Dr. John Langley of Penn State: Unplugged
Dr. John Langley of Penn State is certainly one of most well-known and most respected figures in the supply chain and logistics arena today. That was earned after academic stops at three of the industry’s most prominent university supply chain programs, winning CSCMP’s distinguished service award back in 1993, authoring three best-selling text books used by thousands of students, serving as leader for 17 years of the popular Third Party Logistics Study released each year at the annual CSCMP conference, board seats, numerous consulting engagements, and a lot more.
I have enjoyed working with John in a couple of capacities over the last half dozen years or so, especially helping him to put together twice each year the Georgia Tech Supply Chain Executive Forum until he left Atlanta for his alma mater, Penn State, in late 2010.
"Langley says it is critical to define and measure supply chain effectiveness through the eyes of the customer, and not just your own internal perspectives and measures."
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With all that, John seemed like a great candidate for one of our “unplugged” series of interviews, in which I cover a lot of territory with leading supply chain industry thinkers. In truth, with all we have going on here, it is been too long since I did one of these, but I promise to ramp the pace back up in 2013.
I had a great hour-long conversation with John earlier this week, which I am confident you will find interesting. As usual I will provide highlights here and a complete transcript a week or two down the road.
I knew John had undergraduate, master’s and doctoral degrees all from Penn State, but I did not know the undergrad was in mathematics and the master’s an MBA with a finance concentration. After that, he tells me he wanted to do a PhD program, and decided that the logistics field looked quite promising, and presented an opportunity to well use some of the quantitative skills he had gained in his earlier education. He says even then, he could sense that logistics effectiveness was going to be a growing component of overall business success, and that he could therefore be involved in a lot of practical applications as well.
That PhD led to a prominent, almost 30-year career at the University of Tennessee, a high profile change to Georgia Tech for nine years, and now the move back home to PSU.
So what are the most prominent changes Langley sees from what was still really the formative days of the discipline of logistics when he started his career through to today’s full supply chain era?
He started by noting that of course the capabilities and role of technology in supply chain today has changed dramatically, but added that while we all know that, too often companies today tend don’t focus heavily enough on how well they are actually leveraging and managing that technology versus their competitors.
That comment made me wonder whether we need some kind of better gauge or metric for how well companies are in fact managing their supply chain technology. I am not aware of any. I am going to think about that.
He also noted that perhaps the best change over the last couple of decades is that supply chain now provides a more clear path to senior leadership in a company, and in some cases (such as Walmart’s Lee Scott) a route to the CEO job itself.
“It wasn’t that long ago that if you were in a functional logistics area such as distribution or transportation, you weren’t really likely to be tapped for higher level corporate responsibility,” Langley said. “Now, many are putting their best and brightest employees into supply chain roles.”
Relatedly, he noted that today “business strategies and supply chain strategies are often thought of in the same sentence. This is a huge change from not long ago.”
I was curious whether - given all the progress that has been made in supply chain practice and technology – does Langley think we are anywhere near a sort of performance plateau, where the opportunities for improvement will be harder and harder to find?
“I don’t think so – and the reason is growing supply chain complexity,” Langley says. “That is the biggest challenge most companies are facing today.”
Langley observes that most of this complexity is coming from the external environment, but that in other cases the level of complexity is self-inflicted, but in mostly a good way, as companies master a certain set of capabilities and skills, but then reach for the next challenge, which turns the complexity dial up yet again.
“We still don’t have a really a robust way to really measure supply chain complexity though,” he noted.
On a similar vein, given all the companies Langley has and continues to work with on supply chain issues, I wanted his thoughts on whether he sees a sort of convergence of supply chain effectiveness across enterprises, or if there are still big gaps between companies, as I believe.
First, he observed, it is critical to define and measure supply chain effectiveness through the eyes of the customer, and not just your own internal perspectives and measures. And there, of course, price plays a critical role, with supply chain effectiveness of course impacting price and/or margins.
“The big change today I think is that customers in the past would often pay a higher price for superior levels of service, but that is mostly gone today,” Langley said. “What I find today is that supply chain leaders are moving the entire curve and thus being able to deliver superior service at a lower cost and thus lower price or higher margin.”
He also says there are important differences in the level of innovation and value-added services companies offer, and that many supply chain leaders today that have nearly mastered the “effectiveness” aspects of the supply chain (subject to on-going changes in the environment) have been turning their attention to these areas. Laggard supply chains still struggling with the blocking and tackling are less likely to innovate, Langley says. That innovation will of necessity usually involve higher levels of collaboration, which is what many leaders see as the source of the next round of supply chain improvements.
He also noted that “today, given what Supply Chain Digest and others are doing, what it takes to have an effective supply chain isn’t such a deep secret anymore. Yet, many companies still can’t make it happen. Why is that?”
Before I run out of room here, I wanted to get to some comments from Langley on 3Pls and shippers, given his long history on this topic, including heading the annual 3PL study mentioned above, slots on a couple of 3PL boards, and more.
Let’s start with a fundamental question: should most companies do more logistics outsourcing? Not necessarily, Langley says, but too often companies may not be really ask or answer the question effectively.
Companies should do the right (i.e., objective) analysis and come up with the path that is best for them, but Langley says that in annual study, when companies are asked why they don’t outsource or don’t outsource more, “they will often say that logistics is a core competency, or it is too important for them to outsource – I have to wonder those answers are more excuses than the results of careful analysis studying the opportunities and benefits from outsourcing.”
He adds that when doing the analysis, it is critical that companies clearly determine the decision criteria upfront to avoid having bias enter into the process.
Is there a risk of creating a slippery slope, where companies outsource so much for so long they lose the internal expertise almost entirely, and could never bring it back again if they wanted?
That is a “legitimate concern,” Langley says, and should be factored into the risk analysis, but notes that “if you talk to a number of organizations, they will tell you they have actually gained more control of logistics via outsourcing, not the opposite.”
I covered just a fraction of our discussion – look for the full transcript soon, which will include more discussion around outsourcing, why academic research in supply chain too often isn’t very practical, and more.
John Langley has been a great asset to the supply chain for a long time, and we hope for a long time to come.
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