Why Define Everything

One piece of feedback that I heard when starting this blog back in 2009 was that the articles in this site spend too much time defining concepts. At face value, it’s a fair critique and one I took seriously. In this post I look at why definitions in supply chain management are so often the focus of our energy, compared to other jobs which use our definitions. After all, we’re not heading towards a global pop-quiz or vocabulary test. But for some strategic questions, I believe, the act of defining a problem, is the problem.

Defining ourselves to death…

The reader who I mentioned in the introduction stated that supply chain managers have a tendency to “define ourselves to death”. This sounds similar to the phrase “analysis paralysis” where the analytical act of exploration and extracting intelligence is never curtailed in order to take definitive action. The “action” could be staffing changes, asset acquisitions or sales, business unit restructuring, reporting relationship restructuring, business partner selecting, product attribute changes, etc. I’ll paraphrase my reader’s critique and suggest what he meant to say is that supply chain leaders need to drop the intellectual games behind definitions, butch up, and make bold leadership decisions. In this view, a leader should act, rather than study.

This view has an appeal, of course. It chastises and clears the discussion of overly conceptual approaches. And, to some degree, that is a benefit because supply chain managers always have real problems and real human welfare as the outcome of their decisions. The action-orientated appeal also allows supply chain leaders to attribute their successes to their actions without having to do the difficult work of formulating and defending a theory of the action-reaction which came in between. For a high proportion of professionals, the results will define us to the organization so a successful supply chain manager’s mentality is usually results-orientated.

The case in favor of strategic definition…

There is, in all this, an assumption that the act of defining a problem or approach is not meaningfully affecting the problem or approach itself. By way of metaphor, let’s say that the “action-oriented” view of the world would be…

  1. See a cow…
  2. Define it as a “cow”….
  3. Do whatever you need to do with the cow to be productive…

The point here is that sometimes, the act of defining a problem doesn’t really impact the situation itself. But is that always the case? What about this sequence…

  1. See statistics on rates of minority unemployment
  2. Define it as inequality…
  3. Resolve inequality…

If people feel uncomfortable with that sequence, it’s with good reason. Look closer at the second step, where we move from concrete, mutually observable reality, into a diagnosis of the problem. A number of other, equally observant, definitions of this problem could have been proposed. Perhaps the statistics don’t account for regional concentrations of minority groups. Perhaps the discrepancy is about preferred employment type. The point is that in this situation, the act of defining the problem, is the problem.

Bob de Wit and Ron Meyer address this issue concisely in their book Strategic Synthesis. To paraphrase them, the tension behind multiple valid readings of a strategic definition or question can be simplified into four typologies.

Definitions as Strategic Problems

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Definition as a Puzzle:

In these problems, there is one optimum definition and the professional community promulgates definitions in an attempt to find the best solution.

Definition as a Dilemma:

The problem has multiple, competing definitions. But, the definitions excuse each other fundamentally and do not allow blending or middle ground.

Definition as a Trade-Off:

There is reasonable agreement on an optimal frontier, where important result attributes can be traded against each other. As a simple example, multiple definitions could be “right” if they follow the best frontier in the trade-off between cost and service.

Definition as a Paradox:

Multiple, innovative, reconciliations of the problem are possible. These definitions tend to act upon the problem in ways which illuminate certain qualities, while hiding others.

Back to supply chain visibility…

The discussion about how to define strategic problems comes back to this website and our articles. In most situations we discuss, the definition of the supply chain visibility problem or process is a major part of the strategy itself. Put another way, this website deals mostly with strategic paradoxes and puzzles, where there are great benefits to be made by finding a more complete definition of the problem being faced.

Supply chain visibility, as a subject, is likely to have many paradoxes and puzzles. It is multi-goal oriented which engenders it to being a puzzle. Visibility also involves non-linear changes in value, for example the difference between having 90% correct data and 100% results in a massively more valuable visibility solution. Non-linearity of results probably leads to paradoxical strategies. In either situation, paradox or puzzle, supply chain visibility will likely continue to demand space and time to explore competing definitions. Definitions, for such a field, are as beneficial as the actions they will structure.

More concretely, we all have noticed that supply chain visibility tends to invoke lots of definitions and debate… the professional level of those doing the discussion is a sign that supply chain visibility will benefit as much by strategic definition than by brute-force action.

Summary:

As in most my articles, I’ll wrap-up with some key points to be used immediately by supply chain leaders. From this example of visibility I’d suggest the following points:

  • It’s natural, and can be beneficial, to resist overly conceptual or intellectual pre-occupations with defining supply chain terms, processes, or strategies.
  • For some supply chain problems, the most impact comes from taking action to resolve or counter-act, as opposed to planning or exploring the root cause.
  • But in other situations, and in most strategic decisions, the act of defining the problem is a major portion of the problem itself.
  • Following academic literature, I’ve proposed four typologies of strategic situations where problem definition is the heart of the issue under review. A seasoned supply chain leader will recall decisions made under each of the four typologies.
  • Supply chain visibility is a field that benefits greatly by new, innovative strategic frameworks and definitions.

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