Innovation, Supply Chains And Moving Forward With Trust

A celebrated poet of the 20th century, Rainer Maria Rilke’s reputation as one of the all-time greats was cemented in large part with the publication of The Sonnets to Orpheus in 1922. Written during a creative burst during the month of February, The Sonnets is a collection of 55 poems that stands as one of the world’s most enduring works of art and takes as its central motif the tragic story of Orpheus and his wife Eurydice.

Orpheus, regarded in Greek mythology as a musician without equal, loses his beloved wife Eurydice to a fatal snakebite. Travelling to the underworld, he beguiles the lord and lady of the dead through the power of his music to release his wife and restore her to life. They agree, but on the condition that Orpheus walk ahead of his wife on the road leading out of Hades without looking back. Just before Eurydice makes it across the threshold, the doubting Orpheus succumbs to the temptation to turn around to make sure his wife was really following him. Orpheus sees her shade for a brief moment but having broken his agreement with Hades, Eurydice is lost to him. She is compelled to return to the underworld forever, leaving Orpheus inconsolable.

At the core of the story of Orpheus and Eurydice is the role of trust. Rilke, in Sonnet 12, poetically encapsulates the essence of trust in this distillation of Orpheus’ episode in the underworld: “If the farmer worries himself with the question of how the sown grain transforms itself in the summer, he will get nowhere. The Earth gives forth.”

How difficult it is to trust.

Consider, for instance, the role of trust in supply chain management. What can we learn here? During the first few months of the Coronavirus pandemic in 2020, with shortages of essentials such as milk, toiletries and PPE, weaknesses in supply chains were exposed, leading some to conjecture for the need to re-shore manufacturing capabilities from overseas and establish more supply centers domestically. However, such moves don’t eliminate supply chain risks, but rather simply change where and how they occur. Instead, as Supply Chain Management for Dummies author Daniel Stanton (known widely as “Mr. Supply Chain”) asserts, the key to risk management requires not simply a consideration of where the players in your supply chain are located, but rather how many you have and the level of trust you can afford to extend to them.

“Mitigating risk is about diversifying capacity. It’s giving yourself flexibility; it’s identifying and resolving single points of failure,” said Stanton. “The big connection to me is actually around trust. In the context of supply chain, innovation is about collaboration and collaboration comes from trust. You won’t collaborate with people that you don’t trust. It means that it’s harder to trust more people. If you’ve got one supplier, if you’ve concentrated your supply base and simplified your supply chain, it actually makes it easier to trust your partners and it encourages collaboration.”

Stanton points out that the situation becomes a dichotomy: the fewer partners in your chain, the easier it is to depend upon and trust them (vulnerability thus leading to more collaboration); the more partners in your chain, the greater your supply chain resilience but the harder it is to trust your individual partners. “If you want innovation you need to have trust. If you want resilience, you need to reduce vulnerability, which means less reliance on trusting. Trust doesn’t just involve the structure of the supply chain, but also when you think about things like information sharing and information technology and cyber security. That is a big strategic leadership challenge. It’s a question of how…

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