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When is a door not a door..?

A door without a frame or a wall
Image: Jez Timms on Unsplash

Many people will know the answer to this question, and those that don’t will groan when they find out (the answer is ‘when it’s ajar’). I like a play on words as much as the next person, but language becomes a real problem when the meaning is unclear.

The word ‘chain’ — as used in the term supply chain — is a case in point. There are several dictionary definitions, the most relevant to this context being “a length of metal rings that are connected together” (as in an anchor chain) and “a system of people, processes, or organisations that work together in a particular order” (as in production chain or chain of command). Neither of these are helpful in describing the complex, dynamic arrangement of organisations that interact to make the products we buy.

The processes required to turn raw materials into finished products might need to be run ‘in a particular order’, but it is generally possible to select from a global directory of organisations to get that done. Competition to provide a good, or service has been the main driver of improved efficiency for centuries, and most businesses evolve to have a selection of possible suppliers to provide operational resilience. It is completely routine for the source of inputs to change - day-to-day and week-to-week. So, while the 'particular order' in which the processes must be carried remains constant - when a manufacturer changes their input supplier, every upstream organisation, back to raw materials, will change for that product.

When considering outcomes for people and planet, it matters which organisations get the work. Some do a really 'good' job, others not so much. Price is normally the most important criteria - but a lower cost needs to be achieved through genuine efficiency gain, not through slave labour or illegal harvesting. Traceability is about knowing which organisations participated in the total process — with sufficient certainty to eliminate modern slavery and deforestation, to minimise carbon emissions and water stress at the same time as maximising profit margin.

We have a word for 'many similar parts that are connected together to allow movement or communication' — it’s 'network' — perhaps we should start using it. The advantages of road networks or rail networks or the internet is generally well understood - these structures provide resilience and efficiency. So too do supply networks. But there are many possible routes to our destination - some are better than others.

Oh, and thanks for explaining the word “many” to me — it means a lot.


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