Category Archives: Future of Supply Chain

WANTED: Supply Chain Cowgirls

Being male, I never paid much attention to gender diversity in my field of work. The issue never really came up.

That was before my daughter was born.

Now, as I watch her grow and think about her future, gender diversity becomes much more important. I want her to have every opportunity that I’ve had – hopefully even more. Most of all, she should be able to become anything she wants, especially a supply chain cowgirl.

WANTED: Supply Chain Cowgirls

Why Aren’t More Women in Supply Chain

Supply chain emerged from a company’s production functions. Assembly lines and factories were traditionally dominated by blue collar, male workers because many of the jobs required significant physical strength. Over time, though, companies’ operations have evolved, and machines either have taken most of the strenuous physical labor out of these jobs or replaced humans completely. For many companies, the focus has gone from sweat and overtime to long-term relationships and inter-company cooperation. As these changes happened, however, the involvement of women in supply chain hasn’t kept pace with other fields. Women hold only 10% of supply chain leadership roles, while the average for other departments is 24%. More details on these numbers is available at

Part of the problem for this imbalance is the number of women studying for supply chain degrees. Only 37% of students in supply chain classes are female. With an average of 60% of college students being women, it’s clear that this subject isn’t yet in vogue with female students. I’d infer that part of the challenge is awareness. Women often aren’t as aware of supply chain as a career choice, and don’t have an accurate vision of what that path would entail. It could also be a cultural draw of men to logistics because traditionally ‘trains, planes, and trucks are boys’ toys.’

What are Supply Chains Missing because Few Women are Involved?


Roy Adler of Pepperdine University found that companies with more diverse leadership teams tend to outperform their more gender-biased competitors . More women in a company’s supply chain team could find creative cost savings opportunities that their male colleagues may not pursue. Read more about Adler’s study in Logistics Quarterly.

Team Unity

If you feel your team isn’t achieving its potential, it might be a gender diversity problem. Too many of the same gender on a team can lead to biased views or groupthink. Improving team chemistry might be as easy recruiting a few extra team members of the opposite gender – be they men or women.

Systems Management

Most women have a talent for remembering birthdays, managing households, and tracking children’s activities. Those expertise easily apply to important supply chain related skills such as remembering deadlines, managing purchasing teams, and tracking international shipments. Ann Drake, founder of AWESOME, an organization promoting women in supply chain, says that,”Today, the supply chain is about orchestration and leadership and change management. Enter the orchestrators – the women who embrace change and who are ready to lead.”

Collaboration and Creativity

A key trait that I’ve often seen my female coworkers surpass men in is emotional intelligence. This ability to correctly gauge the motivations of others is critical to building strategic alliances with both suppliers and customers. They often change adversarial, arms-lengths relationships with customers into life-long connections that strengthen the entire supply chain.

How Can I Help Get More Women in Supply Chain?

Focus on Making a Positive Influence

Women naturally want to make a positive difference in the world – through family, work, and community.  That’s what supply chain is all about – making a value added difference to your community and the world. This might include worker’s rights, working conditions, safety compliance, and other noble missions that strengthen both people and supply chains.

Promote the Different Areas of Supply Chain

To me, part of the allure of supply chain is the vast variety of jobs it encompasses. If someone doesn’t think an assembly line is right for them – that’s no problem. Logistics, purchasing, compliance, contract management, or sales analytics are just a few of the growing opportunities that may present a different side of supply chain that’s more attractive.

Encourage Girls to Become Leaders

Take the mission of the Girl Scouts of America as inspiration to “Find the leader in each girl.” Encouraging them to volunteer for leading roles in school clubs and extracurricular activities fosters a habit of leadership. When opportunities to lead in college and the business world arise, stepping forward will be second-nature to these talented women.

Start Young

Ellen Voie, President/CEO of Women in Trucking Association, Inc., gives this parenting advice:

“Buy trucks as toys for young girls, teach your teenager how to drive a stick shift and cultivate the ambition that shows up on the soccer field, in the classroom and when making a decision to pursue a degree in a nontraditional program. Let’s find the leader in the girls around us and make them into the next generation of…logistics professionals.”

Help Create a Culture that Promotes Balance

Supply Chain is a 24/7 profession that could easily consume all of an employee’s waking hours. To avoid burnout, companies need to work hard at supporting employees’ balance between work and personal time. Technology has allowed more flexibility in how people work, and this can help women find a better work-life balance. There’s a lot of great women that could add value to your organization because they can’t work a normal 9-5 schedule.

Become a Mentor

If you’re a woman in supply chain already, then you could be the key to bringing in more female colleagues. More positive female role models in the field will help break down negative stereotypes. Support others and coach them in the field. Consider helping out with local chapters that support female professionals and encourage them to investigate the opportunities in supply chain.


Women (and men) can use their relationship building, communication, and collaborative skills to build strong, supportive networks that will sustain further growth in the field.

Encourage Problem Solving and Puzzles

“Supply chain is all about puzzles and is ever changing, so if you enjoy puzzles and want a career/job where there will be new and different challenges every day then Supply Chain is the place to be.”
     – Ryvyn Young, Home Depot (quoted by

As girls realize that the games they play on their phone and with their friends relate directly to the skills needed to succeed in supply chain, they become more interested. Share that information with them and let them see how it relates.

Future Supply Chain Cowgirl?

Supply Chain CowgirlNo matter what my daughter wants to play with – dolls, trucks, or legos – I’ll be right there playing with her. You better believe, though, that she’ll hear from me in detail how her Barbie was manufactured, shipped to America, processed in a distribution center, stocked in a local store, and brought into our home. If I tell the story with enough enthusiasm, maybe one day she just might consider becoming a supply chain cowgirl herself.

Article Notes

Special thanks to Jenny Lambson and Audrey Fuller for their excellent advice and feedback for this article. Also, thank you to my daughter Rachel for cooperating in the photo-shoot.

I welcome your thoughts and advice on this important subject. If you’re currently a supply chain cowgirl, how has your experience been? What advice would you give to others, both male and female?

Learn How to Analyze Big Data for Free

Intro Databases and Statistical Learning“What Should I Study?”

Right before I started my first full-time job, I had a good talk with the chairman of my university’s supply chain department. I asked him, “If I were going to study more after I graduate, what do you suggest I focus on?” Without a second of hesitation, he responded, “databases and statistics.”

Really? Databases and statistics?

I had taken the required introductory statistics class. Then, I promptly forgot everything that Excel couldn’t automatically do for me.

I had also done a few queries in Microsoft Access, but anything more on databases was taught over at the computer engineering school – not the business school.

As I entered the workforce, I read up on many other topics related to my field: books on negotiations, communication, and network optimization. I received my APICS certification. Logistics and purchasing trade magazines covered my desk.

I eventually taught myself SQL through Sams Teach Yourself SQL in 10 Minutes so that I could better query our company’s databases, but that seemed like more than enough database knowledge for what I needed to do.

However, after a few years, I kept running into the term “big data.” Although there are many definitions for big data, I like to think of it as ‘more data than an Excel spreadsheet can handle’. What’s cool about big data, and the reason it’s gathered so much attention, is that you can find trends and patterns that were impossible to uncover before companies started collecting so much information. Faster computers also allow you to analyze that information without waiting weeks for your calculations to process.

All of this is extremely important to supply chains and company operations. Millions of dollars are just waiting to be saved if you can uncover better trends and patterns, especially in forecasts.

The surprise for me, however was that to be a big data ninja (or analyst, if you want to use the boring job title), you need fairly decent skills in two areas. Would you like to guess what those two skills are?

Databases and statistics.

Learn Databases and Statistics through Free Online Courses

Well here’s the best part of this article – you can start mastering both of those topics for free.

Stanford University is offering free online classes on both of those topics right now. The process is easy and straightforward:

  • Professors lecture, explaining concepts and examples through online videos
  • You read the free course materials and/or books
  • You work through examples with free open-source software
  • You take online quizzes and talk with other students.
  • You learn some awesome big data skills and even get a certificate of completion from Stanford when you finish

To enroll, you just register at the class websites: Introduction to Databases and Statistical Learning.

I’m taking the statistical learning class right now and I’m really enjoying it. A friend of mine finishing his MBA program let me know about the statistical learning class. His professor suggested that he may want to take it as he heads off to work for UPS.

The classes started about a month ago, but there’s no problem starting late and jumping in now. Plus – there’s no risk at all – so if you start and realize it’s not the thing for you, then oh well, no worries.

Why I’m Studying Statistical Learning

Databases make sense if you’re interested in getting into big data. However, statistics seems a little more intimidating to me. Here’s the reason I’m taking the statistical learning class.
Before the class, I knew how to use the trendline function in Excel to find the relationship between two variables. I could easily figure out if there’s a correlation between sales and the money spent on TV advertising.

However, now I’m learning how to find the correlation between multiple variables, such as sales and combined advertising in TV, radio, and newspaper. I’m in the middle of chapter 3, where I learned what method to use to figure out whether a variable actually relates, or if other variables are responsible for the change. For example, shark attacks and ice cream sales both go up in the summer, but ice cream isn’t causing shark attacks. Similarly, in the advertising data I’m working with, newspaper advertising appears at first glance to have an effect on sales. However, when we look at all the variables together, newspaper advertising doesn’t affect sales at all – only TV and radio advertising do.

Now that’s an awesome observation if you work in marketing, but how will that help our supply chain? I plan to approach our forecasts much differently after understanding these statistical analysis techniques. If I could find relationships on dimensions such as date, location, promotion, price, and other variables, then I could get much better forecasts and hold less inventory. Even if I could improve our forecasts just a little, that’d more than make my time in a free class worth it.

The class teaches you how to use an open-source program called R, which many companies are beginning to use such as Google, P&G, and Ford. If they’re using it, and it’s a free program, then maybe my growing company should use it too.

If anyone is brave enough to sign up with me, let me know, and we can work together on any tough problems we encounter.

Supply Chain Cowboy ApprovedThat’s my thought for the week. The internet and improvements in technology have given us the challenge and opportunity of big data. Similarly, the internet and Stanford has given us a free way to learn how to surmount that challenge. Pretty cool, and definitely Supply Chain Cowboy approved.

If big data is something that interests you, here’s a recent, related article: Getting Started with Big Data in a Small Business

Could Driverless Vehicles Lead to More Pollution?

The operations and logistics departments of a company often have a greater impact on the environment than most other business functions. This is why when a company wants to “go green,” it often looks to its supply chain to play a leading role. Best practices in sustainability are becoming more crucial to a supply chain’s success as managers balance the triple bottom line of financial, social, and environmental good. All of this led to my interest in a recent Freakonomics podcast on environmentalism.

Driverless Truck Polluting

Electric Cars Could Cause More Pollution

In the podcast, Harvard economist, Ed Glaeser, suggests that electric cars, marketed as a “greener” travel option, could actually do more environmental harm than good. His reasoning is that the incremental cost of driving one more mile in an electric car is drastically less expensive than one more mile on gasoline. Naturally, this will lead to increased driving distances. Although that mile also impacts the environment to a lesser degree, the increased mileage might actually have an overall negative impact on the environment. If each mile produces half the pollution, but you drive three times farther, then you’re not moving forward environmentally.

Driverless Vehicles Means More Driving

This concept of unintended environmental side effects made me rethink one of my favorite technologies – driverless vehicles. I’m passionate that the future of logistics is in driverless semi-trailer trucking. It may be fifteen or more years away, but the pressures to reduce freight costs will eventually lead to driverless freight transport. However, as driverless shipping becomes cheaper, it will likely encourage more trucking.

For example, the main reason that I don’t go on more road trips is not the price of gas but the personal discomfort of driving. If I could simply sleep and then wake up at my location, I would travel by car much more often.

Extrapolating to the logistics arena, I foresee that driverless freight making shipping drastically less expensive. This would affect companies in numerous ways. For example, big-box retailers such as Walgreens could start shipping inventory between their stores to level out over stocks and stock outs. Freight could travel more quickly to greater distances, which would reduce the number of needed warehouses. If UPS and FedEx deliveries could make driverless deliveries, small parcel shipments would skyrocket. Online retailers would grow in dominance as the cost to serve consumers would drop.

Yet with my enthusiasm for the benefits of driverless vehicles, I had not considered the environmental consequences this technology might have. As the cost of freight decreases from not having to pay drivers, the number of miles that trucks drive will increase. The rise in pollution from trucks driving day and night could easily cancel out the advances in fuel efficiency we hope to make in the next few years. However, the decrease in costs and risk to human life involved in accidents still make the widespread use of driverless vehicles appealing.

Now What?

This is article is an open-ended thought, not a call for immediate action. The world is moving toward logistical automation, so anticipating each aspect of that future paradigm is essential. Widespread use of driverless vehicles will require support from society and public policy. Awareness of all the consequences will help the supply chain industry usher in this next generation of technology.

If you’re interested in the topic, here are a couple more articles worth reading:

Thoughts on Driverless Trucks by Kevin Gue of Auburn University

Daddy, What Was a Truck Driver? by Dennis Berman of the Wall Street Journal

The First Driverless Cars Will Actually be a Bunch of Trucks by Evan Dashevsky of Tech Hive

How will driverless vehicles influence your supply chain? Will our society allow the widespread use of driverless trucks? What other consequences must we consider to best utilize driverless trucks?

Please leave your thoughts in a comment below. In addition, if you’re interested in starting a venture into driverless trucks, please let me know. I’d love to be part of the endeavor.

Future of Distribution: Army of Warehouse Robots [Video]

This video shows a potential method of warehousing that amazed and inspired me. Amazon owned Kiva has developed software that radically redefines warehouse operations. Small robots, just slightly larger than Roomba vacuums, act as carriers to bring storage locations to human pickers. Automated vehicles are nothing new, but the fluid and automated network of how they interact is fascinating.

Take a look below:

You can see more videos and case studies on KIVA’s site.

Although the $1-2 Million price tag is a bit more than most small businesses can invest, the KIVA system shows the direction supply chain technology is headed. Price reductions and further technology advances could one day make these little robot pickers as plentiful as forklifts and pallets.

More than anything, this video inspires creativity and spurs a vision of what operations can look like – smooth and automated while maximizing value added by human employees.

To take the concept a step further, imagine operations beyond picking. As driverless cars become street legal, a similar distribution network could extend outside the warehouse and onto the streets. Trucks could drive all day and night in a network to move product with very little human input. Much as electronic data moves seamlessly through the internet, physical product could move through a physical internet. Instead of trucks loading in California and driving straight to New York, product would move in small routed jumps: California to Nevada, Nevada to Utah, Utah to Colorado, etc. While this seems like a lot of loading and unloading, it actually could be quite easy if everything were in easily transferrable containers. A nationwide logistics network of short trips would allow truckers to stay close to home and move product quicker with less environmental impact. The National Science Foundation, as explained on Wikipedia and the Physical Internet Initiative‘s page, has championed this concept for several years.

It’s exciting to think about how product will get to my house twenty years from now. The KIVA system gives just a hint of what that path of product might be.

What are your thoughts about the KIVA system? Where do you see the world’s supply chain in twenty years?

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