Participation Trophies, Birthdays and Supply Chain

Supply chain sorts out the participation trophy controversy.

Participation Trophies
Supply Chain Wins. Getty Images

The Internet got very angry recently.  After Pittsburgh Steeler James Harrison returned his sons’ participation trophies, the Internet – wielding the axe of righteous indignation – cut through the concept of participation trophies like a zealous logger shredding, with impunity, paper trees. 

Why should kids get trophies for just showing up?  Whack! 

We are creating a generation of entitled weaklings!


Participation trophies water down the savory deliciousness of trophies honestly won!  Whack! 

Okay, yes, I’m all for working hard and earning your keep.  And taglines like “everyone’s a winner” and “everyone’s an all-star” pretty much guarantee that no one is really either.  But…

I once “won” a trophy for being the backup second baseman on a Little League city champ baseball team.  Years later, a race official would drape a “medal” (it was made of plastic) over my neck for completing a 10k run.  I honestly worked harder and accomplished more for the plastic medal (for just participating!) than I did for that championship trophy.  But – as with most of what’s scribbled across the Internet – my case study is too trivial to be broadly relevant. 

You can’t really poo-poo all participation trophies.  Just like you can’t venerate all accomplishment trophies.  For as vast as the Internet is, it can be very small when it comes to serious discourse on complicated topics.

  So let supply chain help sort it out for you…

First of all, the whole trophy thing.  If there’s one thing that supply chain knows about, it’s performance and results.  It doesn’t matter how pretty your metrics dashboard is, if your supply chain isn’t getting your customers what they want, when they want it – and spending as little money as possible doing that – then your supply chain isn’t winning.

  But guess what?  Supply chain’s reward isn’t a trophy.  Supply chain’s reward is “getting its customer what it wants when it wants it and spending less money doing that.”  That’s right.  The results are the trophy.  Those who argue that participation trophies detract from the value of accomplishment trophies, I think, are missing the fact that the real trophy ought to be the accomplishment.  Not the shiny bauble that says you accomplished it. 

Secondly, many of the participation naysayers tend to celebrate birthdays.  What is a birthday celebration except the textbook manifestation of a participation trophy?  The concept of the birthday party has bugged me since I was a kid.  The last time I let my parents throw a birthday party for me was when I was 10.  And, I swear, that has nothing to do with my lack of friends. 

I have a hard time celebrating something that everyone who is alive gets to celebrate.  How can you have a problem that few hundred kids all get a trophy for finishing a soccer season when seven billion people can all celebrate the fact that they made it another 365 days since the last time they celebrated?  The supply chain equivalent would be handing out trophies for the entire purchasing, shipping and customer service department – regardless of whether the order they just shipped was what the customer wanted or was shipped when the customer wanted it or cost ten times what the customer paid for it.

  Okay, instead of trophies – there would’ve been donuts in the supply chain version. 

But still – in both that supply chain and the birthday example, you got acknowledgement for just showing up.  Birthdays aren’t really a reason to start high-fiving until you get to 75, by the standards of modern medicine.  So that it’s.  No more participation trophies, which means no more birthdays until you’ve been around almost 8 decades. Which means if you do really, really well at something, that’s your trophy – the fact that you did really, really well at it. 

Trophies collect dust.  Getting your customers what they want, when they want it – now that lasts forever.