Uncertainty, Volatility and a new operating advantage

Uncertainty mixed with volatility, such as what the financial markets and various macro-metrics are signaling is an explosive mix, even for very well-run companies. In times like these what companies can earn (Revenue, Profit) becomes uncertain. One thing remains certain – there are many opportunities to learn.

But, when it comes to learning that’s useful for the operations of hardware product companies, there are far too many stories wasted on a few large companies and speculative, often misplaced assessments made regarding specific ‘traits’ and ‘tools’ of successful companies that helped them achieve operational excellence (a la Apple, Cisco, etc.).

Here are four specific, contrarian lessons from dynamic, younger companies that despite their smaller size and vulnerabilities took on much larger competitors, often successfully, achieving solid operating success.

You would find these useful for your operations to tide over this period of variability/ volatility in demand-supply, and utilize the operating capability outlined here to your advantage in 2020 and beyond.

From a new vantage point – Contrarian Prudence

Contrary to conventional wisdom, companies can learn a lot more from smaller, younger companies that despite their smaller size and vulnerabilities, took on much larger competitors and often prevailed, and attained an enviable customer and revenue base in a (relatively) short period of time.

Finding patterns in this group is more relevant, especially for younger or smaller companies and startups, looking to carve their niche.

As a part of a startup, Zyom, we have learned something quite counter-intuitive working alongside some dynamic, highly competitive smaller companies. One, in particular (let’s call it Company “RapidR”), stands out, among peers. We will use a sum-total of our experience at this and other companies to highlight a few key learnings, some quite contrarian.

This company was able to navigate through the last ‘Deep Recession’ in the US (2007-2008) while still a small company, and came racing out of it, scaling steadily and then at a furious pace, taking on, often successfully much larger competitors, and establishing a strong position for itself.

What follows are a few lessons learned working with this (RapidR) and other companies in the networking and broader Hi-tech electronics products industry, some of which fly in the face of conventional wisdom and “management best practices” Continue reading “Uncertainty, Volatility and a new operating advantage”

On Operations and Scale – A Key Driving Force

Making a company scale is vital. For hardware product companies (offering physical goods), this is especially key when technology is still in its early stages of adoption. Scaling early provides a solid competitive anchor in the markets they serve, making it harder for follow-on competition to achieve similar scale or size. Most research and case-studies have overlooked a very important piece of the scaling puzzle – scaling operations effectively and rapidly – both the Demand and Supply-side.

The author derives ideas and inspiration from an example of scale available to us in abundance – that of us, Humans, and attempts to answer the following question –

Why is it that some companies can achieve scale and grow, while others in the same or similar industry with promising products cannot?

Utilizing experiential evidence of scale from directly working with a company that scaled significantly in a short period, and utilizing direct and indirect knowledge from other companies, including past experiences, the author arrives at, what could be fairly counter-intuitive answers.

One specific capability in particular stands us in good stead.

What is this capability? How to develop & utilize this capability?

This article could give you some fresh ideas as you plan to scale in the new year (2019).

To Scale is Human – Evidence from the long arc of Pre-history

Travelling back into the mists of time, an alien would have wondered, looking at us – the Human species, whether we could even make it past a few millennia.

The Homo Sapiens were not the best equipped, the strongest, of great size or anything spectacular to have survived, let alone thrive on Planet Earth.

There were many competing “human like” species (Hominins), some stronger, many better adapted for the conditions they were living in (Neandertals in Europe, Denisovans in Asia, among others).

Somehow, we survived and they did not. Somehow, we were able to not only overtake the other Hominins on their home turf, but we went from strength to strength until, ours was the only surviving human-like species left.

Today, we dominate the planet, and have changed the geography of the planet, not just the history. When it comes to scale among living beings, there is no better example than us – Humans (1,6).

How did this come about? Many things appear to have happened along the way, corroborated by scientists. One in particular stands out – we gathered beneficial mutations – physical, cognitive and social – along the way.

While there are different views on how it came about –

the single most beneficial “mutation” that the H. sapiens evolved was the propensity for active collaboration with totally unrelated individuals.

This singular ability of ‘being able to engage with others in complex, social activities towards joint goals’ – scientists conclude – is one of the key reasons the modern human (H. sapiens) survived, outlasting other hominins (2,3).

Kolo-painting-Tanzania-rock-art-sm
Picture: Pre-historic Art – Kolo Painting (Tanzania) https://northerncircuitadventure.co.tz/kolo-painting/

So, how is this related to the operating success of the modern-day enterprise.

Using experiential evidence from a company going through critical phases of its development life-cycle, in a young market-space, we would like to share how this ability of being ‘peerless collaborators’ is a critical capability that separates the best run companies from the also rans.

Continue reading “On Operations and Scale – A Key Driving Force”

2013 Takeaways, Forecasting the Leaps in 2014

As we prepare for another spin around the sun, we found it fitting to reflect back on 2013 learnings, and take a glimpse at our crystal ball for the journey ahead in 2014

Takeaways – 2 short stories

Thanks to interactions with our customers, partners and other practitioners, the year was chock-a-block full of learnings. 2 highlights:

1) How does a young company know when they have entered the Operating or ‘O’-Zone?  Over the last 4+ years we had the privilege of watching a company (Ruckus Wireless www.ruckuswireless.com) blossom into a significant player in a newer segment of the networking industry. As a solution provider, we have worked and thought hard about the development lifecycles of high growth, high change industries for over a decade, wondering how & when a company knows that they have come of age, or entered the critical ‘O’-Zone, as we define it. O for Operating. As defined in a previous blog (http://bit.ly/MemoToChiefExec ) young Product companies that enter the O-Zone see big changes- from shipping 10s or 100s of units a month of a handful of products, they are quickly thrust into a bigger, rapidly growing Operation – 1000s, potentially tens of 1000s of units being shipped, and this transition can be a mean one. Managing this transition requires the ambidextrous qualities of careful orchestration as well as rapid, intuitive decision-making and execution.

This year we got some great data-points. Those at the forefront of Supply and Sales Operations functions– Order Fulfillment, Supply Chain, Channel Sales managers – enjoy a key vantage point to see this transition as it unfolds. This valuable insight (that a young Product company has entered the O-Zone) if utilized in a timely manner can be harnessed for a greater Operating advantage that can be sustainable over several years.

2) Where do the Highest Impact Collaboration initiatives spring from? How? – As young companies enter the Operating Zone of their development cycle, processes and systems related to collaboration cannot be left to chance or management directives. Systematic Collaboration becomes especially critical between functions that may appear to have conflicting objectives and metrics in the near-term – for example, Sales focus on Revenue Growth and Ops on Cost Control. However, collaboration cannot be regimented through management directives. The genesis of high impact collaboration initiatives happens usually in the trenches, and its success rests exclusively on the efforts of those that get the work done. Take the case of ProductCo – a Product Company (all names changed for anonymity).

Collaboration-Tasked

As volumes have grown quickly at ProductCo, fulfilling orders in a timely manner has become challenging for Operations. Shelley in Supply Chain Ops figures out that she ships a portion of products every week to the same Distribution partners and her colleague on the Channel Sales side – Julia – needs support. Support, so she can systematically compile sales data, interact with her Distribution partners effectively to understand downstream demand and provide quick signals back to Shelley in Ops, with all the data literally at her fingertips. Shelley (Supply Chain) runs this need by her manager, who points them to a systems vendor for brainstorming. Out of Julia (Sales) interactions with the vendor springs a collaborative system which will yield data and demand insights for the ProductCo in the near-term and on an ongoing basis. No major hullabaloo over the choice of systems, just a single-minded focus on working jointly with the vendor, across functions to improve the customer experience – through faster and accurate collaboration utilizing fresh data. All this happened because the initial thought to change came from within, was nurtured by a progressive management and collaboration culture, and effectively implemented working with a solution vendor as a partner.

Leaping forward in 2014.. and beyond

a) Collaborating systematically across functions and partners will gain traction going beyond cookie-cutter approaches : 2014 will see the onset of specialization in a critical collaboration area- Sales & Operations Planning and Execution. Dynamic companies will demand more than the cookie cutter approaches that have been offered to date. Industry specialization, smarter demand management methods, more tailored data and workflow linkages which will result in a faster and smarter collaboration between Sales, Supply Chain and their partners.

b) Leading companies and younger aspirants will refocus on profitability and away from a singular focus on Revenue growth only– Whether motivated by competition, financial valuations, cost of capital or more mundane business prudence, leading Product companies will focus back to product and operational profitability, and will be rewarded richly (http://reut.rs/1hagYpN ). Those that fall short will start seeing their valuations drop, resulting in erosion in market standing over time. Profitable Revenue growth will become the mantra of those who are at the head of the pack and intend to stay there.

c) System Implementation will capture center stage as a core success factor : As the botched rollout of the Affordable Care Act (ACA) website revealed (http://bit.ly/ObamacareIssues), bringing a website “up” is no guarantee of its success. Systems implementation requires a rich, complex set of interconnected activities to be completed in a timely and cost effective manner. This fate has also befallen many a system implementations in the private sector too. Since private companies can afford to throw a blanket of secrecy over such bungling, we hear only of the spectacular failures (http://ubm.io/JpGedn). 2014 and beyond will bring renewed focus to the arts and sciences of effective systems implementation.

Wishing you a Leap forward in 2014!!

Memo to the Chief Executive – Have you looked at this Critical Collaboration as you prepare for growth?

To The Chief Executive, Dynamic Startup,

The tide is turning. Channel partners and key customers are moving fast to your products..

Just as you were preparing to hear the beautiful humming sound of a well-oiled Operating machine shipping products out – you hear some ugly, jarring noises –

‘Hot-selling product has gone on allocation

‘Big Channel partners are getting frustrated, as lead times start creeping up

What happened? The Critical ‘O’-Zone

First, the good news – You have reached a major inflection point in your development cycle. You are no longer a small, obscure supplier waiting for the next large order. Orders are now waiting for you. Congratulations!

The not-so-good news – these orders will not wait long before they jump ship to a competitor.. Channel partners may divert attention to these competitors too.. So, what happened?

You just entered what we call the ‘O’ Zone (the “Operating” Zone). This is that part of your lifecycle (“zone”) when customers want to see you Operate like clockwork– shipping out 10x, 100x or more volume than before, yet meeting delivery dates globally, at attractive price points.

Image

What happens in this vital phase of your Company’s development cycle is going to be determined in a big way by a critical collaboration – Near Real-time Collaboration between your Sales and Manufacturing/ Supply Chain Operations (Ops) team.

What’s causing these pains? No ‘growing pains’ is not a good label. Here is a critical one–

Divergent metrics & its impact on Sales & Operations

Your Sales team is focused on hyper-growth – signing up new Channel partners, winning new deals with end customers despite tough competition.

They are totally focused on order volume (Revenue) metrics, and compensated appropriately. So, they make sure they open up the gates and get more customers, more partners and more orders in. But hold on!

Do they have enough time to pivot to their Ops partners – give them a heads up about new customers, what product forecasts will be like?

Your Ops team, on the other hand, has an increasingly complex balancing act as demand takes off. They can grow their Supply Networks – to an extent (signing up new sources – new CM/ ODMs, new suppliers, etc.) to gain extra capacity, but then they hit the brick wall – of ‘Cost’ centered metrics.

The strains start to show in interactions between Sales & Ops.

The offshoot  of all this is not pretty – As orders increase, Ops fulfillment can be in lock step only for a little while, after which demand and supply diverge. For Ops, it becomes a guessing game –

Q. What will Sales sell? How much buffer stock should we keep?

For Sales it becomes a hand-wringing exercise, as they field questions from customers –

Q. When will our orders ship? Why can’t you deliver it sooner?

With ‘Keep cost down’ as the guiding principle for Ops, it becomes a crazy dash to expedite when demand swings up with little notice, flying goods over instead of the more inexpensive modes (sea, rail or road) – depleting margins.

The human costs are bigger – anxieties mount as Sales & Ops try to play a game which looks somewhat like – catch the ball ‘blindfolded’.

Key to growth – A Vital, Systematic collaboration

In the O-Zone (operating zone) we need to play carefully – Pay special heed to the needs of this collaboration which is vital for growth –

Between Sales & Supply Chain Operations

To start off – Metrics need to be aligned.

How about rallying both Sales & Ops around ‘Profitable Growth’ metrics?

Let’s discuss it as a team at the leadership levels first. At a minimum – Sales, Supply Chain Operations, Operational Finance and you, should participate. The dividends of playing smart in the O-Zone are huge – Growth with Profitability – A distinct Operating Advantage. We, at Zyom, will be glad to help and explain further.

Collaboration – One small step.. A big operating advantage

Collaboration is powerful! Dan Tapscott, in his TED talk, explains how starlings, small birds, can take on larger predators when they fly in formation with hundreds or thousands of other starlings[1].

To date, the word ‘collaboration’ has been used profusely in business text and talk. However, we have barely moved the needle in product innovation, production and distribution that smart collaboration can result in. This is surprising given the transformation that has taken place in the technology world – from a ‘desktop centered’ to an ‘internet-enabled’ consumption, creation and distribution of information –that is fairly ubiquitous world-wide.

Poor responsiveness of far-flung supply-chains

A recent Economist Special Report[2] highlights how poor responsiveness becomes a big Achilles heel in extended supply chains with offshored or outsourced manufacturing. It points out how GE home appliances and Chesapeake Bay Candle have decided to ‘reshore’ manufacturing operations back to the US (from manufacturing sites in China and Mexico), to become “more responsive”.

In 1999, I had the opportunity of designing supply chain collaboration software for companies such as HP and Dell. However, the promise remained unfulfilled, due, in big part to the relative immaturity of internet technologies. That has completely changed in the last 8-10 years. As a part of a startup – Zyom – we have been hard at work trying to realize this dream of internet enabled smart collaboration.

At a recent webinar hosted by Zyom, Fred Harried, VP of Operations at Ruckus Wireless, explained – how collaboration was one of the key factors that enabled him to scale his Operations several X in the last 4 years, and how Zyom’s MozartCC system was a key collaboration enabler. Attached is a brief 6 minutes overview of some of the Q&A highlights from the webinar[3].

This example highlights how a small step – the innovative use of internet for collaboration across partners provided a boost to a startup in handling changes much faster, ensuring low inventory exposure for all supply network partners – a true Win-Win.

We are at the very early stages of utilizing the huge untapped potential of the internet for connected enterprises, their value chains and beyond – Collaboration may indeed be a disruptive advantage for Operations… more on that in the next blog.

Drop a line – Do you think collaboration could provide a competitive advantage? Fuel growth? Be a Disruptor? Or, none of the above.


[1] Don Tapscott: Four principles for the open world; POSTED JUN 2012; TEDGlobal 2012

http://www.ted.com/talks/don_tapscott_four_principles_for_the_open_world_1.html

[2] The Economist, Special Report – Outsourcing & Offshoring, Jan 19th, 2013

http://www.economist.com/blogs/schumpeter/2013/01/special-report-outsourcing-and-offshoring

[3] ZyomTV – Scaling Operations-Zyom Webinar Q&A Highlights (Dec 7, 2012)

http://youtu.be/GvSTb2nmoq0