Supply Chain Design Excellence Requires Time and Coaching

| By Jonathan Whitaker | Principal, Managed Analytics Services | Chainalytics | As with any complex task, modeling excellence is developed through a combination of...

| By Jonathan Whitaker | Principal, Managed Analytics Services | Chainalytics |

As with any complex task, modeling excellence is developed through a combination of time and expert coaching. The first component, time, is well understood and generally agreed upon as a requirement and prime component for establishing excellence in one’s craft.

Malcolm Gladwell, author of the popular book Outliers, explains a concept recognized as the “10,000 hours theory.”  Gladwell writes how Bill Gates became a computer genius by obtaining a computer at age 10 and putting in roughly ten thousand hours of programming, enabling him to develop his skills to a level that would eventually lead to the founding of Microsoft.

Gladwell also notes the Beatles had approximately 10,000 hours of band practice in Hamburg during the early 1960s, which fostered the production of their greatest music thereafter. Regardless of industry, Gladwell posits the same notion holds true for numerous fields and people who develop expertise in a given area after about 10,000 hours of rigorous commitment.

Becoming accomplished in any field, with a well-established history of people working to become experts, requires a tremendous amount of effort exerted over many years. It may not require exactly ten thousand hours, but the commitment remains substantial nonetheless.

Research has shown this to prove true in field after field. For example, it generally requires about ten years of intense study to develop into a chess grandmaster. Authors and poets have usually exercised their craft for over a decade before producing their best work, and it is generally a decade or more between a scientist’s first publication and his or her most important publication — and this is in addition to the years of study before that first published research. In nearly all areas of human endeavor, it takes many, many years of practice to become one of the best in the world — in a forceful, memorable way, and that’s a good thing.

I am lucky to work in a firm where a quarter of our Supply Chain Design team has reached 10,000 hours of SCD work. Supply chain modeling is one of the fields where frequent rotation exists and it remains challenging to find people with years of focused experience. My fellow colleagues have worked on a variety of different projects presenting different challenges during those 10,000 hours, rarely containing a repeat of the same effort. However, their experience provides only one component of their journey to excellence.


While excellence through time commitment is universally acknowledged, perhaps one commonly overlooked and underappreciated factor associated with growth and expertise lies in the importance of impactful coaching. As previously mentioned, Gladwell’s book was published and quickly achieved popularity as his theory was readily accepted and supported by anecdotal examples and a smattering of research. A few years later, however, an alternate theory introduced by Daniel Goleman changed the way people approached and perceived Gladwell’s findings.

Daniel Goleman’s book, Focus: The Hidden Driver of Excellence, points out that simply spending 10,000 hours engaged in an activity does not grant us expert classification, for practicing something incorrectly for 10,000 hours does not produce expertise. It is 10,000 hours of deliberate practice, combined with guidance from a skilled expert, coach, or mentor, that leads to expertise. In his argument, Goleman stresses that a feedback loop is essential. He writes, “Ideally that feedback comes from someone with an expert eye and so every world-class sports champion has a coach. If you practice without such feedback, you don’t get to the top ranks.”

Successful firms possess expert coaches dedicated to ensuring proteges grow into mentors who themselves continue the long line of excellence and expertise that clients trust and rely upon as partners. Within our organization, we seek to learn as well as to educate coworkers and clients alike on the importance of focused execution and the commitment to excellence.  

This approach has guided our firm through the implementation of hundreds of Supply Chain Design projects across the globe, each possessing varying levels of complexity and a unique strategy. We have the best experts because we have both the 10,000 hours and the coaches, which is even rarer in an industry often fraught with complexity and employee inconsistency.

Time and coaching will always remain the keys to achieving deep expertise. Any organization entering a network design project should seek the guidance of those who have invested in both components to ensure everything is successfully implemented. The temptation to hire a bright person or two has proven a powerful lure to many organization but rarely produces the results they expect. Although intelligent and capable, those hired into such roles rarely have the years of experience and are not in a position to receive the expert coaching. Investment grade results requires a critical mass of many people with 10,000 hours experience who have been expertly coached.  

Jonathan Whitaker, principal in Chainalytics’ Managed Analytics Services, recently rejoined Chainalytics from IBM. His extensive analytical and supply chain background incorporates Big Data and analytics client engagements in areas including transformative life sciences solutions, supply chain operations and strategy, asset optimization, predictive analytics and inventory optimization for clients including Watson Analytics, Watson Content Analytics, Watson Explorer and Commerce solutions, Mead Johnson, Coca-Cola, Nike, Shell, ConocoPhillips, Southwestern Energy, UPS, ATC-Genco, Air Products, Raytheon, ConAgra, Delta Faucet, Sara Lee, Cummins, Springleaf and others.

Read more about how Chainalytics helps companies navigate complex supply chain change:

In this article