S&DCE: A follow-up question: In your book, No Boundaries: Moving Beyond Supply Chain Management, you talked about how your conception of supply chain had evolved over time. Has your conception of best practices evolved in the same way?
Tompkins: My thinking on best practices has very clearly evolved. Five or six years ago, best practices most often had to do with metrics. Now we've progressed to where best practices are truly approaches, processes or thought processes as opposed to metrics.
Another interesting thing about best practice is that, by definition, when you define a best practice, you also define a worst practice. By pursuing best practices you're able to see how an organization functions and where the worst practices are, and that's typically where the greatest opportunities are for improvement.
Then the last thought on this is that — consistent with my concept that one of the best practices is continuous improvement — best practices too must continuously improve. They will evolve as we learn how to do things. The best practice a couple of years ago for a supply chain would have been that you need to have a warehouse management system, a transportation management system, automatic identification and visibility into the consumption of the product at the ultimate consumer, as well as the visibility into supply with respect to when products are going to arrive and so forth. Today, that best practice is still important, but we're already there — most folks who are even beginning the discussion of best practices have achieved that. So it no longer becomes the best practice, it now becomes one of the things you must do to even get in the game. The types of practices that I'm talking about now are much more process-orientated as opposed to technique- or technology- or metric-orientated, and I imagine that will evolve into something different as we go forward, but I don't know what it'll be.
S&DCE: One final question: do you find on the technology side that companies tend to see technology as the answer to how they can implement these processes that you've talked about, as opposed to being an enabler of these processes or one component of how they can enable those processes.
Tompkins: It depends. Some people get wrapped up in technology and forget that technology is the servant of the process. They say, "We've installed the transportation management system." Well, yes, the computer code does work, but the people don't know how to use it and don't have the right data in it and therefore it's not giving me the right answers. There is very clearly a problem where technology is "installed but not truly implemented." We need to go beyond the bits and the bytes to deal with the processes and the people and make sure that we first design the right process, and then that we use the systems to facilitate the people implementing the correct processes. I'm all for technology, and I spend an awful lot of my time selecting and implementing technology in the supply chain space for my clients. But the reality is, to make it really work, we need to make sure that it conforms to the requirements and that we have the people that can make these tools really hum for us. So yes, absolutely, technology is an enabler and not an end unto itself.
Sidebar: Six Levels of Supply Chain Excellence
Level I, Business as Usual — working hard to instill best practices in individual departments within your link.
Level II, Link Excellence — looking within your link for opportunities to remove boundaries between departments and pursue continuous improvements.
Level III, Visibility — turning the lights on outside your organization to see the information that needs to be shared with other members of your supply chain, revealing what is and isn't working.
Level IV, Collaboration — working with other suppliers, vendors and customers to maximize customer satisfaction and drive out costs throughout the chain.
Level V, Synthesis — synchronizing new ways of thinking and strategies to provide even greater cost reduction and enhanced customer satisfaction.
Level VI, Velocity — Reducing the lead-time to incorporate continuous improvements throughout the supply chain. Source: Tompkins Associates Inc.