Sunday 26th Mar 2017 - Logistics & Supply Chain

Culture clash

I broke my glasses the other day. The optician told me it would take two weeks to get a replacement part from the Italian maker. Two weeks? I can order a book from the US and receive it two days later. Why two weeks? The optician shrugged his shoulders. ”Italy? Domani, domain.”

I suppose he had a point. But it got me thinking about how differences between national cultures affect the workings of global supply chains. In the supply chain business, we focus so much on process we tend not to think about culture. But I have an inkling that the vagaries of national cultures have a greater effect on the performance of supply chains than we think.

Now let me say before the emails start arriving in angry floods that the Italians are just as capable of building and operating a high-performance supply chain as any other nation. More than most, if you want to take a global view.

The point is that national character is bound to seep in subtle ways into how things get done. And that”s true even if you design a global supply chain with standard processes. In fact, I guess the way to degrade a supply chain”s performance is to try and filter out the national characteristics from the way a standard global supply chain process works.

The reason for that is because you end up working against the grain of what”s natural for people. Best long-term performance comes from working in a way people feel comfortable with. And this comes down to the question of how you manage a multinational supply chain team.

I”ve been talking to Richard Lewis about this. Lewis has spent a long career working in many countries and speaks 10 European and two Asiatic languages. He”s something of a guru on managing cultures and has just published the third edition of his book ”When Cultures Collide”, a 600-page tome which is effectively an encyclopaedia of international business cultures.

Lewis makes the central point that the secret of managing international teams is to understand the subtly different aspirations of each of the nations represented. The interesting point here is that managers from some countries are better at doing this than others.

Brits, for example, are generally good at picking up on the cultural nuances they need to take on board. (Put that down to a few centuries of colonial adventures around the world.) On the other hand, French and Americans are not always so sharp at picking up on the cultural nuances. French culture, so it”s suggested, is too self-obsessed and Americans always think they know best. (I sense more angry emails heading my way.)

It is particularly important for supply chain managers to develop the ability to rub along with different cultures for two important reasons. The first is that, of its nature, the supply chain operation in a global company is likely to involve more people from different countries than some other parts of a business – accounting, for example. With supply chains now global, taking a world view as well as appreciating and working with the vagaries of different cultures ought to be a core management skill.

The second is that supply chains are subject to as much change as any other part of a business – perhaps more than most. And when it comes to change, cultural differences are critically important. Some cultures embrace change more It is particularly important for supply chain managers to develop the ability to rub along with different culturesthan others. Russians, for example, don”t like it.

”Historically, change has always been bad news for Russians,” says Lewis. Meanwhile, Germans like tried and tested approaches and Thais believe there is no change – we just go round in a circle to arrive back at our starting place.

Within Europe, Lewis marks down Swiss, Norwegians and Portuguese as tough on change. Czechs, Swedes and Spaniards are much more likely to embrace it. Even within the same country there can be nuances of attitude.

This makes it look as though managing across cultures is going to be a tough assignment. But, therein lies a paradox. It”s precisely because there is a range of cultures and attitudes in a multinational team that it has the potential to be a global winner. Supply chain professionals should know the world doesn”t always work the same way. Diversity can be a source of strength.

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