Author: Michael Foxon
A few weeks ago, this facilitator – while conducting a class of NQF2 Production Technology learners – had a profound Ahaa! Moment. One of those moments when everything seems to come together, and a window opens to reveal the amazing inter-connectedness of our lives and the circularity of everyday events. (Well, this facilitator thought it was profound anyway!)
It all started with COVID. Or more accurately the relaxing of COVID regulations around the world as governments, including our own, started weaning their populations away from high level lockdowns to levels 1 and 2 or abandoning them altogether. The aim in most cases has been to stimulate economic recovery by enabling businesses and individuals to resume “business as usual”.
And it’s working.
A major side effect however has been a lockdown of a different kind – the locking up of supply chains.
The relaxing of COVID restrictions has led to the release of pent-up demand for a variety of consumer goods and industrial equipment. This in turn has resulted in worldwide shortages of many products and component parts as manufacturers struggle to meet the surging demand for their products. For example, major motor manufacturers have been hamstrung by shortages of the humble micro-chip (of which there are hundreds in the modern motor vehicle). Key container ports from Los Angeles to Singapore have become clogged by shipping vessels moored offshore for months on end waiting to be offloaded.
The space between the links
It is worth remembering however that the notion of a supply chain is only a metaphor. And like all metaphors it can be misleading if overused. (It’s not really a chain!).
Perhaps a more useful analogy is of a network. More like your social network on Facebook or WhatsApp than a stringing together of clunky metal links! Social networks, like supply chains, are characterised by a linking of relationships. And it is the element of relationships that seems to be missing from current discussions around the vulnerability of supply chains to disruption by major events such as pandemics, wars and floods.
Relationships are the spaces between the links; the social connections in the networks of people and events that bind them together. Relationships define the partnerships that exist between the many people and entities working together to supply the goods and services we often take for granted.
These relationships are a recurring theme in the ODI General Management and Production Technology Learnerships at all levels. They are also the focus of Key 12 of the 20 Keys system for continuous operations improvement: Developing your Suppliers. To quote from Key 12:
“Our suppliers are partners, let us work together and help each other to continually supply products and services safer, cheaper, better and faster to customers and consumers.”
In these programmes, learners are encouraged to think of suppliers and customers as not just existing outside their organisations but internally as well. Upstream processes and people are suppliers; downstream processes and people are customers. The supplier of one process may be the customer of another, mimicking the complex network of relationships that the organisation faces.
How to keep these relationships strong and healthy?
Keeping external suppliers happy, especially those that you value and depend on for quality materials and services means:
- Paying them on time
- Ordering in good time
- Consistency of business
- No last-minute changes to orders etc.
But what about internal suppliers? Money is not a currency that is available; so we can’t pay the accounts department for our financial reports, or IT for restoring our WiFi connection or maintenance for fixing a machine breakdown. But there are other “currencies” that we can use to strengthen and maintain relationships with the upstream processes and colleagues who are our suppliers. For example:
- Acknowledgement for quality workmanship, attention to detail, on time delivery etc.
- Putting in a good word where it matters (you know where!)
- Not taking them for granted
- Saying thank you.
The Gratitude Chain
You don’t have to go as far as A.J Jacobs, the author of the book “Thanks a Thousand: A Gratitude Journey” who travelled the world thanking everyone who had contributed to making his morning cup of coffee! Starting with the barista who made his coffee and the waiter who served it, he personally thanked:
- The inventor of the plastic lid of his coffee cup, designed to maximize the coffee aroma
- The Columbian farmers who grew the coffee beans
- The roasters who made the beans ready for sale
- The people who warehoused the beans
- The truckers who transported the beans
And a thousand others…
But what have baristas, cups of coffee, networks of relationships and gratitude chains got to do with a class of NQF2 Production Technology learners? It was while watching them work on their class activities that this facilitator realised how it all came together. Here was a great learning opportunity to illustrate in practical terms, the topic of the class activity that they were busy with.
Because in the class sat a whole assembly line of machine operators, printers, packers and technicians responsible for making the very POE files that they were working in! (Not the exact files of course, but it could have been!). Sitting in class there was:
- Marilyn whose job is to ready the board that is used to manufacture the files, for assembly
- Solani who attaches the “mechs” ( the metal clasps that spring-close to grip the pages through the punched holes)
- Irene who crimps the metal base that holds the “mechs”, to the board
- Simphiwe who packs the files ready for despatch
Plus, in the class there were printing machine operators to print the paper for the files and a fitter to fix the printing machines!
(A thousand thank you’s to all those responsible for making our POE files!)
Plus of course ODI’s Office Administrator, Jamey Wheeler. It was Jamey, who only moments before had delivered their POE files to the training venue. Files that she had personally made ready for the learners, page by page, module by module, packed and boxed and delivered.
(A Thousand Thank You’s Jamey!)
And what was the activity that the class was busy with? What were they drawing in their files in that moment? That’s right – supply chains! Ahaa!