When I first joined the supply chain field nearly 20 years ago, it seemed to me that supply chain management was a true 50-50 blend of art and science. I would hear jokes about forecasts always being wrong and demand planners needing a certain kind of magic to even come close to getting them right. Or similarly, reverse-logistics teams would try to predict the precise number of goods that would fail to meet customer satisfaction standards and be sent back — but to get it right, sorcery would definitely be involved. Sure, these people had research, data and statistics; but what the most successful supply chain professionals possessed was a killer gut instinct.
How things have changed. Today, data-driven decision-making is a foundation of supply chain management. Consider ASCM’s 2023 Top 10 Supply Chain Trends report: Big data and analytics held the number-one spot once again, followed closely by digital supply chain (up five places from last year) and artificial intelligence and machine learning (up six). It certainly seems that the science of supply chain has left art in the dust.
Which is why, as a right-brainer, I was inspired to read about a recent installation at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York City. The collection, “Systems,” portrays the very complex and technical aspects of supply chains as works of art. According to the MoMA website, the collection explores what artists Kate Crawford and Vladan Joler describe as the “interlaced chains” of resource extraction, human labor and algorithmic processing.
The installation includes a series of prints about energy capture, a documentary highlighting the choreography of an assembly line, a detailed depiction of the life cycle of an Amazon Echo, and many more examples of the incredible work that goes on every day — more often than not behind the scenes — which gives society everything from groceries to clothing to clean water. “What we wanted to do was to make the invisible visible,” Crawford told The Wall Street Journal.
The works apply design elements to represent cultivation, production, movement and the intricate global networks they create. They also depict how this has the potential to exploit people, materials and the Earth.
The curators note, “The objects and structures that surround us ... are built on networks of production that span borders and millennia. To manufacture a single smartphone, miners extract ancient lithium in Bolivia, workers in China provide hundreds of hours of manual labor and programmers around the world write rivers of code. Far from being isolated processes, these activities feed and complement each other, creating a tangled web of people, materials and data.”
Of course, it’s up to supply chain professionals to unsnarl this web and make our global networks as streamlined and collaborative as possible. No matter how far technology has come, supply chains rely on people’s intuition, creativity and good judgement, as well as facts and logic. More than anything, they require leaders who prioritize creating a better world through supply chain. That’s truly beautiful.