Supply Chain Antipatterns

By Joannes Vermorel, June 2015

The term antipattern was coined in the field of software engineering in the 1990s to refer to common responses to a recurring problem that are usually ineffective, counter-productive and otherwise damaging for a company. The concept grew in popularity during the decade that followed, and remains widely appreciated as an excellent concept in the software industry to the present day. However, much like software engineering, supply chain management has more than its fair share of recurrent misguided responses to problems. Therefore, the concept of antipattern applies to supply chain management as well.

Antipatterns as misguided SCM solutions

A squirrel with explosives as a metaphor for supply chain antipatterns Antipatterns aren’t just bad practices. Antipatterns are common responses regarded as good practices, which unfortunately yield serious unintended consequences and defeat the expected benefits. While bad practices are typically identified as being bad, antipatterns aren’t. As a result, it’s not unusual to observe companies failing multiple times while trying to address their supply chain challenges because they fall short in pinpointing their “solution” as the root cause of their non-performance.

The intent behind antipatterns is to offer an approach to supply chain practitioners to avoid many of the mistakes that could have been avoided in the first place. Instead of merely enumerating an endless list of initiatives that went poorly, antipatterns try to capture the essence of the faulty solutions. In order to qualify a response as an antipattern, the response and its consequences should have been observed multiple times across multiple companies.

Supply chain antipatterns typically fall into one of the following types:

  • Organization
  • Management
  • Software

The fundamental insight behind antipatterns is that, in business, negative results tend to be more reliable than positive results. Many supply chain challenges fall into the category of the wicked problems where “proved” solutions are outdated by the time a relevant study on a specific issue is published. Yet, negative results are surprisingly resilient to changes. There are very few evolutions, technological or otherwise, that indicate that supply chain failures that occurred decades ago would not re-occur nowadays if the initiative was to be repeated in the same way. In fact, most supply chain successes achieved decades ago would not be repeatable nowadays.

The supply chain antipattern template

Antipatterns represent a structured classification of misguided responses to supply chain problems. Indeed, the goal is not to merely survey the responses, but to categorize them so that it becomes easier for supply chain specialists to research and consult a library of antipatterns. Antipatterns are described using a template detailed below.

  • Name: the name of the antipattern should be expressive and memorable
  • Problem: the supply chain challenge to be addressed
  • Anecdotal evidence: a memorable short situation that describes the actual antipattern
  • Context: elements about the company, its constraints and its ambitions
  • Forces: typically, the incentives of the various shareholders engaged in the initiative
  • Supposed solution: describes the bad response
    • the rationale behind the response
  • Resulting Context: what happens when the response is applied, both good and bad.
    • The seductive forces, why the response is so popular.
    • Why it actually leads to failure.
    • Potential positive patterns that may be used to address the problem instead.
  • Example: a narrative that summarizes how the antipattern is rolled out and its consequences

List of supply chain antipatterns