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Key Takeaways From the Gartner Supply Chain Executive Conference | Phoenix, AZ, May 2019


The Gartner Supply Chain Executive conference continues to evolve in both scale and content. This recent one, as Gartner noted, was the biggest one to date. So much so, that Gartner will now be converting the supply chain summit to its larger symposium format starting in 2020.

For seasoned attendees who might recall when this used to be the AMR Research Supply Chain Executive conference, it may feel strange to venture anywhere other than Phoenix in May. But if this event was a testament of what’s to come, Orlando 2020 will be something to look forward to.

Gartner’s philosophy and perspective on the supply chain, as well as the tactical imperatives to meet the needs of the future, have evolved with the times. Three years back, Gartner paved the way by applying software development strategies to the supply chain. They had recommended running Bimodal Supply Chains, which would allow companies to simultaneously run efficient operations while testing out innovations in controlled environments.

This year, the theme centered around the convergence of the physical and digital supply chains. They touched upon a few examples, like “digital twins,” in which a supply chain process or operation is digitally modeled, so companies can pretest ideas in a simulated environment. Large corporations might invest in a digital twin environment the same way pilots train using aircraft simulators; however, it will likely be a challenge for smaller firms to adopt this practice.

The Day After Tomorrow author and keynote speaker, Peter Hinssen, spoke about the inevitable, digital future, and how platform networks and AI are driving innovation, turning what seemed previously unrealistic into a reality. And, indeed, companies like Starbucks have begun leveraging algorithmic planning to drive transformation and ensure their products are available in stores when customers need them. However, Hinssen cautions that over 70% of our time is spent on today, 20% or less is spent on tomorrow, and a paltry amount is left for the “day after tomorrow.” He closed by emphasizing the importance of preparing for tomorrow with the appropriate business models, organization structure and culture, and the technologies and mindsets.

Veteran Gartner analyst, Mike Griswold, chaired a panel discussion with executives from True Value and Loblaws. He drew on his industry experience to highlight the convergence of supply chain execution and planning, and the necessity of both for businesses to truly thrive in the future. Planning vendors have been glamorized for far too long; this session was a significant effort by Gartner to underscore that one without the other tends to result in unsatisfactory outcomes.

Another interesting pivot by Gartner was to highlight the importance of culture in the supply chain. The famous aphorism, usually attributed to Peter Drucker, about how culture eats strategy for breakfast, was cited in at least three sessions at the conference.

Linda Kaplan Thaler, in a searing and thought-provoking guest keynote address, spoke to the importance of GRIT (Guts, Resilience, Initiative and Tenacity) for driving change and making an impact in the lives of people. She urged the gathering to believe in, and work towards, the common good through several poignant examples.

Later in the conference, another guest keynote speaker and Director of Logistics, Civil Engineering and Force Protection and Nuclear Integration at the US Air Force Material Command, Maj General Allan E Day, drew on lessons from his personal life and professional experience to provide insights into how supply chain professionals must stay current and look to the future. As if echoing and building on the points Peter Hinssen laid out the previous day, General Day emphasized during his presentation that “Success causes Failure. What got us here will not necessarily help us in the future.” He spoke about the importance of being forward-looking and willing to discard practices that shaped yesterday’s achievements, as they are frequently irrelevant to tomorrow’s wars. Gen Day’s lessons on leadership, especially those that drew on themes like the centered leader, and referred to Ira Chaleff’s seminal work about “The Courageous Follower,” profoundly depicted why great leaders must be willing to be ‘servant leaders,’ working in service of their team, backing them, and creating a safe culture in which members can disagree without fear of reprisal from their leader. These moving anecdotes were perhaps some of the most striking and memorable lessons for supply chain professionals and innovators.

Two of the most remarkable presentations by Gartner analysts were on the last day of the conference. Michael Dominy presented a top-down framework for implementing supply chain strategy that aligns with the overall corporate business model (the customer focus, value proposition, and financial model), and is backed by a sound understanding of the enterprise’s capabilities, as well as any others they would need to realize their business objectives.

Gartner analyst and retail guru, Tom Enright, went beyond his usual areas of research to discuss geopolitical change and how global shifts in international trade will require a new supply chain operating model. In his short, but outstanding session, Enright tied together diverse themes, like the ongoing tariff wars and Brexit with long term socioeconomic changes and demographic shifts, to alert practitioners to the need for flexible, adaptable, and rapidly scalable supply chain operating models.

Overall, the mood was an optimistic one. We saw many more new entrants at the conference seeking to help supply chains into this emerging digitized future.

Parallel to this ambition, however, we heard a lot of uncertainty about how and where to start the process. And then there are also neglected areas of supply chain management, like reverse logistics, which are still fragmented and poorly understood, according to ‪Gartner principal research analyst, Simon Tunstall. Business success is, in many ways, personal and unique to the company striving to reach its full potential. This was further illustrated when Gartner unveiled its annual ranking of Supply Chain Top 25, identifying supply chain leaders and showcasing their diverse best practices. However, while each of the winners, led by Colgate Palmolive at number one, had their unique characteristics, some common trends were evident: personalization at scale, leveraging ecosystems, and well-aligned digital and business strategy


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