Empathy in Supply Chain System Design

Vanilla-vs-Good-Design JBF Consulting

Supply Chain Systems are like Houses

Have you ever worked personally with an architect? My wife and I recently met with a local architect to discuss an expansion of our home office. The process was extremely gratifying, and we were like excited children throughout the entire process.

In describing his design philosophy, the architect explained that he would first need to understand how we live and use the space around us. What were our requirements, daily needs, pain points with the existing layout, and so forth. The architect got to know us on a personal level, exploring details about our lives that, while mundane to us, were important inputs into the design process.

The other thing our architect told us is perhaps the most important element of good design is empathy. For me, this is one of those words that I struggle to define concretely. Simply put, it’s the ability to relate to another person’s feelings. To have empathy, I think a person has to both understand one’s self and also be able to project their own feelings towards the other. Here is the dictionary definition:

empathy |ˈempəTHē|
the ability to understand and share the feelings of another.

When I look at supply chain systems, I strongly feel the same logic applies. You cannot have good supply chain design unless you truly become closely connected – intimate – with the client you’re serving. Throughout the body of my own work, by far the most rewarding has been when I’ve connected intimately with a client, and through this relationship helped them create a supply chain system, process, or deploy an application that met with what their own internal vision of the end-product was in their mind.

Compare this approach to the factory model, where Henry Ford famously quoted that “you can have any color you want, as long as it’s black.” This works only if the buyer has no custom requirements, nothing in their business or process or organization that drives the use of creativity in the deployment of the technology. Many of the larger firms and software vendors that we compete against utilize a bloated, regimented approach that yields a ‘common’ end product. As a small boutique consulting firm, we like to call their approach the “vanilla implementation.” You can have the TMS or WMS that is the same thing we did for the last client. We know it works, we are sure you’ll be happy.

I love being a small firm, because we can do what is right for our client. We can create a supply chain solution that is the best fit for their requirements and objectives – instead of doing ‘what we did the last time’ simply because it was the safe thing to do. Or rather, simply because the ‘big firm’ had so many people on the project it was impossible to effectively design a solution. I think this is where the big firms and the vendors fail in terms of implementation success – they fail to establish empathy with their clients before they design the metaphorical ‘house.’

Some clients want ‘vanilla’ – what type of client are you? If you appreciate good design, we’d love to hear from you.

About Brad Forester


  1. Thanks for your comments Steve. I totally agree with you – requirements should drive the design, not what has worked in the past. But, repeating things is much easier than creating them from asking the tough questions. So many times companies just want to cut corners in this area, doesn’t make sense to us.

  2. Agreed! So many cases where the term “Best Practices” is so loosely used. It should really be “Best Fit Practice”. In my past experience when I have seen implementations of “vanilla”, it was driven by new blood in the organization trying to do something that worked for them in their previous organization. Unfortunately this is often done without first clearly understanding the nuances of the new organization.