HSToday’s National Supply Chain Integrity Month chair Bob Kolasky, former director of the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency’s National Risk Management Center, asked industry readers for our thoughts on how best to strengthen the nation’s critical supply chains.
I would like to speak to this topic in two parts: the crucial role of quality in thinking about supply chains, and then some factors that tie back to difficult judgments on where our supply chains quality stands.
For much of my professional life, I’ve noticed frequent challenges around the “quality” of programs and organizations, throughout the nation’s military, government and commercial organizations. A program that ends up impacting well far less of its focus than desired; a commercial product or service that leaves many users underwhelmed or even angry at various shortfalls; a military organization/mission area that is clearly floundering.
Part of my thinking about this comes from a strong belief in the key messages of “The Machine that Changed the World” (1990) that concluded the Japanese automotive industry tore up the American automotive industry by strongly implementing a combination of lean manufacturing plus quality measures. I also noticed that this book’s description of American automotive quality weaknesses also very much describes the inconsistent quality character of so much of our Information Technology and Software worlds, quality to this day we often struggle to raise.
So rather than “strengthen,” I find myself asking, “How best to continuously raise the quality of the nation’s critical supply chains?” In this case I think quality must effectively blend elements of efficiency, speed, and innovation with elements of flexibility, deliberation and patience. It also brings to mind a lesson taught to me in my early professional years by MG Pete McVey: “Make Haste, Slowly.”
The idea of quality in business is not new, going back to our earliest national industrial days and practitioners like Frederick Winslow Taylor and Henry Ford. Various aspects of quality strike me as important to thinking about supply chains quality:
- Quality Planning, Assurance, Control and Improvement (with Improvement increasingly important)
- Suitable for intended purpose while satisfying customer expectations – where expectations can and will rapidly change, for many different reasons
- A good or service that conforms the first time, in the right quantity, and at the right time – where timing itself is unpredictable
- The loss a product (service) imposes on society after it is shipped (provided) – supply chains that often come with real and large technical debt
- A product or service free of deficiencies – with respect to which unpredictable outcomes?
- Quality combines process and people power both – and how do your people know to exercise judgment, overseeing process?
And a final note: Especially throughout the 21st Century, the “quality gap” is decreasing between competitive products and services. This is partly due to the outsourcing of manufacturing to countries like China and India, as well internationalization of trade and competition. These real business drivers will always press leaders to pull back at least some from stronger and more resilient local supply chains.
Having brought up the question of quality and supply chains, I want to finish by raising some factors that tie back to difficult judgments on where our supply chains quality stands.
For any organization or business, understanding supply chains is a complex task, with a lot of needed analysis, depth and understanding. Threats to an organization or business are substantial, because threats are substantial and will conduct reconnaissance, plan, and have the initiative of when, where and purpose. There will always be an inherent bias to lean supply chains toward predictable efficiencies and away from more expensive alternatives. Supply chains understanding is getting more difficult as the competitive landscape involves data and information as a growing part of all supply chains questions. No matter how good the systems and financial modeling, there will always be gaps between risks and efficiencies and uncertainties. It can end up very easy to over-structure or expect too much confidence from our analysis work.
This final point reminds me of a lesson I learned from a colleague two decades ago – “Fred” ran a series of scenario development efforts following September 11, using teams of individuals who were all young professionals and not part of the usual analyst groups. This experiential diversity generated very substantial insights. And hence my overall recommendation for “how best to strengthen the nation’s critical supply chains”: Develop and operate a combination of objective/defined and subjective/adaptive supply chain analysis strategies. A combination of strategies that can yield the best quality outcomes in our supply chains thinking and planning and operations. Perhaps a bit like the scene from the movie “Moneyball,” where the perspectives of the data expert and the experienced scouts needed to be blended together into a greater whole, to help make the organization the best possible.
The views expressed here are the writer’s and are not necessarily endorsed by Homeland Security Today, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints in support of securing our homeland. To submit a piece for consideration, email [email protected].