Why We Throw People at Supply Chain Problems

And why it’s a terrible idea.

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It’s 4am and your burnt 7-Eleven coffee has lost it’s charm. Yesterday has somehow turned into today, and you can’t for the life of you figure out how you’re here—again. You reluctantly look over to the whiteboard, dimly lit by the glowing pallor of your laptop (Which by the way, refuses to connect to the WiFi for more than six and a half minutes at a time. Thanks Comcast). Jibberish, numbers, and the occasional swearword make up most of the board.

“Gavin, I need a plan for how we’ll meet demand forecasts and adequately arm our supply chain for the next two product launches. 9am Friday. Come prepared.”

Prepared. Ha! How could you possibly prepare your company for guaranteed uncertainty? For volatile consumer preferences? For natural disasters, political upheaval, delayed shipments? Talk about complexity. You might as well have been asked to figure out how Apple managed to fit so many icons onto that tiny Apple Watch homescreen (Do you really need a photo album on your wrist?).

The solution...?

Finally, after two more hours of internal babbling, you finally have your answer: Add more people. And why not? History is filled with examples of circumstances requiring thousands of employees to be hired on short notice to help meet extraordinary demands—The Great Wall of China, the war effort during WWII, the Panama Canal. Why should your supply chain be any different? After all, the storied success of these human efforts have solidified the practice of throwing people at problems to accomplish a goal faster in the pantheon of project solutions.

But before you jump for joy and start handing out free high-fives to strangers, you may want to reconsider. See, while this practice has been proven to work when dealing with large scale manual efforts, the value of having multiple hands working on a project rapidly diminishes when it comes to more technical endeavors. Fred Brooks’ seminal text, The Mythical Man-Monthalso referred to as, “The Bible of Software Engineering” famously posits:

“Adding manpower to a late software project makes it later.”

In fact, the project becomes a micro-example of a diseconomy of scale, where increasing manpower correlates with increased cost.

Everyone’s doing it.

This brings us to a recent trend in the supply chain management and logistics communities.

Recent advancements in logistics technologies have universally increased the depth of supply chain visibility. As part of the resulting mass effort to capitalize on this transparency, companies have been focusing more on their supply chain security as a way to prevent losses and ensure the quality of products—especially in today's global market. A recent Council of Supply Chain Management Professionals survey revealed increasing employment opportunities in logistics, transportation, inventory management, cargo and freight, and demand planning.

Some companies that have placed the most job ads for supply chain specialists include Deloitte, McKesson, Pensky, IBM, the Army National Guard, Target, and Boeing. All of these companies have increased the volume of job ads over the past year. While Deloitte placed the most job ads for these skills, IBM saw the greatest year-over-year growth, increasing hiring over 500%.

A simple solution.

What if we take Brooks’ philosophy and apply it to supply chain? In this scenario, consider supply chain to be the late software project (the problem). According to the original theory, the result of adding more people to the problem increases the original problem (we’ll call it complexity). So we get the following:

 

“Adding manpower to supply chain increases complexity.”

 

You see, as much as we all love to think that putting more people on top of a problem makes that problem go away, the truth is that it makes things worse. The trick isn’t to add manpower, it’s to optimize it. 

 

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