Using Superheroes and Supervillains to Learn Supply Chain Terms

Super Supply Chain
Super Supply Chain. Getty Images

Two questions:

1. What is difference between a superhero and a supply chain manager?  

One battles unimaginable foes, saves the day and wins the unending admiration of the masses. The other is a comic book character.  

2. When negotiating a supply agreement, how is it not possible to treat your supplier like the supervillain that he is?  

Supply chain managers often do battle against suppliers, especially when hammering out the nuts and bolts of a supply agreement.

But remember when The Batman thought he needed to kill Superman in "Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice"? Batman treated Superman as if Superman were his enemy. However, they weren't able to reach an agreement as enemies. It wasn't until they teamed up that they were able to accomplish anything meaningful (i.e. defeat Doomsday). And it always helps to have Wonder Woman on your side.

As a supply chain manager, you can help drive supplier relationship success by partnering with your suppliers to create strategic relationships. Treating them as supervillains only means that they'll turn up in the sequel (i.e. when it's time to renegotiate that agreement) bigger and badder.

Supply chain and superheroes have an obvious connection. Both are awesome. So use this superhero universe/supply chain guide to help understand key supply chain roles and supply chain terminology.

Wonder Woman = Supply Chain Manager

Supply chain managers are asked by their companies to fight the battles no one else can win (such as cost of goods negotiations).

 

Supply chain managers march head first into no man's land and have to deflect the bullets fired at them (ever been to an S&OP meeting?).  

Supply chain managers perform superhuman tasks while remaining the company's moral compass (ensure on-time delivery and inventory control while keeping the company's costs down).

Sure, it might seem a little presumptuous for a supply chain manager (i.e. me) to refer to all supply chain managers as one of the greatest superheroes of all time — but if you're going to ask your supply chain manager to make sure your company is delivering what your customers want, when they want it, and do that by spending as little money as possible, you'd better hope that they're Wonder Women and Men.

The Flash = Freight Forwarder

When you need to move critical products from one side of the world to the side of the world that you're on, you rely on freight forwarders. Freight forwarders don't necessarily own the carriers that move your product, but they coordinate with the many, many hands that have to touch your products to get it to you.

You're not going to want to deal with the trucker who's backed up to the dock at your supplier's factory. Or the handlers who move your product from that truck into the holding area in your supplier's country — so that it can clear outbound customs and get on a ship or an airplane. Then someone loads it onto said ship or airplane. Then, once it crosses the world, it has to — again — clear customs. And then get unloaded. And then delivered to your door.

 

Freight forwarders do that for you. And, like The Flash, they have the ability to do that at speeds that you are unable to attain.  

You can not hope to travel as quickly as a freight forwarder — or The Flash — so leave the transport to them.

S.H.I.E.L.D. = Tier II Supplier

Tier II suppliers are the suppliers who make sure that your suppliers have what they need to supply you. For example, your local Safeway is your peanut butter supplier. But Skippy is your supplier's supplier, Skippy would be your Tier II supplier.  

To keep with the superhero example, The Avengers is where you turn to when the world needs saving from the Chitauri invasion. But S.H.I.E.L.D. delivers the The Avengers close enough to the wormhole/portal/thingy so that they're available to you.  

S.H.I.E.L.D. is your Tier II superhero supplier.

They are not superheroes themselves, but they make the superheroes possible. And while you might not think you have much sway over the Tier II suppliers in your life (how can you possibly hope to drive changes at Skippy?) — remember that S.H.I.E.L.D. has changed over time (smashing an Operation Insight Helicarrier into your headquarters will help accelerate a change).  

Your Tier II suppliers are very critical to your supply chain. You should know who they are, what their lead times and costs are and how to work with them to ensure your suppliers are delivering to you on-time, with managed costs of goods. 

Magneto = Supplier

Let's face it — Magneto and Charles Xavier have had a tricky relationship. They have been through a lot together and Charles has put Magneto behind bars more than once (albeit plastic ones). But as much as these two super-powered mutants have fought over the years, you really get the sense that they need each other...

...Much like you and your suppliers.  

Yes, you are Charles Xavier and your suppliers can certainly be the Magneto that you do battle against daily. But the only way that Charles and Magneto were able to defeat the powerful mutant Apocalypse was to realize that they are able to get more done working together. Your particular Apocalypse might be cost of goods reduction or on time delivery or product innovation — but you might find more success teaming up with your Magneto than putting him in a plastic prison.

The Hulk = The Customer

Unpredictable, destructive and volatile. Is that your customer or The Avengers' Big Guy? The Hulk might have destroyed half a S.H.I.E.L.D. helicarrier and torn up half of Harlem but there's little doubt that The Avengers would be the successful super team that they are without Bruce Banner's alternate ego.  

Customer relationship management can be a difficult task, but make it a priority to have your own Black Widow who can connect with the The Hulks in your customer base — and build a robust demand planning and metrics reporting process. Because at some point, those customers are going to smash. It'd be awesome of they helped you smash sales records and not your supply chain.

Superman = Sales

I'm only equating Sales to Superman in case some sales guy reads this far down into the article.  

Superman is an alien who flies around the world thinking that he's super-useful, but typically leaves as a ton of destruction in his path. So maybe the Sales comparison is appropriate.  

Batman and Wonder Woman used Superman's potential destructive power as a reason to form the Justice League, so if your volatile Sales team causes you to create results-driven processes to stay out in front of customer demand and supplier fluctuations, then maybe your Sales team is from Krypton.