Problem Solvers Wanted as Robots Enter Workforce

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A robot might actually take your job … and that’s a good thing.

As much as robotics and automation are used to incite fear, especially among supply chains and science fiction fans, the work that robots are most likely to do is the work that humans are bored with anyway.

Repetitive button pushing and forecast tuning may be needed to drive action, but if automated, employees are free to do more impactful work and do it more frequently, creating value for the entire business.

That premise is exactly what many companies have hyped in job descriptions for quite some time. Phrasing such as “you’ll connect plants with customers to deliver best-in-class service in the most efficient way” and “world-class operational excellence is a cornerstone of (our) ability to consistently surprise and delight our customers” capture this sentiment. They are used to summarize the importance of positions before actually describing the work to be done.

These hyperbolic statements act as hooks to those who want to do more than just a job and feel connected to something bigger than the task at hand; it’s not just for millennials, either. The phrasing above came directly from actual job postings for positions of varying seniority accessed via a search for “demand planner” using Gartner’s TalentNeuron platform. However, the rest of the descriptions are often less enticing with job tasks including “generate weekly and monthly plans” and “facilitate and provide demand inputs at monthly meetings.”

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As ambiguous, and sometimes menial, as these roles have become, businesses have increasingly made them more available on a weekly basis, over the past three-plus years. Yet, both the quantitative and qualitative feedback that we’ve received from the supply chain community indicates that few companies feel that more people are the answer to the complexities of being demand driven.

So, why is it then that we continue to see an abundance of generalized job descriptions that are not generating business improvement, nor are they fulfilling for those doing the work? In my experience it is a combination of an unwillingness to change and the false belief that busyness is a sign of importance.

Supply chain leaders who have risen through the ranks are familiar with the work that has been done in the past and how it helped to keep the business going — “It’s been working, so why change things?” Furthermore, as the number of items available in product portfolios continues to grow, it becomes even easier to associate a big, but meaningless, number with performance. These reactive, fixed mindsets are unwittingly decreasing efficiency, even as they survive day-to-day.

The opportunity to break the inefficient patterns is nearly upon us. The results recorded so far for the 2018 Future of Supply Chain study suggest that most of the supply chain community expects planning to be at least partially automated in less than a decade; the same holds true for manufacturing, as well as logistics and distribution.

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What human work remains in these traditional supply chain roles is the control and/or orchestration of exception management, or in effect, problem solving. As a result, the role of the supply chain practitioner will evolve to the recognition of deviations from expected behaviors and choosing from the menu of response options available.

“Problem-solving is one of the most important skills we’re going to need,” says Beth Ward, SVP supply chain at Hallmark Cards. “It’s got to be a pervasive skill for the entire supply chain organization, especially as we think about being the connectors and end-to-end owners for global business.”

Clearly, leading-edge thinkers are aware of the pending change in the nature of work; it is not if the change is coming, but rather, when it will reach ubiquity. With this in mind, supply chain leaders must do the following to prepare for the problem solvers needed for future success:

  • Stop posting and hiring for the same positions that rely on unnecessary repetitive work and instead refocus employee efforts on value-additive opportunities.
  • Start revising roles, and even the organization structure, to begin the process of building the team of tomorrow, today.
  • Continue to challenge the status quo. Break the pattern that has allowed the process to survive in the short term but create exposure to risk long term.

 

Author Patrick Van Hull

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