How to Build a Supply Chain Champion Following Chicago Cubs Theo Epstein’s 5R Strategy
Theo Epstein’s approach to building a championship baseball team highlights five principles of supply chain design that we call the 5Rs, the 5Rs have enabled companies from Amazon to Zara to win on the world’s toughest playing field - today’s global marketplace.
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- Company Quicklook
On November 2, 2016, the Chicago Cubs did the unthinkable:
They won the World Series after coming back from a 1-3 deficit to the Cleveland Indians.
For Cubs fans, the victory marked the end of a 108-year streak of competitive futility.
Although the Cubs game seven, extra-inning victory is inspirational, you may be wondering: “As a supply chain professional, why should I care?”
Answer: Because of Theo Epstein, the Cubs President of Baseball Operations, knows how to build a championship team, a task that is likely high on your to-do list.
Vitally, Epstein’s role in the Cubs turnaround wasn’t a fluke.
In 2004, Epstein, as Red Sox General Manager, helped Boston vanquish the Curse of the Bambino and end an 86-year title drought.
Deciphering how Theo Epstein took the Cubs, a perennial loser, to a World Series championship has been a hot topic in the sports world.
Based on our 20-plus years working with supply chain leaders, we argue that Theo Epstein’s job assembling a champion on the field is a model for the supply chain leader’s quest to build a winning supply chain.
Let’s take a closer look at how Epstein transformed the Cubs into champions.
His approach highlights five principles of supply chain design that we call the 5Rs (Figure 1). The 5Rs have enabled companies from Amazon to Zara to win on the world’s toughest playing field - today’s global marketplace.
The 5Rs of Supply Chain Excellence
Know the Rules and Break Them When Necessary
If you want to win on the baseball field - or in the marketplace - you need to know the rules of the game. The rules define not just your strategy and value-added capabilities, but also your team’s composition.
Rules, however, change and disrupt industries and dethrone champions. For proof, look no further than A&P, Compaq, and Pan Am. Thus, it’s not enough to know the rules; you also need to pay attention to how they are changing. Spotting inflection points before rivals - and responding effectively - can give you a competitive edge.
Andy Grove modeled this reality when he made the case for Intel to make the leap from RAM/DRAM to CPUs before the memory market crashed. Grove’s anticipation of a threat before it was widely discerned is a big reason you know the phrase “Intel Inside.”
Of course, sometimes the rules aren’t fair, which is a plus if they favor you and a travesty if they don’t. When you find your team disadvantaged, your job is to change the rules.
This is the scenario Billy Bean, general manager of the Oakland Athletics, faced in 2001. The A’s $40 million payroll couldn’t compete with the New York Yankees $115 million player budget. Not only did the Yankees beat the A’s in the divisional championship series but they signed the A’s Jason Giambi to a big-budget free agent contract.
To compete, Bean needed to build a different type of team. He stepped away from traditional approaches to player evaluation and embraced sabermetrics, a novel statistical approach that became known as “Moneyball.” His goal: Identify players undervalued by other teams. Bill Henry, the new owner of the Boston Red Sox, saw value in Bean’s approach and offered him the Sox’ GM job.
When Bean declined, Theo Epstein stepped in. He levered Boston’s big payroll with sabermetrics to assemble a team that won the World Series in 2004, followed by two more championships in 2007 and 2013.
Great companies do the same thing. They execute within the rules better than rivals, or they exploit opportunities to change the rules.
It acted as a broker, linking customers to publishers. Amazon went public in 1997 and immediately began to rewrite the rules of online retailing and expand its product line. At a time when other organizations were outsourcing fulfillment operations, Amazon invested in its own distribution network.
By 2016, Amazon operated 383 fulfillment centers worldwide, supporting sales of $136 billion. Amazon even began to build out an in-house network of trucks and planes to “own” the delivery experience all the way to the customer door.
Today, Amazon sports a market capitalization of $400 billion. Its allure is a willingness to push boundaries and redefines rules. Amazon made two-day “Prime” delivery an industry standard that customers were willing to subscribe to. Amazon also enabled eager consumers and intrigued investors to envision the day when drones, predictive shipping, and check-out free shopping will be common.
The result: Amazon is forecast to reach half a trillion in sales over the next decade. More amazing, Amazon achieved this unparalleled success without ever making a meaningful profit on operations. According to The Economist, 92% of Amazon’s value is due to profits that won’t be earned until after 2020. Amazon’s story stresses a point that you need to remember.
To build a winning team, you must change the competitive rules even as you execute the daylights out of existing rules. The remaining four Rs of supply chain design can help.
Assess Readiness; Your Own and That of Potential Partners
By winning the World Series, the Cubs proved their greatness. Nonetheless, you wouldn’t bet on the Cubs to win the Rugby World Cup. After all, the Cubs weren’t built to play rugby. Yet, many companies try to do the equivalent every day. They come to market with the wrong supply chain. How do smart managers get stuck in such a predicament? Two explanations persist.
Wrong focus. Great ideas spawn companies. But, source, make and deliver decisions are often an afterthought, following marketing, engineering or finance. No one asks whether, or how, SCM can confer a competitive edge. Market mediocrity is the result.
Poor scanning. Even cutting-edge supply chains can fall behind the obsolescence curve. You’ve read, for instance, about the woes of some high-profile brick-and-mortar retailers. As the Internet changed the rules of retail, they didn’t adapt. Now, they are dying. The readiness assessment is a key weapon in Theo Epstein’s arsenal. By conducting a two-step readiness assessment - the second R - you can avoid these losing outcomes.
Step 1 is an honest self-appraisal of the team’s current competencies. Simply put, ask: “Do we have the skills we need to play, and win, our industry’s competitive game?” If not, ask two questions:
1. Which skills are you missing?
2. What do the gaps look like?
By making capability gaps visible, you can prioritize your skill-acquisition efforts.
Step 2 is to assess potential partner competencies. Your job, like Epstein’s, is to close the gaps by building or buying the right capabilities.
Now, let’s take a peek into how Epstein leveraged the second R to turn the Cubs into champions.
The key to winning a baseball game is to score more runs than the other team. The emphasis on runs scored has always placed a premium on two player-evaluation metrics: Batting average and RBIs (runs batted in).
Sabermetrics argues you should set these metrics aside in favor of on-base percentage. After all, you can’t score unless you get on base, and it doesn’t matter whether you get on base via a hit or a walk. The logic of sabermetrics is simple: By using more-valid-but-less-used metrics, you can acquire the right skills at a lower price.
Of course, winning attracts benchmarking, and rivals quickly copied Epstein’s approach. Epstein’s response: Keep refining the readiness-assessment process.
Neuroscouting. Neuroscouting uses a computer simulation to make the connection between a player’s cognitive function (recognizing a pitch) and motor skills (swinging a bat). A player who picks up a pitch five feet out of the pitcher’s hand will get on base more frequently than a player who doesn’t read the pitch until 20 feet or 30 feet out. Neuroscouting helped Epstein identify Mookie Betts as a top prospect in the 2011 draft. Betts is now a rising star.
Wins above replacement (WAR). Epstein has grown fond of WAR, a metric that estimates how many wins a player contributes to above a replacement player at the same position. Going into the 2016 season, WAR indicated that the Cubs excelled in starting pitching, first base, and third base. But, right field was identified as a liability. To fill the gap, Epstein acquired Jason Heyward in free agency.
Predictive analytics. Epstein is now experimenting with simulations to predict how a given team composition will fare in each game throughout the season. Inputs can be quite detailed and include things like ballpark where the game is played, time of day and pitcher-versus-batter matchups.
Beyond closing capability gaps, readiness assessment serves another purpose. In 2011, as Epstein’s tenure with the team began, Cubs owner Tom Ricketts asked when the Cubs would be ready to compete for a championship.
Epstein’s response: The Cubs would get worse before things could get better. Building a strong farm system and young talent meant that the Cub faithful would need to be patient. Epstein’s plan, however, leveraged the “rules” of the collective bargaining agreement, one that allocated larger draft budgets to losing teams. Losing early to win later enabled the Cubs to acquire players like Kris Bryant and Kyle Schwarber, who were key contributors to the 2016 championship run.
The readiness assessment is a pivotal part of Zara’s story. Zara, like Amazon, is a rule breaker; its fast-fashion business model is truly game-changing. So too are the supply chain capabilities needed to make fast-fashion work. Compare the Zara way to Gap’s approach (see Table 1).
Zara Has Built Unique Capabilities to Change the Rules
The backstory: Amancio Ortega, Zara’s founder, got his start in the apparel industry as a 14-year old errand boy. A decade later, Ortega began developing his own designs, reproducing popular styles, but with his own twists. He soon realized that if he could bring trendy designs to market quickly and inexpensively he could wow consumers. Ortega simply needed to convert the concept into capabilities. Readiness assessment provided Ortega the insight needed to build the capabilities that would fuel Zara’s fast-fashion strategy. Let’s highlight two points here.
Infrastructure. Capabilities derive from infrastructure. For instance, Zara brings its 30,000 distinct designs from concept to rack in only 14-24 days (a 10X advantage over rivals). To reliably hit this target, Zara sources over 50% of all items from local subcontractors in Spain (over 75% in Europe) and preps all product to be rack ready in its 400,000 square meter DC called the Cube. Zara’s infrastructure links supply to demand.
Decision processes. At Zara, decision makers evaluate every investment based on how it will enhance Zara’s capabilities. For instance, Xan Salgado Badas, Zara’s head of IT, stuck with an outdated, DOS-based point of sales system (POS) for years because newer systems didn’t offer any strategic capability upgrade. Yet, when Zara figured out how to use RFID to gain insight into fashion trends and hasten replenishment, it rolled out the technology at a scale and speed that startled rivals (in 2016, Zara bought 500 million RFID chips, 16% of that year’s total RFID sales).
Being fast and driving trends pays serious dividends. Customers visit Zara stores 17 times a year, compared to three times to five times for rivals. That’s because they know if a trendy new outfit sells out, it may not be back. In effect, Zara has turned customers into treasure hunters, transforming stockouts into a sales pitch.
Along the way, Zara became the world’s largest fashion retailer and Amancio Ortega the world’s second richest person. But, Zara’s team also knows that readiness assessment and capability development must be a lifestyle, not an event. If Zara isn’t always getting better, a rival like BooHoo or ASOS might make Zara’s version of fast-fashion obsolete. Just like the Cubs and Zara, you are only as good as you are ready.
Assemble the Right Players; Build or Buy Needed Competencies
Redefining rules and assessing readiness are tough tasks. But, the outputs - a capability-development matrix and a talent-acquisition map - are critical to devising a winning game plan.
Bringing all of the right pieces together and molding them into a champion is equally daunting. Emotional fortitude is needed. Executives like Theo Epstein, however, embrace the team-building challenge. Team ego results when you holistically progress through the remaining 3Rs - right players, right roles and right relationships. Let’s explore how Epstein brings these Rs together.
Through experience or intuition, Epstein knows the best players aren’t always the right players. Many so-called super teams never hoist the Commissioner’s Trophy at season’s end. So, what type of player does Epstein look for?
Talent is critical, but even more so, Epstein seeks a mix of athleticism and positional skill backed up by EQ and a team-first mindset. After all, when a crisis arises - and it will during the course of a 162-game regular season - team ego decides whether the team steps up or collapses.
The better question is, perhaps, how does Epstein put the right mix of skills on the field? Like you, Epstein has two options. He can build competencies or he can buy them. To field a consistent contender, he must do both exceptionally well. Figure 2 depicts Epstein’s method.
Assembling the Right Players
Phase 1: Long game. The core of an Epstein team emerges from the draft. Young talent like Javier Baez (2011) and Kris Bryant (2013) is identified and developed. The process takes time, but it provides a big bang for the buck. Baez and Bryant both made pivotal contributions to the Cubs’ World Series run. Of note, when Epstein arrived in 2011, he began to trade valuable players that didn’t fit his vision and culture, giving the Cubs more draft picks.
Phase 2: Close key gaps. Epstein opportunistically closes key skill gaps by acquiring proven talent via free agency or a well-timed trade. Consider Jake Arrieta, a starting pitcher acquired from the Baltimore Orioles just before the 2013 trading deadline. Arrieta won the 2015 NL Cy Young Award and was the ace of the Cubs’ 2016 pitching staff.
Phase 3: Win now. By July 25, 2016, the Cubs had the best record in MLB. But, by Epstein’s estimation, the Cubs still lacked a critical piece: a hard-throwing lefty closer. To bring Aroldis Chapman, the hardest thrower in baseball (105-MPH fastball), to Chicago, Epstein traded four up-and-coming prospects - a steep price Epstein was willing to pay to win it all in 2016.
One more point: Epstein knows that the concept of right “players” extends beyond the playing field. To help make things click, Epstein brought on Joe Maddon, former manager of the Tampa Bay Rays. Maddon’s keen sense of strategy and a sabermetrics-driven willingness to tweak the batting order and defensive alignment helped position the Cubs to win a league-leading 103 games.
Simply summarized, getting ready to compete means bringing the right players on board, whether drafting undervalued prospects, signing free agents, making pivotal trades or signing a manager whose true talents are being underutilized.
Apple has shown an uncanny ability to bring the right players together to develop and deliver hit products and services. Figure 3 shows how Apple uses Epstein’s playbook.
Apple’s Path to Developing the HomePod
Phase 1 - Long Game: At the turn of the millennium, Apple began to invest in what has become the source of its success - software. The iTunes Music Store, paired with iOS, set in place the foundation for Apple’s ecosystem, which consists of over one billion active devices worldwide and includes services such as App Store, Apple Pay, Apple Music and iCloud. Apple touches its owners’ lives every day - and in an increasing variety of ways.
Phase 2 - Close key gaps: By buying Siri in 2010, Apple forged into both the search and mobile “assistant” markets. More recently, in 2014, Apple acquired Beats Electronics, quickly integrating Beats Music into its own streaming service, Apple Music. Pundits, nevertheless, questioned Beat’s $3 billion price tag. But, Apple appeared to have a compelling goal: To close gaps that powered Google Android’s foray into Apple’s turf.
Phase 3 - Win now: In August 2016, Apple quietly acquired Turi, an artificial intelligence startup, for $200 million. Less than a year later, on June 5, 2017, Apple introduced HomePod, a device designed to “reinvent music in our homes.” The Beats acquisition now made sense. But, that’s not all. HomePod is a home assistant - Apple’s answer to Amazon’s Echo and Google Home. Turi’s machine learning makes Siri smarter, giving Apple the win-now capability needed for HomePod to become the central nervous system for the IoT-enabled home, a nascent market with fantastic growth potential.
Apple is seldom first to market, but the design, user-friendly interface and massive ecosystem that support Apple products and services make it a game changer. The result: Apple’s market capitalization hit $800 billion in 2017 - 2X Amazon’s. Consider two facts: Despite owning only 30% of the mobile operating system market, Apple earned 90% of the industry’s 2015 profits. And Apple earns developer loyalty by delivering 75% more revenue vis-à-vis Google Play, making App Store the go-to place for the latest and greatest apps. Bringing the right players to the game has made Apple a perennial industry champion.
Put Players in the Right Roles; Shift As Needed
Getting the right players is just one step in the team-building process. Jim Collins described what comes next: “Get the right people on the bus, the wrong people off the bus, and the right people in the right seats.” Matching players to roles is critical. Yet, the way most companies do this won’t deliver a true - i.e., inimitable - competitive edge.
To be a supply chain champion, you have to think differently about how to mix and match key capabilities. With Epstein at the helm, the Cubs tinker incessantly with player roles. That’s one reason Epstein hired Maddon: His teams led the league in distinct batting lineups and in-game positional shifts every year from 2006 to 2014.
The goal: Tweak the lineup to improve the Cubs’ chance to win any given game. Imagine sending your catcher out to pitch. Maddon did just that, inserting David Ross to pitch against the Milwaukee Brewers. Ross had never pitched in the MLB, but he recorded a perfect inning. Maddon’s penchant for moving players around led the Cubs to acquire Ben Zobrist. Maddon called Zobrist a “super-U,” someone who can play multiple positions.
In fact, during his career, Zobrist has played every position except pitcher and catcher. Proactive role shifting made the Cubs improbable season possible.
In 2015, many pundits had already written Best Buy’s obituary, claiming the electronics retailer couldn’t survive Amazon’s assault and consumers’ affinity for “showrooming.”
Yet, Best Buy did survive, showing how role shifting can create a competitive edge even against Amazon.
How did Best Buy do it? Consider three pivot points that enabled Best Buy to become an experienced retailer.
Reduced costs. To contest showrooming, Best Buy began matching prices. To reduce costs and make price matching economically viable, Best Buy deepened collaborative relationships with suppliers, especially in the areas of merchandising, forecasting and replenishment.
Repurposed bricks. For brick-and-mortar retailers, Amazon’s onslaught turned what once was an asset into a liability. Yet by shipping online orders direct from local stores and encouraging in-store pickup of online orders, Best Buy can deliver with Amazon-like speed, turning its 1,600 physical stores back into an asset.
Reimagined roles. Clicks and mortar wasn’t Best Buy’s only proactive role shift. Best Buy invited top suppliers like Samsung, Apple, LG, Microsoft, Sony and Google to set up shops within its cavernous stores. Best Buy charges rent and benefits from high-margin sales of high-end appliances and electronics.
What’s in it for suppliers? The opportunity to create immersive customer experiences without the cost of owning stores. Google Guides, full-time Google staff, offer tutorials and tech classes, helping customers discover, play and have fun. Samsung Experience shops are located in every Best Buy store.
The result of role shifting: In 2017, Best Buy shares surged to an all-time high. However, as the Cubs know from first-hand experience, some role shifts backfire. Boeing discovered this the hard way with the launch of its vaunted 787 Dreamliner. Poorly conceived and managed shifts cost Boeing five years in first-mover advantage and, by some estimates, $20 billion in design, production and launch costs.
To avoid such misfires, you really do need to do the work entailed by all five Rs. Despite the risks, as Table 2 highlights, game changers from rivals’ strategic moves to disruptive technologies dictate that you begin to experiment with proactive role shifting.
Forces Driving Role Shifting
Cultivate the Right Relationships; Build Identity and Trust
Having the right players in the right roles does guarantee that your team looks good on paper. Sadly, looking good on paper is no guarantee your team will win once the game begins. What separates paper tigers from competitive champions, both on the sporting field and in the boardroom? Champions possess chemistry; that is, a common vision backed by a willingness to work together to achieve strategic goals - even if someone has to play a less visible role.
Critically, chemistry derives from trust. To fully sense the value of trust, consider this key fact from the auto industry: The most trusted automakers are also the most profitable. Your takeaway: Ultimate success requires that you invest in a culture of trust.
Theo Epstein is a culture guy. Organizational culture, after all, endures beyond the departure of talent. So, what are the core tenets of an Epstein-inspired culture? For starters, Epstein believes people perform best, especially under pressure, when they are part of something bigger than themselves. He also believes that environment matters. That’s why the Cubs’ new $300 million stadium renovation included a round clubhouse - 60 feet, 6 inches in diameter (the exact distance from the pitcher’s mound to home plate). Epstein wanted to promote collaboration by putting everyone within eyesight of each other and encouraging serendipitous conversations. The space eliminated hierarchy, engendering camaraderie and team identity. David Ross, the Cubs catcher, described the design as, “a subliminal message they’re sending.”
Beyond facilities, Epstein cultivates “lever points”other people who help drive the culture. Epstein then steps back and lets them do some heavy lifting. Joe Maddon, the Cubs manager, is an ideal lever for an Epstein-built team. “Try not to suck,” a key Maddonism, communicates big-time expectations without big-time pressure. Madden helped nurture the Cubs culture: Trust each other; do the right things consistently, including stretching for better results; have fun, but hold each other accountable; expect greatness. Epstein and Maddon know that if you build the right culture, that comes crunch time, someone will step up.
And that’s exactly what happened in game seven of the World Series. After digging out of a 1-3 deficit and building a commanding three-run lead going into the bottom of the 8th inning, the Cubs did the unimaginable - they gave up the lead and gave away the momentum. The 103 wins didn’t matter anymore; the dream was slipping away. Then, it began to rain - and culture took over. As the grounds crew came on the field, the Cubs exited toward the locker room.
Jason Heyward impulsively called his teammates into a weight room for a player’s only meeting. Never the outspoken leader, and struggling at the plate throughout the playoffs, Heyward reminded his teammates just who the Cubs were. David Ross recounted Heyward’s message: “He just said: ‘We’re the best team in baseball for a reason. Continue to play our game, support one another. These are your brothers here, fight for your brothers, lift them up, continue to stay positive. We’ve been doing this all year so continue to be us.’”
What would’ve happened if Heyward hadn’t spoken up? The Cubs may still have won. But, Epstein knows that you leave less to chance when you invest in the right culture.
Honda is a Cubs type of culture warrior.
More reliant on suppliers than rival carmakers, Honda’s buyer-supplier culture is truly unique, even a little quirky. Honda treats strategic suppliers as an extension of Honda itself.
Simply put, Honda invests in supply partners as if it is buying their capacity and capabilities, not just their parts. By the way, 90% of Honda’s spend is with strategic partners.
To help these partners succeed, Honda sends engineering teams to work on-site at suppliers for three months - and as long as 24 months - at no cost to the supplier.
The goal: Help suppliers optimize manufacturing and business processes. A typical best practices (BP) improvement initiative improves quality by 30% and labor productivity by 50%. More importantly, under Honda’s coaching, suppliers develop critical skills. Honda, in turn, gains stronger supply partners. Cost savings are shared 50/50 with the supplier.
Honda’s investments aren’t limited to BP projects. Honda expects supply partners to participate in corporate training, senior-leader business reviews and new product and target costing programs.
You may be wondering why Honda invests so much in its suppliers instead of switching to more capable suppliers. Honda’s response: Other suppliers would have similar problems. The nuanced answer, however, runs deeper.
Like Epstein, Honda is playing the long game, building a trusted team that can compete the “Honda Way.” Identity is critical.
One result: Honda is the most trusted carmaker among suppliers. Almost 40 years after launching U.S. operations, nearly all of Honda’s original supply team remains intact. The trust also shows up in Honda’s profitability.
Despite Toyota’s superior scale - producing twice as many cars per year - Honda has consistently delivered higher profit margins.
Now, let’s go back to the early 1990s. J. Ignacio Lopez, General Motor’s purchasing czar, tore up supplier contracts, putting everything out to bid.
By saving $4 billion dollars, Lopez saved GM from bankruptcy. But, Lopez alienated suppliers, solidifying a culture of mistrust.
Over a decade later, supplier resentment still ran hot. Suppliers scored GM a 114 on the 2005 Supplier Working Relations Index (the lowest score ever - 300 points behind Toyota’s 415).
The real cost: Suppliers were holding back on GM, dedicating their best engineers and sharing their latest technology with more trusted partners like Honda and Toyota.
The rise of autonomous vehicles, however, forced GM in 2015 to acknowledge an existential threat, that its future depended on supplier innovation.
Compelled to change, GM began offering longer-term contracts to urge suppliers to more openly share their best ideas. Two years later, GM’s 2017 WRI score reached its all-time high of 290, lagging behind only Toyota and Honda.
The Journey Continues
The Cubs faithful view Epstein as a miracle worker. In truth, Epstein simply embraced core tenets supply chain champions put to work every day as they design and manage world-class value-creation teams. What then is your key takeaway?
Epstein succeeded by executing each R as part of an integrated 5Rs strategy.
In Epstein’s words:
“Acquiring the talent is only half the battle. The other half of the Cubs’ rebuilding required the organization to establish a winning culture. This meant devising a ‘Cubs Way.’”
In our experience, putting all five pieces of a 5Rs strategy together is quite a feat. Even supply chain champions struggle to implement all five Rs.
But, Maddon offers a word of advice: “The process is fearless.”
If you continue to work the process, the 5Rs will help you break whatever supply chain curse you’re facing.
About the Authors
Stanley E. Fawcett, Ph.D., is the Goddard Professor of global supply chain management at the Goddard School of Business at Weber State University. He can be reached at [email protected].
Image Credit: Dan Vasconcellos
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