The Big ‘What If?’… Does it Strike Fear?

The big What if

By Matthew Hughes, UK Sales Manager

At the tail end of 2013, along with many other supply chain professionals, I had the pleasure of being in the company of an executive board member from one of the largest retailers in the world, listening to tales from the past and insights into the future of supply chain, with some good humor thrown in for good measure.

Since that evening, there has been one statement that has stayed with me and provoked much thought – “if there is anything I want to know about our overall business, the first place I go to is the Supply Chain Department – not finance, nor sales or any other department.  Why? Because they are the ones who can tell me exactly what’s happening in the business now, and more importantly, the future.”

At the time, hearing this, I thought ‘Yes, that makes sense’, these guys have full visibility of current and projected sales, trends, promotions, new listings, de-listings,warehouse capacities etc, of course they know what’s going on.  They can even answer the dreaded ‘What if?’ question with confidence in a relatively short space of time due to the tools and data at their disposal.  And that, as you say, was that. I enjoyed my evening with a few beers and speaking to a host of supply chain professionals.

Fast forward a few weeks and I am making my journey home down the motorway back from seeing a potential customer… my mind wanders and the same topic comes to the front.  All the while keeping pace with the mundane flow of motorway traffic, it occurred to me that the speaker was working for a multi-billion pound organisation.  This organisation would have many tools and resources available to them far beyond the reach of many of his audience that evening.  Indeed, when he spoke of the supply chain department, it would have likely have been a department, within a department, with multiple supply chain analysts, demand and supply planners who could quickly and easily manipulate the data to produce the answer to the “What if?” question.  He could easily leave the room more than satisfied with the information provided, knowing the board could make informed business decisions (and the guys in the department(s) would receive a well deserved pat on the back for providing said information).

It’s then I start to think about his audience and wondering how many of them can ask the “What if?” question and get the same response.  It would be fair to assume that a fair share of the audience do not have the same IS resources available to them.  Also, they would not likely have the same departments within a department within a department!  Theirs may only consist of a few people managing their demand and supply processes.

Now let’s imagine that one of the company’s directors tried the same tack of interrogating the supply chain department/ person to get information on the business.  The likelihood is they will get some accurate answers on the here and now, but what about the “What if” question? The all important question which will enable them to make those business critical decisions?  I thought about this for a while (traffic now backed up, red lights dazzling) and I could imagine that in most cases the answer would be, ‘I need to look into this, can I get back to you next week?’ Not exactly filling Mr or Ms Director with confidence.  The supply chain department are now in panic, hoping to dissect the multitude of data in front of them to give as accurate answer as possible, knowing that the information provided will be used for that all important business critical decision.  Are they confident?  Did the response take so long that the Director did not trust the information provided?  Did operational performance suffer because they were trying to answer the dreaded “What if?”

What can you do to answer that dreaded “What if” question and make decisions like a mutli-billion pound organisation?

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