I interviewed Stuart Emmett who discussed Supply Chain Rule #1: Win the Home Games First. Stuart asks what if systems could be updated as automatically and effortlessly as software applications?  Stuart Emmett, supply chain coach, mentor and author, shares his insights on system thinking and explains how there is a natural parallel to the supply chain, especially when it comes to interdependent interactions of cross-functional elements.  His company, Learn and Change, Ltd., helps organizations achieve innovations in thought that better prepare them for a holistic approach to supply chain management.


  • Stuart Emmet explains that a system exists in order to do something. Its purpose is dependent upon the interactions between its parts, so its imperative to look at things holistically.
  • He defines processes as occurrences with dependencies and variability, both which are universal facts of life that must interact through an interface.
  • According to Emmet, a systems thinking approach is critical for any organization that intends to be innovative or desires to perform strategic change, so his company helps organizations to become open to new perspectives and dynamic though processes. 


My supply chain rule number one is: win the home games first. In other words, get the internal structures working before taking it outside.



When asked to provide a definition of ‘systems thinking’, Emmett explained that it’s comprised of two parts: structure and process. “A system exists to actually do something; it has a purpose.  Its purpose and what it does changes because of the interactions between its parts, so its imperative that we look at things holistically,” says Emmett.

According to Emmett, in the concept of systems thinking, the stressed element should be ‘thinking’. The supply chain is ultimately a holistic system, one that invariably requires new thinking and approaches to problem solving.  Emmett says that most of the tension that occurs in the supply chain industry is the result of a resistance to change or to the application of new ideas.  He ascribes systems thinking to be, by definition, an attempt to encourage new thoughts and innovative approaches and to challenge preexisting solutions.

Emmett provides an astute parallel of systems thinking to the maintenance of computer software. He points out that it’s quite commonplace for owners to regularly update their software applications without thinking twice, and that’s what he recommends for the supply chain world - regular ‘thought’ updates to positively affect best practices and how things are actually done.


Dependencies and Variability


Systems have purposes.  They exist for a reason, and are meant to accomplish a particular goal.  What that goal is depends upon they system’s structure and process. Emmet explains that with a classic supply chain all the parts (procurement, manufacturing, logistics, etc.), even while serving distinct functions, are interdependent and should be thought of as cross-functional.  Systems thinking is a good discipline to allude to in terms of interdependent interactions of processes and structures.

Emmett accredits a large part of the original intrigue he felt towards systems thinking to his appraisal of the definition of the word “process.”  He defines processes as occurrences with dependencies, and also variability.  “The difficulty inevitably lies in the interface,” ascertains Emmett, and expounds to say that therein rests another parallel. Dependencies, variability and interfaces exist in the supply chain world as well.  For example, questions like ‘How well does procurement work with internal users as compared to external suppliers?’ is analogous to sample problems in the systems thinking world.

As far as variability goes, it’s a perpetual fact of life.  Whether it surfaces on the demand side or the supply side, how the parts interface with one another is a determinant in the proper functioning or fulfillment of purpose. “My supply chain rule number one is: win the home games first,” says Emmett.  “In other words, get the internal structures working before taking it outside.”


Cross-Functionality and Collaboration


Stuart Emmett shares some details from his experience as trainer, consultant and coach in the supply chain industry.  He says that one of his goals is to try to help people achieve innovation in thought and, while doing so, he often comes across a common barrier: a lack of working internally together. Rather, the supply chain is typically focused upon and affected by external relationships, like customers and demand.  The result can be that companies are often not as well prepared on the supply side of things.

Another barrier could be caused by management, who should be concerned with fluid cross-functionality of all the aspects in the chain, including trade-offs and whether or not people are collaborating to minimize stock and perform efficiently. “Ultimately,” says Emmett, “they need to understand that all elements in the chain should work together, and this is often the opposite of what we actually find.” He believes that change must happen holistically, to the system, which includes how things are structured and what processes are being used. These are the elements that Emmett focuses on when helping clients achieve thought innovation.


Intelligent Companies are Learning Organizations


For those who are interested in reading or learning more about systems thinking, Emmet recommends two books.  He is the author of “The Systems Thinking Toolkit”, which highlights the basic tenets of systems thinking.  He also recommends Peter Senge’s book “The Fifth Discipline”, a classic explication on systems thinking and systems dynamics.  Both books have in common what Emmett recommends to be at the heart of the discipline: urging companies to move toward becoming ‘learning organizations’,  which means being open to and accepting challenges in the way they do things.

A “systems thinking” approach is critical for any organization that intends to be innovative or desires to perform strategic change, primarily to guarantee that all perspectives are being accounted for.


About Stuart Emmett



Stuart Emmett is CEO at Learn and Change, Ltd., a London based  organization that offers training, coaching and mentoring solutions and  supply chain, procurement, management and logistics workshops founded on  applied practical experience.  For the past 20 years, Stuart has led  training courses internationally across many diverse cultures.  Prior to  that, his experience has been mostly in the third-party logistics  sector, acting as operational and senior management for transport,  stocks and warehousing.  He is author of several books, including “The  Systems Thinking Toolkit” (2008) and his most recent, “Green Supply  Chains: An Action Manifesto (2010), co-authored with Vivek Sood.


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