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Fútbol and Supply Chain

You got your sports in my supply chain!!! No, you got your supply chain in my sports!!!

As the FIFA Women’s World Cup kicked off on July 20, I was posed with the question how fútbol and supply chain are related. At first, the question caught me off guard, much like the historical exclusivity of chocolate and peanut butter until they ran into Mr. Reese, but the more I thought about it the more I realized much of my experience on the field helped translate to my career in supply chain and logistics. I’m sure there are other parallels with other sports but as a former collegiate Division I, international professional fútbolista, I am most certainly biased. I have had the privilege and honor to play on three continents at the highest levels, each providing a unique perspective that in some ways relate to my supply chain career.

I’ll first tackle (pun-intended… that was one of my specialties on the field of course!) an important commonality amongst the regions that applies everywhere and that is: teamwork. Sounds obvious, but it is truly the key to success.

On the field, there are 10 field players and 1 goalkeeper all sharing the same objective: to win. However, winning looks different for each individual player. The goalkeeper may think a win looks like a record number of saves instead of considering never touching the ball a win. A forward may think a win looks like racking up as many goals as possible. Though scoring goals increases chances of the team winning, if one player is constantly trying to score alone and they do not end up scoring, they may have taken away the opportunity for someone else on the team to score. Many of these individual objectives focus on stats and measurable outcomes, much like habits in a supply chain: what gets measured, gets managed.

In supply chain, and specifically Sales & Operations Planning (S&OP) comes to mind, multiple functions come together to agree on a common objective: winning (increasing revenue, sales, etc.), but each function (sales, marketing, operations) has individual objectives they want to maximize. Should they lack visibility into one another’s objectives, the functions risk being in conflict with another function’s objectives. For example, operations wanting to manage inventory tightly vs sales wanting to keep maximum inventory on hand to increase sales. This failure of coordination can ultimately impact the overall organizational objective of winning. In other words, if one or more players are so focused on their individual performance they could risk the team’s chances of winning.

As a central defender on the field, we lack these tangible results or stats. If there’s a shutout, or the goalkeeper never touches the ball, it’s not the other 10 players getting credit, it’s the goalkeeper. The players that score goals on the team get their credit along with any players that provide an assist. Defenders are often left behind. But, we are the ultimate team players. We have the second-best vantage point on the field, outside of the goalkeeper. We are orchestrating movement – planning and predicting opponents next moves, communicating to teammates where the open space/opportunity is, and identifying the steps to get there (much like managing logistics and analyzing scenarios in real-time – no IT needed!). Our success is defined by the team’s success and our role is still equally important.

While teamwork is clearly required at any level, some of the different skills, roles and responsibilities also translate to supply chain and reinforce the fact that there is no one size fits all approach. Playing on three continents I saw many elements were different – from training programming to style of play to tactics and strategies. Each team utilized the infrastructure they had access to, the quality of players, the types of players, the competition, etc. to develop a strategy that would work for that unique set of combinations, much like how a supply chain operates with manufacturing capabilities/constraints, decisions to insource or outsource capabilities, and more. Further, teams had to adapt to whom they are playing and incorporate that into the game-day strategy (whether it be formation or starting lineup) as supply chains need to adapt to external forces like competition or global pandemics.

Beyond those main similarities and differences, one additional element is clear: you need to have a plan. Training and preparation ensure your team is equipped with the right tools (physical fitness, opponent intel, weather-appropriate gear, etc.) to achieve the goal of winning. In training, you both get your physical body ready for competition and in practice you can model different scenarios so that if/when presented with that scenario in the game, you already know what to do (and hopefully you are able to execute). All this preparation and planning may sound rigid but ultimately preparation provides the team with the most flexibility. One example: physical fitness training allows players to adapt easier to unpredictable events like going into overtime – an unplanned, extra 30 minutes of play. By modeling different unique scenarios, one becomes more comfortable and better equipped to make a decision in real-time.

In supply chain, running an S&OP process helps build muscle memory around a monthly process and allows you the same opportunity of running scenarios to identify the ideal path forward. People similarly have reservations around its rigidity when in reality it also provides more flexibility. Armed with the proper training and preparation, and an understanding of risks, allows a supply chain to better adapt to unexpected or unplanned supply chain events – supplier shortages, long lead times, production downtime, and more.

Given that supply chains have now become a competitive advantage or disadvantage, we should all consider how we can learn from competitive sports. Having a plan, working as a team and a fit-for-purpose strategy all apply to seamless supply chain execution and just might be the key to winning.

These three elements seem fairly obvious and can ensure successful execution, however, after continuing to think about the parallels there are two others I will tackle in the next blog post: recruiting the right talent for the team and creating a loyal fanbase (i.e. customers). These topics may be less tangible but they focus on the very front and very backend of execution, creating an important cycle for long-term success.
—Kira Bilecky, St. Onge Company

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