Snarling Shipments, Cooler Heads

With holiday volume way up this year, the key is better supply-chain leaders, not just more workers.

With only days to go, retailers appear headed to one of the stronger holiday seasons in a recent years. But the trick to making sure those last-minute gifts arrive on time may have less to do with piling on more people—but having the right ones—in the global supply chain. 

The holiday shopping surge is certainly not new. But this year’s wrinkle is coming from, of all places, the calendar: Christmas falls on a Monday, and some shippers don’t deliver on Sunday. So that means one less day to get everything done—on top of having big bursts in volume, which are the hardest to manage. "It’s ramp-up time,” says Mehrab Deboo, senior client partner in Korn Ferry’s Global Supply Chain Center of Expertise. 

In such an environment, hiring more delivery drivers or making routes more efficient certainly helps. But experts say more than anything else, firms need supply chain leaders at the helm who understand the nuances across four areas of the supply chain: plan, source, make, and deliver.

That creates a leadership challenge of sorts, since most supply chain executives tend to have one deep area of expertise—distribution, logistics, transportation, or procurement—and are less versed in the other areas. “It’s easy to find the typical 90 percent of supply chain executives who have that one bucket [of expertise],” Deboo says.

The “other 10 percent” of chief supply chain officers rise to the top because they have not spent their careers mostly in one silo, but have broader functional expertise across the supply chain. 

With their breadth of experience, they are “better at understanding which levers to pull,” Deboo says—and that, increasingly, is all about accuracy in forecasting. Sales and operations planning (S&OP) is where the rubber hits the road to ensure timely and accurate delivery of everything from raw materials to final products. 

The best chief supply chain officers must be well versed in operations excellence and quality, as well as all aspects of distribution. Plus, they can take on the technology challenge of supply chains that are increasingly digitized. The “internet of things” and big data allow for greater accuracy and precision in supply chain management—but only if executives are well versed in the technology.

During the holidays, faulty forecasts and snarled supply chains spell disaster—especially when consumers can’t get the products they want and when they want them. For supply chain leaders who understand the full scope of the business and every moving part (literally) that makes it happen, it will be a happy holiday, indeed.