How To Explain Supply Chain To Your Loved Ones

"I manage supply chain" is a good way to quiet a room.

Confused
Supply Chain?. Getty Images

If you were in any of the “Men In Black” movies and Will Smith flashed that memory wipe thingy in your face, you’d – 1) remain blissfully ignorant of the aliens already among us, 2) stare quietly, blinking at nothing while your numbed brain processed its surroundings. 

I mention this because that same perplexed blinking is the typical reaction I get when I tell people I manage supply chain for a living.

  While most people I chat up at cocktail parties are educated enough to know the definitions of both the word “supply” and the word “chain” – somehow putting them together kills enough brain cells to temporarily wipe out conscious thought. 

Here’s what I heard in three recent encounters, right after I uttered, “I manage supply chain” and after the requisite quiet blinking:

“How did you get into supplying chains?”

“This is really good cheese.”

“I have no idea what that is.”

Those are three honest-to-goodness responses.  So regardless of how good the Stilton on that multi-grain cracker is – how can you get back on track and explain what you do for a living?  And more importantly, how do you get your children to understand that you’re not a hawking bicycle chains and gold necklaces out of the trunk of your car? 

Step 1.  Put supply chain in the context of their own lives.  Everybody has a supply chain in their day-to-day life.

  For example, try unspooling the tangled intricacies of supply chain using a peanut butter and jelly sandwich.  Or tell your daughter how her forecasted demand for that Monster High doll was met by on-time delivery from her parents.  Or explain to your husband that the order he placed for that Sunday Night Football watching experience is going to go unfulfilled because of the excess inventory of “Girls” episodes on your DVR.

  Life is a metaphor for supply chain – so prove it.

Step 2. Explain how fun supply chain is.  In supply chain, we say “bom” when we refer to Bills of Material – as in, “You da bom” and “You dropped a bom on me.”  See how fun we are?  Where else can The Avengers be deconstructed as a metaphor for optimized inventory?  And you’d never find an article called “I Wrote This Entire Article While Standing” in a blog about Sales or Accounting. 

In optimized supply chain, you're getting your customers what they want, when they want it - and maximizing profitability along the way.  Using that definition, you can imagine how easy it is to dovetail a conversation about Star Wars into supply chain.  Everyone around you will thank you for that. 

Step 3. Roll your eyes.  I would normally be opposed to making someone feel dumb.  But if that guy with the Stilton on his cracker or your new girlfriend or your child can’t see how supply chain both impacts almost every aspect of their day-to-day existence AND is a blast to manage, well, we’re left with nothing but eye rolling to wake them up.  This will likely shame them into wanting to hear all about reorder points and Six Sigma and inventory optimization.

  And, of course, if all else fails – you can use the Men In Black memory wipe flash thingy and start all over again.