Just In Time, Not Just In Case

The Last Word

In May, the Illinois Institute of Technology will honor you as its "Outstanding Leader in Industry." You also serve as the second vice president of the Council of Supply Chain Management Professionals, are a past-president of the Warehousing Education and Research Council and are a member of Northwestern University's Transportation Center Business Advisory Committee. In these capacities, you've spoken to many other industry leaders. What do you feel are the biggest logistical challenges they face today?

Blasgen: One of the major challenges today continues to be transportation capacity. In the past, although pricing fluctuations occurred, capacity seemed readily available. That is simply not the situation today. However, customers expect and deserve more reliable, consistent delivery performance as it relates directly to their inventory management objectives. We, therefore, have to work more closely with our strategic carrier partners and customers to combat this capacity situation.

How is ConAgra addressing these challenges?

Blasgen: We are strategically working with our carrier base to do everything possible to mitigate the hours of service and capacity impact through better flow management at our distribution centers, working with customers to more seamlessly move product into their supply chains, and also to provide timely information to all key supply chain participants to minimize any disruption in the process.

You are speaking about demand-driven supply networks at GMA's upcoming Information Systems and Logistics Distribution Conference next month. What kind of impact do you see DDSN having on the food supply chain?

Blasgen: To the extent we can utilize demand based information proactively, it allows us to replace "bad" inventory with good information. If we understand demand streams and more accurately predict that demand, we can be in a much better position to ensure inventory, distribution and transportation capacity is available when needed, not "just in case." This will result in higher performance levels at a lower total delivered cost.

How can trading partners work together to better forecast demand? Why aren't more partners doing so?

Blasgen: I think there's much going on in the world of collaboration, and when information is passed proactively between trading partners in a way that reduces variability, everyone wins. There remain, though, many variables with which to deal. Cycle time reductions are desired, so increased flexibility and agility are required throughout the supply chain. This is an area on which supply chain professionals focus daily.

Rising through the ranks at Nabisco, Kraft Foods and now ConAgra, I'm sure you had to deal with many different styles of leadership, management and corporate cultures. What is the single most important lesson you've learned from these experiences?

Blasgen: The road to excellence is always under construction. Improving the management and performance of our supply chains is ongoing; we can always improve, and as this exciting industry evolves and supply chains transform, our value to our companies increases and we provide competitive advantage.

What does the future hold?

Blasgen: I do think the future is bright in this field. The industry does have to tackle important issues like the transportation capacity situation and labor issues that can hamper our ability to seamlessly flow product. However, there's no doubt that these will be addressed by trading partners working together to develop new ways to satisfy our collective customers.

What a wonderful time to be working in logistics and supply chain management. Logistics organizations can'and do'provide greater value for their customers today more than ever before.

Sure, technological advances, industry knowledge and collaboration all play an important role in achieving this goal, but it's the talent we develop within our organizations that will take us to the promised land of exceptional supply chain excellence. Successful logistics leaders are focusing on talent management, as they realize this is critical for delivering long-term value to their companies. We, as leaders, need to continually coach, nurture and provide continuity to the future stars of the profession.

A very important point to remember is that there's no substitute for interpersonal skills. These skills are becoming increasingly important in today's global marketplace. Much of what is accomplished in businesses today is done within task forces and cross-functional teams. The ability to create and sustain collaborative relationships inside your company, as well as with key external supply chain participants, is extremely crucial to your career as a leader and the value you bring to your company.

Rick Blasgen, Senior vice president of integrated logistics, ConAgra Foods Inc., Omaha, NE Experience: Began his career with Nabisco and moved through the ranks to become vice president of supply chain in 1998. He became vice president of supply chain for Kraft Foods in 2002 and joined ConAgra Foods in 2003.