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Bayer, Deere, and ARC Provide Feedback on Student Capabilities that Drive Innovation

On April 19th and 20th the Supply Chain Resource Cooperative held its bi-annual Board Advisory meeting and Partner Meeting in the Talley Student Center at North Carolina State University.  The program was really exceptional this year, and the riveting discussions left everyone with a lot of nuggets and insights to take with them to work next week.  That, coupled with the Innovation Showcase in Nelson Hall,, featuring two winning teams in the undergraduate and graduate divisions, made me proud to be a faculty member working with the great students and industry partners that are part of this collaborative partnership.

The meeting kicked off with our Board Advisory meeting.  This was an opportunity to hear directly from our supporting partners, and get their feedback.  This meeting led off with a presentation from Bayer Crop Science, who had the bragging rights around winning Supply Chain World’s 2017 “Supply Chain Breakthrough of the Year”.   This is the equivalent of winning the Supply Chain “Oscars”, and we had the privilege of hearing Mike Cockrill share these insights.  Bayer won this award for its work in helping to bring agricultural supply chain into the 21st century. In the face of the depressed agricultural economy of the past three years and the substantial revenue loss throughout the channel, Bayer Crop Science developed a new collaborative, integrated and comprehensive approach to supply chain management. Named Supply Chain Integrated Planning (SCIP), Bayer’s program has greatly reduced the unnecessary storage of high quantities of pesticides throughout the year, in an effort to be more environmentally responsible.  Mike shared how this has helped Bayer with the challenges around forecasting in light of the different temperature cycles across North America.  He emphasized that the need to “think differently”, take a big risk on an idea that had no precedent, and running a small pilot to learn from was key for success.

Next, Mike Schobert from John Deere and Tom Nash from the American Red Cross presented their work on identifying what are the key business issues or talent needs are for supply chain students. These gentlemen spent a lot of time thinking about the skills and capabilities they need their newly hired students to EXCEL at.

They came to the conclusion that no single supply chain class can solve this – but there were some common skill sets that came out. They identified first the key issue they needed to focus on,  the definition, and examples of the skills needed.  Along the way they also referenced the books “How Google Works” and “Team of Teams”.

Innovation. Firms need to innovate constantly or fall behind. Customers are looking for multiple solutions – mobile apps, with phones, cameras, banking, etc. The customer is looking for a higher value, but a lower cost. As an example, Deere’s farming customers often drive in a pickup truck, but then they want to go from their truck into a tractor cab with the same comfort, the heat, the AC, that is cost effective with the same comfort. And the ARC want services that are also ahead of the curve.

What is Innovation? These definitions come from “How Google Works”:

  • Something that addresses a big challenge of opportunity
  • Something that is radically different from the existing
  • Something that is feasible and achievable in the near future.

What are the capabilities needed in students to drive innovation?  Mike and Tom believe it is important to have strong analytical skills, and to be able translate raw market data into usable information. You need to be able to pull information form the marketplace, but complement this with strong interpersonal skills that allow you to interact with a broad spectrum of individuals. There is a real shift with some of the millenials that these gentlemen have worked with – a reluctance to get into the details.  Many young students coming out of school are happy to make decisions, without knowing the details behind them, as well as the ability to communicate information upstream and downstream.

Customer-end user focus. This capability is about having an independent non-partisan view and truly taking a customer perspective to look beyond the organization and its biases .   Deere once had a lawnmower product that had exceptional turn radius capabilities, and it could cut grass in a straight line.  But when it was put on hills – the technology failed and all the lines were crooked – making it look like the driver was drunk!  Understanding how products and services are experienced by the customer is critical to success.

Capabilities required here include strong interpersonal skills, and strong toolmaking/process capabilities. We have to be able to design, develop, and implement tools for collecting, documenting, publishing and analyzing marketplace information. We have to be able to get optimal value to the customer. And once again – strong analytical skills require new hires to take market data and put it into usable information.  Bayer echoed this sentiment in discussing their innovation, and Mike noted that he had to spend two months on the road traveling to speak to customers, to truly understand what makes them tick, as their world is very different and they have very different parameters that define what success looks like.

Speed to Market – the market changes so quickly – and firms need to develop and implement products and services in an expeditious manner. Apple is really good at this because as soon as they get their new product out, they are on their next iteration. This requires visibility to marketplace configuration. Also, companies need to recognize that  “I don’t need a perfect mousetrap – I need to catch the mouse!”  Having a product that meets the end customer goal is key.  This is about establishing visibility to marketplace configuration, continuous improvement, organizational integration and urgency, and risk/benefit decision-making.  Capabilities required?  You guessed it:  strong interpersonal skills, strong analytical skills, and strong leadership skills to make quick data driven decisions, and to motivate cross-functional teams to transform decisions into tangible products and services.

Value-Chain Integration Dealerships, stores, end user, customer, all have to be integrated. Firms need to manage resources efficiently.  It is about information, materials, labor, facilities, logistics, all vertically aligned and integrated through multiple tiers.  To be successful, companies need a strong ethics and value system – to understand and demonstrate ethical behavior, fairness, and win-win.  (This is something that I also emphasize in my upcoming book, the LIVING Supply Chain – a property that we call “federation” in the supply chain.) . VCI also requires strong interpersonal skills, and an ability to interact with a broad spectrum of individuals, and communicate upstream and downstream, plus strong leadership skills.

Mike and Tom noted that it is hard to teach students how to be a good communicator. Students need to be able to learn communication skills that focus on the ability to work across different cultures, and how to communicate with individuals, and our clients and sponsors on our projects can help with this. From an analytical standpoint, the difference between academia and industry is if a project is a failure or success is different. Walt DeGrange, one of our faculty mentors, noted that

“I’ve had projects that produce a negative result. If the data isn’t there to support a technique or model,  that is still a successful project. Why?  Because you’ve written off that approach and it may be a failure, but you’ve learned something.   For one of our student teams this semester,  we did an analytics project working with a large dataset and tried to look at it and get some predictability, and could not get one.   But it isn’t a failed project, it is a negative result! This could point them in different directions – and nothing is a slam dunk – to be on the cutting edge requires some risk tolerance and negative results. You can see what the data can give you.

As Thomas Edison once said, “I know a thousand ways NOT to make a lightbulb.” Even as companies in the financial world live and die in a quarter, they must learn to also celebrate failures, learn from them, and continue to innovate.