracy goals.  99.5% quality goals.  When I question these goals, I’m told that the 99.5% targets are reasonable – and that we can’t expect service levels to reach 100% because look how far the team has come just to get to 99.5%.  And, yes, 99.5% is better than anything lower than 99.5%.  But, ahem, 99.5% is lower than 100%. 

Set your targets at 100%. 

If you set your targets below 100%, you’ll hit below 100%. 

Why should we expect excellence?  We can’t all be Serena Williams, right? 

And the counterarguments to my assertion that 99.5% isn’t “excellence” might be valid.  I mean, 99.5% is an A+, after all.  And a 99.5% success rate at the free throw line is over nine percentage points higher than the NBA’s career leader (90.4% for Steve Nash).


But Steve went to the free throw line attempting to be a 100% shooter.  He never stared up at the hoop and thought, “Well, I’m bound to miss one of these.”  No, his goal – every time he was settling in for a free throw, was 100%. 

Likewise, your supply chain team – and this runs the gamut from sourcing, planning, purchasing, logistics, warehouse, customer service and so on – shouldn’t enter each month with the expectation that they are going to ship a handful of customers late.

And your warehouse team and inventory control gurus shouldn’t look out over your pallet locations (whether it’s just a handful of locations or a million square feet of them) with this thought, “Well, we mostly know what we have on hand.”

Think of this from a customer point of view.  In supply chain, we are our suppliers’ customers – and, I think, because this is global business-to-business activity that we’re talking about – that we tend to forgive the occasional short shipment, nonconforming part or late delivery.  We have those headaches built into our safety stocks, budgets and lead time management. 

But if you end up getting a late delivery or the wrong item delivered from Amazon, how aggravating is that?  As a customer, we should have an expectation that we are going to be supplied with what we want, when we want it.

Does that mean that your supply chain win the Grand Slam (100% on-time customer delivery, 100% on-time supplier delivery, 100% inventory accuracy, 100% quality) each time out?

I’m not suggesting that my organization (or me, for that matter) be as good at tennis as Serena Williams.  I’m not even suggesting that I be as good at supply chain as Serena is at tennis. 

I can, however, pretty much guarantee that if the roles were reversed, that Serena would be better at supply chain than I am at tennis.

  With her commitment to excellence and unabashed willingness to go for 100, Serena would crush supply chain.  She’d defeat fluctuating customer demand, unreliable suppliers and lead time fluctuation, and then own the Grand Slam of Supply Chain.  I’d still be trying to win my first points in a qualifying tournament and wondering if this next 130+ miles per hour serve is going to give me a concussion. 

Is that because Serena would be giving 100% and I’d only be giving 99.5%?  No, even if I were giving 100% at tennis and Serena gave her 100% at supply chain, it wouldn’t close.  Sometimes all you can do is all you can do. 

And if your supply chain isn’t doing all it can do to optimize revenue to satisfy your customers, your supply chain isn’t giving 100%.