Zen And The Art Of Supply Chain

May 15, 2017

Late last month, Robert Pirsig died. For those who haven’t heard of him, he wrote the classic philosophical novel whose title I have bastardized for this column: Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. I first read it in the early 1980s while searching for a purpose in life. Its lasting message for me was all about the pursuit of quality.

Reflecting on it now, I believe this is the essence of supply chain excellence.

Strategy, Tactics and Work

Writing in a time of sweeping social and cultural change, Pirsig used the hard reality of the motorcycle to explore the meaning of life. The setting is an early 1970’s cross-country road trip and the logical cleaving point pits the rise of technology against the still fresh glow of 1960’s romanticism. The narrator’s mental quest is a search for some universal meaning that binds both. In the end it comes down to quality.

Quality is a familiar concept to supply chain strategists, even if clear agreement on metrics and definitions is elusive. In manufacturing terms, the Six Sigma movement gave us one way of pursuing quality that offered precision. In logistics and fulfillment, we’ve been comfortable chasing the “perfect order” or OTIF (On Time In Full). In planning, we aim for forecast accuracy. 

And yet, none of these goals is really enough. Today we strive for agility, which sounds good but is still too slippery a concept to measure well, and in any case is a catch-all for doing everything well.

This is the heart of the challenge. To govern work we need metrics. To apply tactics we need targets. To manage strategically we need a mission. Old school purchasing, production and distribution had it easy since everything was about cost. 

No longer. Customer centricity now means enabling a renewable cycle of customer delight and repurchase. Rapid innovation now means failing fast to find winning products and services. Supplier engagement now means cultivating co-developed technologies to build defensible gross margins. Cost cutting alone won’t do the job. We need a higher ideal, and that may be quality.

Material Reality in a Digital World

The New York Times obituary of Pirsig quoted him saying something that crystallizes what makes supply chain special: “The motorcycle is mainly a mental phenomenon. People who have never worked with steel have trouble seeing this”.

Amen. Pirsig had jumped 50 years into the future with this thought by recognizing the bridge between pure logic and its material manifestations. Supply chain thinking is about embracing a concept and solving the material problems along the way to realizing that concept. It is how Amazon scaled Prime and how Intel keeps Moore’s law going. It is the key to Tesla’s powerful electric car, Unilever’s Sustainable Living Plan and IKEA’s flat pack logistics.

Now that digital technology is embedding itself in our material world, the trip across this bridge is shorter and faster than any motorcycle mechanic could ever have imagined. Supply chain strategists’ purpose in life is to go back and forth across this bridge constantly in pursuit of customer delight, rapid innovation and supplier engagement.

What is Quality?

Consumer packaged goods (CPG) companies are struggling. Their product quality is excellent. Cost controls are getting ever tighter. Supply chain performance measured in terms of traditional standards like on-shelf availability and productivity has never been better, but it’s not enough. 

Consumer tastes are changing. Retail channels are changing. Customer demands are changing. Quality in this context must mean something else. Is it personalization, as exemplified by Kellogg’s Bear Naked Granola line? Is it social responsibility, as exemplified by Starbucks’ fair trade coffee? Is it about intellectual property more than material characteristics?

CPG is racing to figure it out, as is everyone from automotive to apparel.

No doubt it is some combination of brand promise, product specification and delivery format. Nothing new there except for an urgent need to harness the power of digital to better tie value propositions to consumer desires. Supply chain needs to cross the bridge from concept to reality perpetually, with quality an ever-changing ideal just beyond our reach.

Zen and the art of supply chain is all about crossing the bridge.


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