Best Practices

Best Practices


As we face a fresh New Year, it is a good time to take another look at some sticky problems that perhaps you have looked at many times over several years without finding an acceptable solution. This column examines the types of problems you may be facing and techniques to try to unstick them.

In my experience, a sticky problem often is rooted in your supply chain. Perhaps this is because supply chain problems are complex by nature. These are problems that can require high levels of capital investment to fix and may suffer from low returns and as a result go unfunded. They may also relate to risk mitigation and as such are hard to justify. So if you are facing such a problem, what new techniques might you try? Here are some ideas:

Put a fresh, multifunctional team on the problem. New and outside eyes on an old problem can be an effective way to generate new solutions.

Consider whether you can partner with others to generate new solutions to the problem or to reduce your own capital investment in the solution. For example, perhaps you can partner with a major supplier that may have its own reasons to invest in a solution, especially one related to risk mitigation around a raw material or intermediate. Of course it is possible that you will have to give something to your supplier in order to secure their investment, such as a higher share of your business or a longer contract period. However, such a deal may still be attractive in order to mitigate the risks to your customers and your business.

Consider whether you can generate cheaper backup solutions to the potential risk, such as approving new formulations or working with your customers to generate acceptable backup options. This must be done with some delicacy and a lot of preparation so as not to unduly scare the customer.

Perhaps you can generate some options involving your competitors. They may have their own sticky supply chain or risk mitigation issues that you can help them with in return.

Retest your basis. If your supply chain problem has to do with forecasted growth of a particular product, raw material or intermediate, consider carefully what is driving that growth, whether it is really likely to materialize and whether you have ways to control the growth without significant business or margin loss.

Make sure you consider options such as building inventory to mitigate risk or to bridge shorter-term supply shortages.

If you cannot generate any better options using the above techniques and you still believe the project is critical for the success of your business, reconsider how to justify it. Perhaps the part of your scenario planning that lays out the consequences of not completing the project is unrealistic in some way, and if so, your project return will not pass muster. Consider carefully what a realistic no project case entails, including customer or business loss. Be prepared to show prior experience that can be used to justify your chosen scenario.

If you use all of the above techniques and still cannot come up with any attractive options, then you must accept that the project will not move forward, but it is critical that you plan for it. Make sure that other functions, such as sales and procurement, are aware of the potential implications. Consider having an action plan drawn up so that if and when the situation (such as supply shortage or risk) actually happens, your company is prepared and you dont waste time getting organized. Come back on an annual basis and retest whether changes in the business environment could result in a different conclusion.

Of course, your sticky problem may not be a supply chain problem at all. Lets explore a few other possible problem areas and how to address them.

Perhaps you have a customer that has been completely uninterested in considering you as a supplier for some time. You have sent in sales people or even sales managers with presentation materials of various types to generate interest, but nothing has worked. I suggest you try to have a very high-level interaction-depending on the potential of the customer, you might try for a CEO or vice president interaction-with the customer over dinner. In a setting such as this, you might be able to ascertain the real reason for the lack of interest.

In my experience, there is likely some offense that your company has committed in the past that you need to recognize and make amends for in some way. I experienced this as a new sales manager when a customer we had not done business with for a very long time confided in me that they resented something the company had done in a bid situation. What unstuck the relationship was a change in personnel, which allowed us the opportunity to apologize and move forward with new prospects.

Another area that may generate sticky problems is the technology arena. Perhaps your company is attempting to solve new and increasingly difficult technical problems with a portfolio of tried and true solutions. The means of unsticking such problems can bear some similarity to the supply chain discussion above, such as:

Bring in a fresh team to examine the problem and brainstorm new solutions.

Engage with appropriate suppliers and customers to access their perspectives.

Consider innovative options, such as new components or base oils.

Rethink how you are testing, especially if you are working with new tests lacking industry protocols.

Rethink your overall formulation approach rather than honing in too early on a narrow range of options.

Engage with original equipment manufacturers and testing facilities to discuss their experiences.

Overall, the general approach to sticky problems is to use fresh eyes and to broaden your perspective in order to identify new options. Why not tackle an old and sticky problem with a fresh approach in 2020? Your business may be better for it.

Sara Lefcourt of Lefcourt Consulting LLC specializes in helping companies to improve profits, reduce risk and step up their operations. Her experience includes many years in marketing, sales and procurement, first for Exxon and then at Infineum, where she was vice president, supply. Email her at or phone (908) 400-5210.

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