Executive Memo: Stepping into the Deep Water

How do you avoid losing a limb as you're working with new technologies? A supply chain icon offers his take on this conundrum

With this issue of Supply & Demand Chain Executive, the magazine again turns the spotlight on leading supply chain executives with our Pros to Know feature. Our Pros article this year cites more than two dozen top practitioners who are transforming their companies' supply networks for competitive advantage, making their own operations — and the economy as a whole — more efficient and cost-effective. These "Pros" also are raising Supply Chain's profile in the enterprise, and our feature pays tribute these individuals' efforts to lead the field into the future.

It is fitting, therefore, that we take a moment to honor one of our industry's best and brightest who recently elected to retire after long, distinguished service.

Tier-one automotive supplier Delphi announced on February 17 that R. David Nelson was stepping down as vice president for global supply management after a 48-year career in supply chain. Nelson, 68, began working for TRW in 1957, joined Honda of America in 1987 (and was named to the company's board of directors in 1997), and rounded out his career with stints at Deere & Company (1997-2002) and Delphi (2002-present). Along the way, he helped advance the supply management profession through his involvement with the Institute for Supply Management, where he serves as chair emeritus, and with CAPS Research, where he is a member of the board of trustees. (He also is a long-serving member of this magazine's editorial advisory board.)

News of Dave Nelson's retirement sent me scurrying to the archives to dig out the first interview that I did with him, almost six years ago. In that interview, he offered several nuggets of supply chain wisdom that are as relevant today as they were then, including this warning about the potential dangers of using enabling technologies in the supply chain: "These are tools," Nelson said of the technologies. "I have at home a wonderful shop, and it's got a three-horsepower table saw. A big, mammoth thing that's hooked up to 220. It saws through boards like you wouldn't believe. It'll also saw your thumb off. The point is, these tools typically help you tremendously with efficiency, just like that table saw, but if you misuse them, you're going to saw your hand off."

How do you avoid losing a limb as you're working with new technologies? First, don't let the technology determine your business strategy, Nelson said. Instead, start with the overarching philosophy for how you're going to conduct your business and what you're going to achieve. From that, the philosophy breeds the strategy, and the strategy determines the goals or objectives, which determine the tasks — and the tools — to make it all happen. Nelson urged executives to constantly educate themselves about the new technologies but also to remember that business isn't about nifty tools; it's about experience, sound judgment and risk-taking. "You can't be afraid to make a mistake," Nelson said at the end of our conversation. "You've got to step out into the deep water, or companies will find [other] people who will."

Best wishes on your retirement, Dave Nelson, and thanks for all the advice.

Have a supply chain hero that you'd like to single out for recognition? Feel free to send your nominations to me at [email protected]. I'll look forward to hearing from you.