As we in the US cruise into a holiday weekend, I am dusting off an idea I have been thinking about for quite awhile, but never quite got around to addressing – specifically, just what is “senior management sponsorship or support” for a supply chain project?
Here is my point: in virtually every supply chain case study presentation, somewhere along the way – usually under “lessons learned” – there is a bullet that goes something like this: “Senior Management Support is Critical.”
In fact, I have joked in the past that we should just create a Lessons Learned PowerPoint template that would have “Senior Management Support is Key,” “Do More Training,” and “Do More Testing” already filled in. A few empty bullets would be available for user customization.
This is my problem – if we are going to say that senior management support is critical, that implies that, in at least some cases, projects are undertaken without senior management support. Otherwise, saying such support is essential is meaningless.
Said another way – obviously, some executives must be letting some projects move forward which they do not really back strongly.
My friend Gene Tyndall, now at Tompkins Associates, says he does in fact see this happening: “We frequently come in and see projects and initiatives going on without senior executive support. I have seen task forces, committees, projects, and other supply chain activities going on without this, and some may thus languish for months, even years.”
It seems to me there are at least two levels of senior management support. One is the support of the supply chain executive him or herself for projects under their organization. If you are leading the charge for a new approach to demand planning, for example, you would certainly hope to have the support of the top supply chain executive that you work for directly or indirectly.
But the supply chain executive him or herself, of course, must also have “support” for other supply chain initiatives, especially those that really start to cross functional boundaries. For example, when I spoke to Mark Holifield, SVP of Supply Chain at Home Depot a few weeks ago about the supply chain transformation he has led, not surprisingly he discussed the support he has received from the CEO and his executive peers for supply chain changes that have impacted every area of the company.
Do companies launch supply chain projects that don’t have one or both types of senior executive support? I think they do, and that this happens in several ways.
For example, someone in the supply chain organization might have an idea that can really lead to solid improvements in cost or performance – and it really is a good idea. While the supply chain executive intellectually understands that this is a good thing, it is not connected in a deep way to what is important to him or her right now. If you are any sort of manager, you likely have experienced this phenomenon – I know I have. You are focused on certain things at the moment. An idea is brought forth that is objectively a good one, but not on your personal radar screen.
So, sometimes, we let the thing move forward because we don’t have good reasons against it, but we are not really engaged in its success.
Second, a project or initiative can have what appears to be support from the senior supply chain executive, but somewhere along the way that support is at least partially withdrawn, usually because other priorities emerge in the meantime. If you have project A starting out and not long after a merger is announced that will require substantial integration effort and time from the VP of Supply Chain, the initial and well intentioned support for a relatively minor project may dissipate.
The third type is more complicated. That is where the supply chain group and leader are fully behind a project, but the CEO/COO and/or the leaders of other functions are not really behind it. If the CEO, for example, doesn’t drive other functions to get on-board, the supply chain initiative may stagger or fail.
As a simple example, I once had some connection to a transportation management system (TMS) project where savings were in part dependent on some changes in the way customer service did things with orders. There were clearly some misunderstanding between logistics and customer service, and it caused the company several months of grief (and lost savings) after the system went live before things were eventually rectified (with “senior management support”).
So what’s the point of all this?
First, if you are a supply chain leader, you have to discipline yourself to not let projects that make sense intellectually get approved if in your gut they are not really supportive of your current goals and objectives. If you believe senior executive support is critical, you simply cannot let projects proceed for which you are not really committed.
Second, if you are a manager, you need to put your passion for a project to the side if you sense you do not really have senior management support. That may be hard if you have a great project you really believe in, but it will usually be better for you and your career to pass, at least temporarily, on a “great” project that doesn’t have that support for now. Admittedly, broaching that subject with the boss may not be easy (“Do you really support this project?”), but it seems to me that if someone came to an exec and said, “I think this is a really good project, but I’ll need your strong support for it to be a success, and I want to be sure this really is aligned with your priorities” or something like that, most would view that discussion positively.
Third, companies should put some definition around what “senior management support” really means (e.g., communications, ownership, steering committees, etc.); confirmation of that support should be one of the gates a project must go through before it is approved. Some companies do have this practice in place now in one form or another.
Tyndall adds that a “Best practice is to develop a Project Charter, which identifies the executive sponsor, as well as other critical specifications of objectives, inclusion, timing, etc.” He also sees "steering committees,” which he says are “OK, but not a substitute for an exec sponsor who cares about the topic, the project, and its results.”
The support of the CEO/COO and other CXOs is a lot tougher. The CEO can only actively support a small number of major projects. That means there inevitably will be projects that cross functional boundaries but for which the CEO or COO just can’t really be supportive in any meaningful way.
This is where political and communication skills come into place. As just another small example, when gaming technology maker WMS wanted to take control of inbound freight, Keith Conway, director of logistics, garnered support and buy-in from manufacturing not based on freight savings, but on the better visibility and control to inbound components that would result and how that would dramatically reduce the issues that late deliveries caused production scheduling.
So the bottom line – make darn sure you have senior management support at whatever level makes sense for your project and initiative – and validate that several times. And when it comes to cross functional projects, you may just have to generate that support largely on your own.
How would you define “senior management support?” Do many projects/initiatives really move forward without it? How/why? What are some best practices around this? Let us know your thoughts at the Feedback button below.