The Signal September 16, 2022

Five Lessons for Supply Chain Leaders from Her Late Majesty, Queen Elizabeth II

Steering the monarchy through incredible changes and challenges, Queen Elizabeth leaves us with powerful lessons to apply to our lives and our work. Her passing reminds us of what you as leaders owe history.

Kevin O'Marah Avatar
Kevin O'Marah

This past Thursday when the world heard of HRH Queen Elizabeth's passing, those who were watching saw rainbows above both Buckingham Palace and Windsor Castle. It was an appropriate message for anyone who cares about our world – both future and past. Regardless of one's feelings about monarchy, the Queen's life has been a testament to strength, steadfastness, and a commitment to duty that everyone can learn from. To me, having first set foot in Britain 37 years ago, the rainbows read as a collective expression of gratitude for a leader's life well lived, and a reminder to take lessons forward into our work.

For supply chain leaders, five lessons stand out:

1. Poise. For seventy years the Queen kept her cool as Britain's fortunes rose and fell with history. Her ability to, as the saying goes, Keep Calm and Carry On, was vital to the United Kingdom's cohesion through a tumultuous time of change. As supply chain people saw during COVID, our duty is not only to assure the flow of essentials up to and including life-saving vaccines, but also to project confidence that things will keep working through it all. Torsten Pilz, CSCO of Honeywell says of supply chain leaders: “they don't panic”. He notes that overreactions can cause real trouble in the connected operations of an end-to-end supply chain, a phenomenon we all know as the bullwhip effect. Poise makes a difference.

2. Taking the Long View. It almost goes without saying that Queen Elizabeth's words and actions were carefully chosen to play well over time. She was, as former PM Tony Blair said in a recent BBC interview, “both traditional and modern at the same time”, which was a stabilizing force through a time of transition. Supply chain leaders face a similar moment, needing to embrace and master digitization and decarbonization while holding true to traditional and timeless principles like lean, quality, and safety. Taking the long view will help as supply chain leaders drive change, while still respecting the traditions that hold our teams together.

3. Reliability. Through countless hours of retrospective reporting this past weekend, the Queen's reliability as a sovereign, as a mother and grandmother, and even as an approachable neighbor for the Scots surrounding her home at Balmoral, stood out. She never broke character and never failed to meet expectations. Supply chain's top value to our customers is the same. The nature of supply chain as engineered systems is to reward reliability with efficiency and penalize volatility with expensive buffering in inventory, capacity, and lead-times. Reliability in word (don't overpromise) and deed (don't under-deliver) may be the most essential trait of a great supply chain leader.

4. Humor. The one time I laughed out loud this weekend was watching a YouTube retelling of the Queen's hilarious handling of an American hiker's question of whether she'd ever met the Queen. Of all the lessons supply chain leaders might take from Her Royal Highness, knowing how and when to have a sense of humor may be the least obvious. Supply chainers have a tendency to keep their typically dry wit to themselves, but with a higher profile and an increasing need to engage and persuade people outside of operations, maybe the time is right for some public levity. If the Queen can get a laugh, maybe you can too.

5. Service. Last and most important of the lessons supply chain leaders can take from the Queen is the power of dedication to service. Elizabeth's promise at her 1952 Coronation was a life of service to the Crown and the people. Supply chain leaders in 2022 have an obligation to reinvent the production, distribution, and consumption of physical goods for people and the planet if we want to have a sustainable future. Decarbonization through digitization won't be easy, but it is the mission of a lifetime for supply chain leaders. Commitment to service was the Queen's true north. Supply chain leaders could do worse than to emulate her.

Wisely applying technology to operations that feed and care for humanity is a calling for many of you and the key to our future. Queen Elizabeth's passing is a reminder of what you as leaders owe history.

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