Tara Norton, Director, Advisory Services, BSR

In all of our discussions about supply chains, we often forget that supply chains ultimately are about connections between people.

This past Wednesday, at the BSR Conference 2012, I had the privilege of moderating a discussion, "Hot Spots: Identifying Future Issues in the Global Supply Chain," between Helena Helmersson, head of sustainability at Hennes & Mauritz (H&M); and Amy Hargroves, director of corporate sustainability at Sprint. As I listened to these engaging women tell the stories of how they’ve developed systems to address a vast array of supply chain issues effectively at their respective companies, one key theme kept appearing: the importance of developing relationships with people.

People throughout your supply chain can serve as sentinels, seeing things on the horizon that you aren’t able to detect from your office far away. A buyer in your business, a supplier manager at a factory, or an employee at a critical NGO could make you aware of a problem before it progresses—before you find your company at the center of a negative news story, with barely a courtesy call from the journalist who wrote it, and with little time to fully understand the gravity of the situation.

Both Helmersson and Hargroves described first-hand experiences in this area:

  • Hargroves recounted a story about a time when she worked with the manager of an NGO who brought a particularly tricky issue to her attention. The Sprint executive noted that instead of treating this as a one-time interaction, she cultivated the relationship, and now has an expert advisor to whom she can turn when other issues arise.
  • Helmersson described ongoing communication with close suppliers that help H&M understand what will work and what won’t. She added that as a result of these relationships, H&M is starting to consider how its internal practices might impact suppliers; i.e., how the things people do in one business might affect the livelihoods of people working in factories far away.

Supply chains are connections between people. Customers, buyers, managers, workers, truck drivers, warehouse managers, and others can make lasting connections as a product develops from a raw material into a finished good. It would serve us well to remember this, and to invest in relationships along the way. Eventually, cultivating these connections likely will pay some major dividends for everyone involved.