The Adventures of Captain Obvious in Supply Chain
Captain Obvious has been working overtime in supply chain. His natural leadership has inspired many who are now following the same path. Let’s call them the obvious legions1. Unfortunately, the legions are not making the field a better place. Also, they don’t acknowledge their affiliation either. Nevertheless, by pulling rank, they project some powerful authority. Yet, underneath the uniform, there is little to be found but a great deal of confusion diluted in a large amount of trivialities.
Oversimplifying, Captain Obvious’s supply chain army has two main branches: cavalry and artillery. These two branches happen to reflect the two types of contributions that dominate supply chain as a field of study: qualitative and quantitative. Cavalry concerns itself with qualitative battlefields involving perspectives (views, paradigms, concepts, etc.) to understand and improve supply chains. On the other hand, artillery focuses on quantitative battlefields involving models (algorithms, numerical recipes, simulations, etc.), to forecast and/or optimize supply chains.
There would be much to be said about all the precepts, insights and methods that Captain Obvious inspired in the world of the supply chain. However, today, our goals are far more modest, and we will only review a few of the founding principles of the Obvious Calvary who is dealing with qualitative matters. In particular, we will review a short list of methods that can be put to great use to produce materials that have the veneer of science while being almost entirely devoid of any actual knowledge.
Tautologies in disguise
Upon arriving at the battlefield, Captain Obvious immediately realized that supply chains are a complex and haphazard collection of people, processes, machines, software, etc. Thanks to this realization, just like a Judo grandmaster who can leverage the strength of his opponent, Captain Obvious realized that he could put this complexity to his own advantage to obfuscate his own ignorance.
Thus, Captain Obvious came up with a simple technique to produce materials that look profound without resorting to any actual substance: the tautology in disguise. The first illustration that emerges from a record we have of Captain Obvious’ journey in supply chain relates to supply planning. Captain Obvious went into great detail to distinguish multiple planning horizons:
- Operational (1 to 10 weeks)
- Tactical (1 to 10 months)
- Strategic (1 to 10 years)
What Captain Obvious did here is merely a minor refinement of the generic meaning of these words from an almost imperceptible supply chain perspective. It’s not because we have a word and its definition that there is anything fundamentally “true” or “valid” or “profound” about it. On the contrary, until proven otherwise, we should be skeptical about any “special” term or concept.
In addition, from a statistical forecasting perspective, there is next to little to support the claim that the most accurate forecasting method will vary from one of those horizons to the next. On the contrary, there is a great deal of results that tend to support the opposite: superior methods (accuracy-wise) tend to be superior irrespective of the horizon. Thus, this undermines the validity of those supposedly “distinct” horizons. Nevertheless, this did not prevent Captain Obvious from suggesting that the forecasting battalions should be organized according to their respective horizons.
From a business perspective, there is also little reason to believe that, in the general case, this approach of dividing-up the timeline is correct, or even remotely satisfying. Any business needs to consider what will happen tomorrow, next week, next month, next year and a decade from now. Fashion brands are usually driven both by their next collection and their long-term brand value. This perspective does not match the horizons as introduced above. Fortunately, Captain Obvious had all the fortitude it takes to face the facts and prove them wrong.
On the surface, the introduction of words and concepts is reminiscent of what is being done in well-established sciences like, say, physics. Yet, when the physicist indicates that the four common states of matter are solid, liquid, gas and plasma, there is nothing arbitrary or loose about those terms. Far from being tautologies, those four states teach us a great deal about matter itself and they challenge many “intuitive” - but incorrect - notions that one can have about matter.
Through his journey, Captain Obvious gave us several great tautologies that remain frequently considered as “foundational” in the field of supply chain studies:
- maturity models: ad hoc, defined, linked, integrated, extended
- ABC analysis: top sellers, average sellers, slow movers
- leadership styles: command, consensus, collaborative
- continuous improvement: explore, assess, test, benchmark, deploy
- values: agility, integrity, discipline, imagination, effort
These enumerations succeed at giving the illusion of an elaborate thinking process while it basically boils down to a juxtaposition of the concepts, plus minor tweaks to the dictionary definition of the words involved. Interestingly, it can be argued that the modern scientific revolution started during the Renaissance period, with a profound rejection of the scholasticism and its abusive use of ad hoc concepts that sounded savant but invariably turned out sterile.
While word lists go a long way as far as the pretense of knowledge is concerned, Captain Obvious realized early on that those would not be sufficient to fool a large audience, nor to fool the legions themselves. Thus, Captain Obvious upped his game and started resorting to taxonomies.
Historically, there has been a deal of controversy among experts to identify the first taxonomy ever used in battle by Captain Obvious. However, the methods offered by modern science has made undisputable the claim that his first battle-tested taxonomy was the Value/Profit categorization of companies, which we have reproduced below. This taxonomy classifies companies into four categories according to two dimensions: pursuit of values (ex: produce the best electric cars) and pursuit of profit (ex: make the biggest profits while selling cars).
This taxonomy proved to be a prime example of lean thinking, which offers the possibility to produce vast amounts of discourses with zero emissions of knowledge. Captain Obvious managed to produce not one but several book chapters based on this taxonomy. The cherry on the cake, he managed to make his taxonomies appear as fully established (if not downright scientifically proven) by cherry-picking a few dozen companies and sorting them against this taxonomy based on some equally made-up methodology.
Captain Obvious quickly realized that supply chains were particularly fertile grounds as far as made-up taxonomies were concerned. Indeed, “dimensions” abound (ex: employee count, location count, turnover, verticals, culture, processes, geography, profitability, etc.) and every pair of dimensions provided him the opportunity to introduce further made-up taxonomies.
Those taxonomies are copying the form of knowledge as it is found in well-established sciences while lacking the substance. Let’s consider the case of the periodic table as introduced in chemistry. This taxonomy, sorting out all the elements according to two dimensions (groups and periods), is rooted in the fabric of matter: it is irreducible (no element can be removed), it is complete (no element to be added), and it maximally characterizes the elements’ chemical properties while sticking to a 2D mapping. Unlike the Captain Obvious taxonomy, there is nothing accidental about the periodic table. However, battlefields are full of accidents, and Captain Obvious learned early on in life not to fear those.
Very recent developments may seem to suggest however that supply chains’ complexity shouldn’t be used as an excuse to support made-up taxonomies on the mere ground that one doesn’t know any better. Vague classifications (ex: clothing / fashion / luxury) that don’t pretend to be anything but the reflection of the general acceptance of the terms are more intellectually rigorous than made-up ones, precisely due to the lack of pretense of being some kind of “profound” knowledge. Knowledge starts by identifying ignorance for what it is. However, many concerns remain about these developments and the Obvious Legions remain profoundly skeptical.
Captain Obvious’ early victories in his supply chain campaign contributed to his rapid ascension, but his personal authority was growingly questioned by other captains who didn’t quite agree with his crude, albeit undeniably effective, methods. For Captain Obvious, it was time to consolidate his own personal authority over the legions. As numerous made-up taxonomies had been firmly established, it was time to put all those newfound insights to good use.
Initially, Captain Obvious simply urged his troops to “fight braver”, but as Captain Obvious quickly realized, the message wasn’t really getting across. Something more nuanced was needed. Captain Obvious had a fantastic insight: he would propose a system intended as a controlled process to deliver supply chain improvements. The system would be structured as a self-help recipe of some kind.
Historians are now quite confident that the first system ever invented by Captain Obvious was the Think/Execute/Communicate Venn diagram that we have reproduced below. The pivotal insight was that the system would emphasize the key qualities that the troops would have to improve upon in order to achieve superior supply chain performance.
Despite the incredible success that these systems still enjoy, a less-than-enlightened fraction of the supply chain community remains profoundly skeptical. Those rude contrarians argue that these systems are not worth the electrons it takes to put them on display. They point out two seemingly major problems: the lack of specificity and the not-so-subtle virtue signal. Most would agree that these opinions are unfounded, but for the sake of completeness we shall present them nonetheless.
First, contrarians indicate that the lack of specificity can be established with a Litmus test: can “supply chain” be replaced by any other corporate function such as “marketing”? If so, the system should be considered as invalid. For example, it’s obvious that writing skills are useful for supply chain purposes, if only because supply chains involve numerous written communications. However, this does not prove in any way that there are any writing skills that are actually specific to supply chains.
Also, to be valid as a “supply chain” system, the strict specificity - supply chain wise - of every part must be established. Indeed, without specificity, the parts are better left to alternative fields of studies. Writing skills are important, but unless proven otherwise (Occam’s razor), seeking advice from an English teacher is a more reasonable proposition to improve those skills, rather than seeking advice from a supply chain authority.
Second, contrarians point out that virtue signaling is an influence trick to show the author of the system in a positive light and thus reinforce the authoritative aspect of the system itself. Indeed, as the system exhibits multiple “virtues” to be acquired, it goes without saying that whoever is advocating the system has achieved a degree of mastery of those. This aspect becomes more evident when considering the contraposition: an author lacking a certain skill would not advocate a system prominently featuring this skill.
In turn, people who invested time in mastering the “system”, possibly acquiring a “certification” of some kind in the process, tend to become public advocates of the system if only because it puts them in a positive light. However, it’s not because an assembly of people collectively agree to congratulate each other for their (collectively acquired) virtues that the whole affair is virtuous in itself.
Yet, more leveled minds, like those to be found in the Obvious Legions, agree that such lines of thinking are preposterous.
Captain Obvious was going from victory to victory, but the campaign has been raging on for years. The old motivational speeches, a brilliant mix of tautologies, taxonomies and systems as detailed above, were gradually losing their effectiveness. The troops were tired. The troops were starting to demand novelty.
In the 8th day of the 8th month of the 8th year of his campaign, Captain Obvious had the epiphany that earned him his “Obvious” title (his birth name is unfortunately lost to us): where to find novelty if not in the news? This trivial yet effective insight would become the hallmark of the Captain Obvious legacy.
Indeed, newsworthy stories happen all the time on the supply chain battlefield: a country that disrupts its imports with a new tariff, toilet paper that temporarily becomes the most sought-after item from the hypermarket, a company that loses money on an epic scale with a failed ERP project, a company that makes money on an epic scale with faster deliveries, etc. Captain Obvious realized that those stories were as many opportunities to introduce novel ad hoc theories to Avoid the Bad Stuff™ and to Copy the Good Stuff™ (the trademarks are still in the possession of Captain Obvious’ descendants).
Prior to this epiphany, Captain Obvious had (briefly) considered the option of producing careful and thoughtful analysis of the events at large that were impacting supply chain. However, the approach proved impractical. Stories would have to be cross-verified. People may prove unwilling to publicly share details. Informants would have to be secured. The sheer volume of irrelevant facts would be ludicrous. The emerging story would always be overly confused. Motivations of key players would remain muddy forever. In a nutshell, there was no doubt the whole affair would turn out to be an exceedingly tedious job,
Thus, Captain Obvious envisioned a leaner alternative that consisted of transposing to supply chain all the ingredients that have made the success of armchair journalism (an emerging discipline at the time, pioneered by a distant relative of Captain Obvious). Armchair journalism had proved that any 5 line brief could easily be turned into a 5 page special edition. The same results could most likely be transposed to supply chain.
Captain Obvious quickly realized that the task was even easier than it seemed, as the lack of details actually facilitated the design of the ad hoc theories that conveniently fit with the recent events.
It is not possible here to do justice to the prolific production of Captain Obvious, however, historians generally agree that the following theories are among his most influential contributions to the study of supply chain :
- The pandemic-related policies that wreaked havoc within supply chains on a global scale during the 8th year of the campaign inspired Captain Obvious to conjure a theory about supply chain resilience.
- The fierce debates that occurred in the 9th year on the state and urgency of climate change proved to be the perfect opportunity to formulate a theory about supply chain sustainability.
- During the second decade of the campaign, the seemingly irresistible growth of a dominant ecommerce lead Captain Obvious to his theory about digital transformation of supply chain.
- In the 11th year, as the horrendous HR practices of his own army went viral over social media, Captain Obvious theoreticized the need for emotional intelligence in supply chain.
- During the 18th year, a large tech company achieved a series of stunning successes in areas unrelated to supply chain. While Captain Obvious never figured out how to transpose those to supply chain, he still managed to conjure a theory about artificial intelligence for supply chain.
Contrarians are still to be found who argue that those theories are invariably wrong, not because resilience, sustainability, digital, etc. are lacking relevance for supply chain purposes but because they have no predictive power whatsoever. In hindsight, previsions are always perfectly accurate, and useless too. Even more maddening, they argue that deep skepticism should be the default intellectual position when “discovering” theories that conveniently fit recent events. Needless to say, we shall rest assured that those opinions can be safely ignored.
-Listen dude, sarcasm will get you nowhere in life
-Well it got me to the Sarcasm World Championships in Peru back in 98
Captain Obvious’ supply chain campaign proved long and difficult. Captain Obvious battled numerous foes and yet emerged victorious every single time by standing true to one key principle: the lives and ammunition spent to defend a position on the battlefield should be inversely proportional to the amount of knowledge and substance to be found there. When facing assaults from all fronts, Captain Obvious not only resorted to every trick in the book (as written by Arthur Schopenhauer in 1831) but invented his own. His legacy remains undisputed in the world of supply chain.
Supply chain consultants, professors, experts, thinkers, leaders, evangelists, masters, innovators, authors, educators, speakers, coaches, strategists, lecturers … and the list goes on. ↩︎