What Is a Supply Chain?

As the story goes, a consultant coined the term supply chain. Whether you believe that story is unimportant. However the term was coined, supply chain has grown into what some call an industry, some call a profession, and a few think is an unnecessary phrase.

Before supply chain, there was logistics. Logistics as a word and an industry goes back centuries. The term is derived from the ancient Greek word logis, the logical movement of men and materials, and similar words can be found in other languages. Sun Tzu talked about logistics in his teachings about war, though most translations do not use the word. Every general, from the ancient to the modern, knows that without logistics supporting the effort, the war is lost.

If the term logistics has been with us for so long, why did somebody decide that we needed a new term to define something already defined? If you believe the story about the origin of the term supply chain, you might imagine that it was just a way for consultants to attract attention to themselves. However, various organizations that once firmly believed they were in the logistics game have felt the need to change their names and their identities — the erstwhile Council of Logistics Management, for example, is now the Council of Supply Chain Management Professionals.

Logistician v. Supply Chain Professional

Way back in the Dark Ages — the 1980s — the new Distribution Vice President of the company where I worked interviewed the staff he'd inherited. One by one, we each spent 30 minutes with John, learning a little about him as he learned a little about us. At the time, I had the title, Project Control Administrator; I was more of a project manager, but I was not called a manager because I managed processes and not people. (Make no mistake, I did also manage people, but HR in its not-so-infinite wisdom saw things differently.) In the interview, John asked me what I did, and I told him my title. Cocking his head to the side, he asked me to describe my work — what I did, not the title. At the time, I managed logistics projects, transportation analysis, distribution center improvements, material handling projects, and systems integration. As I explained to John the breadth of my work, he broke into a wide grin. “David,” he said, “you are a logistician. That is your vocation; it is what you do, and I suspect you do it very well.” Then he added, “Be proud of this vocation, because not many can do it well.”

a to b.jpgI knew what logistics meant, having used the word properly since my teens, but I had never before heard the term logistician. After the meeting, I pulled my dictionary off the shelf and looked it up. Sure enough, that was what I did, what I was, and to this day what I am.

When people ask me what I do, I tell them I am a logistician. Most will cock their heads to the side, like a dog hearing an unfamiliar noise and ask me, “What is that?” My typical answer is, “Somebody who knows the finer points of getting things from Point A to Point B.” To which they will then nod and say that I must be in trucking or warehousing. I will correct them, gently, by saying that sometimes planes, ships, barges, wagons, and other forms of transport are also involved, and much more.

By that point, they typically don’t want to hear much more. We all like to think of things in the simplest terms, and thinking of logistics as transportation is just one of those simplifications. That's a pity.

When did supply chain management become a profession? When I think of a profession, I think of something that takes years of special education, followed by rigorous testing, examination, and licensing. The traditional professions include medicine, law, and dentistry. If you want to be a doctor, a lawyer, or a dentist, you have to go through special school after you go to college. You have to pass tests, be judged by established members of the profession, and then become licensed in the state where you want to practice.

The occupations recognized as professions now include accounting and engineering. These professions maintain organizations in every state that test the knowledge of applicants. Only after an applicant passes his exams can he apply for a license to practice his profession. If a lawyer who has earned a license to practice in New York wants to practice in New Jersey, he still has to pass the bar exam in New Jersey. Doctors, dentists, and accountants all have to apply for licenses.

Is supply chain a profession? I don’t think so. In fact, I think it is a conceit to think that supply chain management is a profession. I know I am not alone in holding this opinion; other logisticians tell me they have asked the same questions and come to the same conclusions. I also know that many people will object to my opinion. That is fine, but their argument is born of the human need for significance. I stand by my opinion:  the notion that supply chain management is a profession arises from an excessively favorable opinion of our own abilities.

A Conceit

A conceit is an excessively favorable opinion of one's own abilities. Conceit is the root of the word conceited, and I think we all know the meaning of that word. I realize that my dismissal of supply chain management as a profession is a bold statement. I know some that will take offense, particularly those who have invested time and money in attempts to create certification programs like SCORE and the CSCMP programs, and those who have invested time and money to obtain those certifications. If I had invested time and money into learning how to take a test, and then invested more time and money in taking that test, perhaps I would be upset too. But I have not invested the time or the money because in the end, these certifications hold no real value.

alphabet soup.jpgPerhaps some will think that I am conceited for holding this opinion, but I know that I am not alone. A few years ago, I witnessed a scene that occurred when a consultant presented his business card to a prominent corporate officer. There was a long stream of initials and acronyms after the consultant's name on the card. After reading the card, this VP of Distribution made a rather politically incorrect statement, referring to the alphabet soup following the consultant’s name as “certification bullshit.” The consultant quickly took offense, asking why this executive did not respect his “professional certifications.”

Just as quickly the officer replied, “That long list of letters just means that you are good at taking a test dreamed up by a wanna-be professional organization. The only letters that earn my respect on a business card are MD, PhD, DDS, CPA, and Esq. And I only include the last one because they are smarter than I am.” While you could label this executive as conceited, he was one of the better-known masters of distribution at the time, somebody who could have put PhD after his name, but chose not to. Those certifications only lowered his opinion of the consultant.

So, let’s agree that supply chain management is not a profession. But if it's not a profession, what is it?

Let’s go to a more fundamental question. Is supply chain management a noun, or a verb?

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