Leonardo da Vinci and Supply Chain Management

Stephen DeAngelis

April 08, 2019

The world is becoming so specialized it’s difficult to find generalists in almost any field of endeavor. Supply chain managers probably come as close to being generalists as anyone in the business field. They need a general understanding of everything from procurement of raw materials to customer service. That’s why Lora Cecere (@lcecere), founder of Supply Chain Insights, insists, “The supply chain IS Business, not a department within a business.”[1] The more complex businesses become the more important supply chains are. Martin Verwijmeren, co-founder and Chief Executive Officer of MP Objects, explains, “With the pressures of globalization, e-commerce, and growing customer demand, companies need a strong supply chain to help differentiate themselves from their competitors. Consumers want product availability, quick delivery, and easy return options. Achieving this level of service without sacrificing profit is practically a prerequisite to staying afloat.”[2] Supply chain managers need to be generalists because they need to be able to connect all the parts of supply chain into a seamless operation. To help them in this effort, supply chain managers would do well to look to one of the greatest connectors of all time — Leonardo da Vinci. Rosemary Coates (@Rosemary_Coates), President of Blue Silk Consulting, explains, “The key to da Vinci’s genius was his ability to integrate art and engineering. It was a kind of harmony between analytical and creative thinking.”[3] Learning to integrate all parts of a business is the key to supply chain excellence.

Supply chain management requires analytical thinking

“As supply chain professionals,” Coates writes, “we can certainly learn and take inspiration from da Vinci. Successful supply chain professionals are by nature, mostly analytical thinkers. We have established business metrics and we love to quantify our business strategies. We evaluate our successes by cost savings and shortened cycle times and order fulfilment cycles.” Most supply chain professionals probably don’t consider themselves artists; but, neither did da Vinci. Bill Gates (@BillGates), co-founder of Microsoft and well-known philanthropist, explains, “Today of course Leonardo is most famous for paintings like the Mona Lisa and the Last Supper. But in his mind, Leonardo was not primarily a painter. He thought of himself as an engineer first. In a letter to the ruler of Milan listing his strengths, sent in the early 1480s, Leonardo mentioned 10 different skills — designing bridges, tunnels, chariots, and catapults, for example — before adding at the end that he could also paint.”[4]

Da Vinci’s greatest quality was his curiosity. His genius was being able to connect the dots between the disciplines he learned. Coates explains, “Just about everything he did started with a scientific investigation of how the human body moved and worked, how things were measured, how light and shade should be used in painting, and a calculation of angles and relationships of one thing to another. For example, consider Vitruvian Man, a naked male in a circle and square, with relational and proportional measurements. What he learned from his study of the human body, and displayed in this drawing, was the basis for his paintings of people. He studied the muscles of the face before he painted the Mona Lisa. He studied light and angles before he painted the Last Supper.” Great supply chain managers will learn the business first and then understand how better to connect the dots of the supply chain.

Connecting supply chain dots

Like da Vinci, supply chain managers need to be lifelong learners. Gates explains, “Leonardo was an insatiable learner. He studied everything he could see: the flow of water, the way smoke rises through the air, how a woodpecker uses its tongue. And he had insights that were ahead of his time. He developed a theory about the working of a certain heart valve that researchers only verified a few decades ago. He was the first person to correctly explain why you can see light between the two points of a crescent moon, the phenomenon we now call earthshine.” Supply chain managers need to demonstrate that same curiosity. How can resources be procured at the best price? How will tariffs affect the company? What are the best ways to move freight? How are warehousing practices changing? How can artificial intelligence improve logistics? Is there a better way connect operations and sales? What do I need to know about reverse logistics? The questions are endless. The most important question of all is: How can I better connect supply chain dots (i.e., nodes or stakeholders) to improve performance?

In the past, connectivity was primarily characterized by personal relationships. The best supply chain managers had great Rolodex databases and the best connections were made via a telephone call. As supply chains became more complex, that system of connectivity quickly became outdated. Fortunately, supply chain complexity has increased at a time when data is becoming more available. Data can be both a blessing and a curse. Nikos Papageorgiou, Vice President of Solutions at Slync, explains, “Transactions in sourcing, manufacturing, logistics and distribution generate hundreds of millions of data points. This data volume is representative of today’s supply chain complexity — and it’s increasing. Thousands of SKUs, hundreds of transportation lanes and countless business partners must be managed in tandem to optimize business performance and serve the end-customer. The sheer volume of data can be overwhelming, but if leveraged effectively, all of this data can help tame today’s supply chain complexities — even turn supply chain into a competitive advantage. It all depends upon how we use this data.”[5] Turning data into a competitive advantage requires leveraging cognitive technologies and advanced analytics. Verwijmeren reports, “66 percent of supply chain leaders believe that advanced analytics will be critical to their operations in the next few years.” He adds, “Find pain points that affect profits, costs, and margins using real-time dashboards and interactive reports. Review logistics processes for any gaps, and regularly monitor customer, supplier, and carrier performance. Ideally, you’ll want to use dynamic tools that help you leverage your resources, but also expand your network when needed.” Connecting the dots is simply another term for refining your network.

Concluding thoughts

Connectivity, data, and analytics are essential for success (even survival) in today’s business environment. Cognitive technologies can help connect the dots. For example, the Enterra Supply Chain Intelligence System™ can help provide end-to-end supply chain visibility and analytics to help connect the dots. Verwijmeren concludes, “If you’re only accruing and analyzing data in silos, you’re not realizing the full potential of your network. While industry leaders are right to recognize the value of advanced analytics, the real advantage will be a broader application across a unified system that is continually learning and adapting.” Da Vinci was the antithesis of someone who places information in silos. He did his best to break down silos in order to see how the world worked. Gates explains, “By examining his surroundings so closely, Leonardo was able to develop new techniques that advanced his field and portrayed the world in a way no one had ever seen before. In other words, he was an innovator.” Supply chain managers would do well to follow his example and become supply chain da Vincis.

[1] Lora Cecere, “Sage advice? Only for turkeys.” eft, 1 February 2013.
[2] Martin Verwijmeren, “Supply Chain Excellence Is a Journey, Not a Destination,” Manufacturing.net, 13 February 2019.
[3] Rosemary Coates, “Lessons from Leonardo da Vinci We Can Apply To Supply Chain,” Supply Chain Management Review, 14 December 2017.
[4] Bill Gates, “Bill Gates: What This Legendary Artist Can Teach Us About Innovation,” Time, 7 February 2019.
[5] Nikos Papageorgiou, “The Intelligent Automation Imperative: Taming Supply Chain Complexity,” Supply & Demand Chain Executive, 4 March 2019.