Podcast: Supply Chain Career Tips – with Founder of Trailpaths Inc, Robert Martichenko

By Published On: January 10, 2023

Hosts: Mike Ogle and Rodney Apple

In This Episode:

We speak with lean and six sigma expert and multi-book author, Robert Martichenko about his career path. Robert provides valuable insights that can be used to advance your supply chain career. He shares the story of the founding of LEANCOR and his new TrailPaths organization. He also outlines the hard and soft skills vital to a highly valued supply chain professional with a strong continuous improvement mindset. You’ll get his thoughts on effective leadership characteristics, particularly the transition from a managing, controlling, and directing mindset to building an environment and learning culture that leads to greater successes, but more importantly, fewer failures. Robert also emphasizes the value of participation in associations and networks, plus how we need to focus on supply chains as ecosystems that have many interdependencies. He closes with the trends he sees that will influence the future of supply chain.

Who is Robert Martichenko?

Robert Martichenko is the Founder of TrailPaths Incorporated. He spent more than fifteen years as the founder and CEO of the LeanCor Supply Chain Group (acquired by Uber Freight in 2020). Robert sits on multiple advisory boards, including the American Logistics Aid Network (ALAN) and the Association for Manufacturing Excellence (AME). In addition, he has received several prominent industry awards, including the Distinguished Service Award from CSCMP. Robert has written and co-written several business books, including Discovering Hidden Profit, People: A leader’s day-to-day guide to building, managing, and sustaining lean organizations, Building a Lean Fulfillment Stream, Everything I Know About Lean I Learned in First Grade and Lean Six Sigma Logistics. Robert is an active speaker addressing topics such as Lean, Operational Excellence, the Future of Workforce Development and Creating Meaningful Employment Environments. Robert earned a bachelor’s degree in Mathematics, an MBA in Finance, and is a Six Sigma Black Belt.

[00:01:46] Mike Ogle: Robert, welcome to the Supply Chain Careers podcast.

[00:01:50] Robert Martichenko: Thanks, Mike. Thanks Rodney.

[00:01:52] Mike Ogle: So can you give us a little bit of background of how you first heard about supply chain and maybe a few of your greatest influences, whether it’s people or situations that got you where you are today?

[00:02:04] Robert Martichenko: Yeah, so I ended up with a degree in pure mathematics many years ago in Canada. And frankly, I just needed a job and, I didn’t know anything about supply chain or logistics and I needed a job and I reached out to an uncle and asked him if he knew anybody and he connected me with a gentleman, the owner of Challenger Motor Freight. And I got a meeting with Dan and he said, what am I gonna do with a degree in mathematics? And I was like, I have no idea, but I can count numbers pretty well. So, him and the CFO at the time, they gave me a shot, and the rest is history. From there, I learned trucking and from there I got a chance to move to the United States and really broaden the aspects of supply chain, helping Toyota start up a factory.

And influences, obviously, my uncle is a huge influence, by making the introduction and I think the interesting thing about my first start at Challenger Motor Freight was, even though I was just this entry level position, dispatching trucks, the folks at Challenger Motor Freight that took me under their wing and really helped me along.

[00:03:09] Rodney Apple: You founded a very successful supply chain consulting company, and now you’ve started a new endeavor. Could you maybe take the audience through LEANCOR and maybe some of the beginnings there and some of the key accomplishments. And then would love to hear more about trail paths, that your new endeavor.

[00:03:27] Robert Martichenko: I got the chance to come to the United States and as I mentioned, helped Toyota start up a factory in Evansville, Indiana. And I was part of a big, big, big team that did a greenfield factory startup. And that’s where I really got introduced to the Toyota production system and lean thinking. And then I just really loved it on top of the supply chain work. And then after a few years, working in that environment, left the big corporation I was working for at the time and started LEANCOR. I remember the first day I went into the garage to sit in the garage, and my wife said, why are you going into the garage? And I said, because all the greatest ones start in the garage. So, I figured I’d better sit in there, even though I wasn’t making anything. It was just me and my laptop in the garage.

And then I had an incredible experience of being able to have people join LEANCOR and, and make some great friends and have people help me build the company. And then we sold the company in September of 2020. And then, I saw that through until the end of this past year. So as of January 1st, I have been, I’m not sure whether I’m semi-retired or onto the next thing, or literally the unemployed bum. I’m not sure which it is, but as part of the 17 years building LEANCOR, we had one mission and that was to build a lean company internally. We were selling Lean as products, but we wanted to walk the talk and as part of that, we really learned the elements of respect for people and that people are your number one asset, but we actually believed it and we tried to live that.

And so, now there is their workforce issues going on. There’s an ecosystem that’s happening. Interdependent parts of that system, population demographics, changing attitudes towards work and workplaces, baby boomers retiring, labor participation rates going down, and I could go on. There’s no less than 20 different dynamics happening that are all coming together to create a challenge in the workforce. And so TrailPaths is about building a community to start the dialogue on what we’re going to do with these things. In particular, we’re very interested in the hourly team members and our warehouse workers, and our truck drivers, and our factory team members, frontline workers, personal health, healthcare workers, all of these people that maybe prior to the pandemic, we didn’t really realize how important they are. Many of us always knew, but now we recognize the importance and a lot of work is going to have to be done, and we’re hoping to be part of that conversation. If not, try to lead that conversation, through TrailPaths.

[00:06:03] Rodney Apple: Thank you. That’s a much needed place for people to focus in on. I echo the same sentiments you mentioned lots of dynamics and factors that are involved with what I would almost consider this perfect storm that’s coming together. And we’re gonna have to work our way out of it, until the machines take over. Right?

[00:06:22] Robert Martichenko: Yeah. Well, we hope we’re gonna need the automation to help a little bit, that’s one piece of it. It certainly won’t be the silver bullet.

[00:06:31] Mike Ogle: Robert, we’re curious, when you talk about all the way from the hourly, up, with people trying to practice, whether it’s lean or whatever kind of focus that somebody has in trying to either work in both production kinds of environments that were more traditional, as far as lean was concerned, but certainly with the huge amount of service industries that are out there as a percentage of work today, whether it’s a hospital or somewhere else of people doing that kind of work, and they have their own big supply chain networks as well, kinds of things are you hearing from companies about the kinds of hard skills and soft skills that they want people to develop?

[00:07:11] Robert Martichenko: Yeah, that’s a great question, Mike. And on the hard skills point of view, obviously there’s some easy go-tos, right? I know when we were hiring out of App State and we always loved the students coming out of the App State program. It was great when they came to us with Excel skills and Access skills and just the toolkit, right? Because these are things that on day one, in supply chain, for the most part, you’re going to be using these tools. So, it’s really nice when young people come already equipped with the technology tools, from a hard skills point of view. And then obviously, the ability to communicate in writing and so forth, which you could call that a soft skill, but it’s a hard skill as well.

And then on the soft skills, the ability to collaborate and communicate and work as a team. The essence of emotional intelligence is high on the list of people now but what we’re seeing and what we’re learning is that this essence of building cultures of respect and building meaningful employment environments is going to be very important to the future. And the research that we’re doing now through Trail Paths is suggesting that there’s going to be a different set of soft skills that are gonna be required. And these are things like empathy. These are things like dignity, treating people with dignity, and treating people with respect. And what we don’t know yet, and when I say we, I think just collectively as a society is, are these things personal characteristics or these things behaviors, we can teach and train into people. And so, these are going to be the soft skills I think that we’re gonna be focusing on going forward that maybe haven’t been talked so much about in the past.

[00:08:53] Rodney Apple: So, Robert, you touched on this earlier, you mentioned there’s a tremendous amount of baby boomers retiring, and we talked about this perfect storm of these different dynamics coming together. I’d love to hear your perspective from working with others on the client side to even internally trying to build, walk the talk like you talked about at LEANCOR. But what I have found in the recruiter spot is what separates the good leaders from the great leaders in supply chain is that ability to field a high performing team, as in bringing in the talent, developing and that leads to helping to retain. What have you noticed when it comes to attributes of a great supply chain leader?

[00:09:30] Robert Martichenko: Well, I think that there’s fundamentally one thing that I’ve noticed and that we really tried hard at LEANCOR, didn’t always get it right, but we tried hard, but it will be going forward. The first thing is that supply chains are not in one building. Supply chains are often global in nature, and the people involved, the processes involved, the technology involved are not always connected. And so, it’s very difficult, in my opinion, for a leader who’s highly directive, who’s highly controlling to be an effective supply chain leader. A senior supply chain’s leader’s job is not to direct and control and manage, but rather to build an environment and that environment that that person needs to build, he or she needs to build an environment where people will be successful in the tasks and the processes and the strategies that they have been asked to do as part of the team.

I think this will be fundamental going forward, that we need to recognize that leadership is going to move from managing, controlling, and directing to one where the responsibility of the leaders to build an environment. I tell this story often where I remember a leader once said to me, this was at a Whirlpool manufacturing facility, the leader, Dean Dixon, who unfortunately isn’t with us anymore, but, he was a great guy and he said to me once, he said, you know what, Robert? Our job as leaders is not to help people get it right. It’s to build an environment so they can’t get it wrong. And that’s not semantics, that’s not the same thing said a different way. The work you do as a leader to help somebody get it right is very different than the work you would do as a leader if you’re trying to build an environment so people won’t get it wrong. And I think if we think through that and understand the body of knowledge and the body of work, if we’re focused on building an environment, is very different than the body of knowledge or body of work if we’re focused on managing, controlling and directing people.

So with that, you also need to be very good at hiring the right people, because if you hire people who are like a deer in a headlights if they’re not being managed, controlled and directed, then they’re gonna struggle. And if instead they’re being asked to join an environment where they’re completely empowered to use their skills and talents inside that environment.

[00:11:53] Rodney Apple: Love it. A hundred percent agree and as we work on searches, a lot of the leadership searches, they’re either newly created or backfilling somebody. And when that happens, the latter, oftentimes it does come down to the leadership attributes. And what we have consistently found, probably, I would say ranked number one, when someone is being confidentially replaced is that it’s that command control. This is how we’re gonna do it, or we’ve always done it this way, barking orders. It just never seems to work. And I would even extend that over into the continuous improvement world and in particular where we’ve gotta develop a solution and sometimes it’s better to do that from the ground up than the top down. And I’m sure you’ve seen plenty of that and through your engagements.

[00:12:39] Robert Martichenko: Yeah. There’s no doubt about it. And this essence of control is going to be passed over and we’re seeing the change, the societal and industry changes around control. Now, if you just think of not to belabor is something that we’ve talked about way, probably way too much, but just something like the work from home with salaried team members. Really that’s about control and the person wants to work from home so they’re in control of their lives, but the boss wants them in the office, so they’re in control of where the person is. It’s really not much more complicated than that. However, back to our warehouse team members and our transportation team members and our factory team members, they can’t work from home. They have to come into a building or to an office or to a person’s home, in the healthcare instance. And so we need to build environments where there’s meaningfulness in those environments.

[00:13:30] Mike Ogle: When you mentioned building the environment where they don’t end up doing something wrong, I guess part of it is there’s always something that doesn’t go perfectly right and sometimes wrong, and could you speak to that part of the culture or what it takes to be able to learn?

[00:13:46] Robert Martichenko: Well, that gets back to the essence of lean thinking and let’s build a learning culture where learning culture is one where we learn primarily through problem solving. So, through exposing problems and solving problems at the root cause, in a team environment, a collaborative environment so we have shared collective learning, and certainly if we go to the shelf with all the lean tools on it, quality at the source or first-time quality is a primary tool. So, this essence of error proofing and understanding where failure modes were happening and then try to proactively put things in place for that. That’s a big part of the continuous improvement culture, which is fundamentally about building a learning culture through shared learning and problem solving.

[00:14:31] Rodney Apple: I see you’ve been involved with quite a few associations, nonprofits, yourself, Robert. Any advice you could share how can you get the most out of it from a learning and development perspective in terms of those memberships?

[00:14:44] Robert Martichenko: I had many really treasurable moments in my career, a large part of them were in the volunteer work and the association’s work. It started in Canada soon as I got to Challenger Motor Freight, and I loved transportation. Again, they supported me to get my Canadian certification in transportation and logistics. Then I joined at the time, which was CALM, which was the Canadian version of what is now Council of Supply Chain Management Professionals.

And then when I moved to the United States, to Evansville, where I virtually knew nobody other than the team that I was working with who were brand new to me because I had changed companies to go there. The first thing I did was join CLM at the time, Council of Logistics Management, which is now CSCMP, and immediately found a roundtable and immediately met friends and colleagues. And to this day, the people that I met are my dearest friends and my closest friends and my closest collaborators. To say that being part of these organizations and volunteering and participating was valuable is a gross understatement. It was incredibly powerful for me along the way. I do significant work with CSCMP, the Council Supply Chain Management Professionals. I sit on the board of AME, the Association for Manufacturing Excellence. And I know for a fact that these organizations make it very easy for young people and graduates to become part of the organizations. Very easy meaning they have student graduate programs, they have student round tables. They make it easy financially to join. So, my advice is join early, participate greatly, and watch your group of friends and colleagues grow in a very significant way.

[BREAK at 16:33] [00:16:57] Mike Ogle: When you talked about building an environment for senior supply chain leaders trying to build that kind of environment when it’s within your control in a way within the building within the company, within the, even a worldwide supply chain, it’s easier within the company, but when you’re trying to reach across company borders, it’s always been important in supply chain, all the partnerships and the networks that you have, but what do you see as some of the important factors when you’re working across those borders? The company borders with suppliers, customers, service providers, and partners.

[00:17:31] Robert Martichenko: Well, that’s a great question as well, Mike. And prior to the pandemic, I would have the exact same answer as I have today. However, prior to the pandemic, not everybody listening to the answer would have appreciated the answer as much as they appreciate it today because man, oh man, did we ever learn collectively through this. So, the answer is that we now know fundamentally that our supply chains are an ecosystem. And they are an ecosystem of groups of companies, and groups of suppliers and groups of manufacturers, and together they create a supply chain, yes, but they are an ecosystem. And an ecosystem is defined as a system where there are in interdependent variables, interdependent pieces of the system and they are absolutely dependent on each other. And what that means is that if you make a change in one area, you absolutely create changes in all areas of the ecosystem. And so I think that’s one of the most amazing things that have come out of the challenges of the last two years is we now recognize that our partners are important, our suppliers are important, our customers are important, and collectively we need to get the job done by understanding this ecosystem. And I really hope we remember that lesson.

Relative to the distances, and the question around the distances, I know there’s a lot of talk about reshoring in particular in North America. I think there’s going to be some of that, and I think some of it’s is important. We’ll probably look at the healthcare world and we’ll look at parts of manufacturing that have maybe national security aspects of it. But the global supply chain is here for a while. It’s not going anywhere. I think that this appreciation that this is an ecosystem and that we have to treat it the same way we would treat an ecosystem in nature, hopefully will allow us to create healthier supply chains, recognizing the globalization of them.

[00:19:50] Rodney Apple: And Robert, on that note, just to kind of extend further, you may wanna break out your crystal ball, but what are some of the big changes that you think will happen going forward. Any projections I guess here in the next few years.

[00:20:02] Robert Martichenko: Yeah. Well it’s interesting because Rodney, at the heart of the question is learnings and future, and you then you mentioned, as inventories are bloating, so you know that we learned about the bull whip effect. The first writings that were written in the 1960s and I’m sure it was written about well before then. I’ve taught the beer game, relative to the bullwhip effect. I’ve taught it no less than 500 times. But yet, it doesn’t appear as if we learned anything. So, I don’t know. Maybe we don’t learn. Okay. But let’s suppose we do learn.

I think that there’s gonna be three major areas that we need to continue our learning and our experimenting and our trying of things. The first, which is near and dear, is workforce. The workforce challenges are only going to become a bigger mountain, and we need to get our arms around it. I truly believe that if it’s not happening right now, which there’s evidence, it is, it will be happening shortly, that for every five jobs available, there may be only four people, and that means the recruit will have a choice, which means organizations are going to have to answer a fundamental question from the interviewee, which is, why should I work here?

This interviewee-interviewer relationship is going to fundamentally change and we need to get our arms around that. The second is in the essence of the maturing of what in the manufacturing world is called Industry 4.0. And this is the essence of the Internet of Things and how is the internet of things, automation, machine learning, blockchain, artificial intelligence, how are these things actually going to connect this global supply chain that we just talked about in the previous question. And are we going to be able to actually create more stable datasets, more accurate data systems.

And even if we can invent those technologies, will we actually implement them in light of the fact that every time we seem to do a good thing, some bad guy comes around and figures out a way to make it damaging, so what I’m talking obviously like cybersecurity and the firewalls, and are we going to trust digitization enough to actually take advantage of it, I guess is the question. And I don’t know the answer to that question. And then from a more tactical point of view, coming outta the pandemic, lead time is going to become a conversation now. We’ve been in the lean world. We’ve been talking about the reduction of lead time being a fundamental supply chain principle.

We’ve been talking about it for 30 years. But, people continue to chase economies of scale, continue to chase procurement, lower unit costs at the expense of supply chain lead time, and extended lead time. And that’s where we really got the learnings during the pandemic. Organizations, really many of them, had no idea the lead times they had involved and set up in their supply chains. And that was the real big, like, aha moment. I’m really hopeful that we will in fact focus on lead times going forward.

[00:23:10] Mike Ogle: So, Robert, can you share some examples of some of the best supply chain career advice that you’ve heard along the way? And do you have a couple of your own that you tend to share with people, whether they’re just getting started in supply chain or even deep into their career?

[00:23:26] Robert Martichenko: I received a lot of advice over the years and lots of mentors and people that took the time to spend time with me. So, with that, one piece of advice is take the time to be mentored, and find some leaders where the chemistry is good. And don’t be shy if you’re a young person to ask for advice and so forth. But if you’re earlier in your career, my advice is very simple, and that is do the job you’re doing and do it really, really well. And actually take pride in getting a deep understanding of it.

Don’t be constantly managing your career and after six months in a job, you go, I’ve got this figured out. And what’s next? Because you don’t have it figured out after six months. And, it reminds me of a story. I was on an airplane once and I was sitting beside a doctor, and we were talking about how much schooling the doctor had had. And, I said to her, kind of joking, I said, how long would it take you to teach me how to take an appendix out. And she said, well, you know what? I could probably actually teach you how to take an appendix out in, I don’t know, I forget the number. It was like so many hours or whatever, but it wasn’t 12 years. Okay. And I said, yeah, okay. Well, that’s what I thought. And then she said, yeah, but it takes 12 years to learn what to do if something goes wrong. So, in other words, just because you can do something, doesn’t mean you have a deep understanding of it. Just cuz you can dispatch a truck or load a truck or pick parts or order material doesn’t mean you actually have a deep understanding of it. Material requirements, material requirement planner. You can learn how to look at the screens and a number is given to you and you order that number to a supplier. But what if you don’t even know what the algorithms are that the system’s using, what the math is, so how it’s calculating the inventories, how it’s calculating the replenishment quantity. So take some pride and, I believe that if you just aced the job you’re in, then the somebody will come by and tap you on the shoulder and say you’re ready for your next role. So just focus on acing the job.

Up at the more senior leader in supply chain, we fundamentally have to become systems thinkers. You have to understand it’s an ecosystem. You have to be well out of your own functions and your own lane, if you will. And you have to see the supply chain as an ecosystem, where all of the parts are interdependent, and so in my mind, if you’re not a systems thinker, then you’re gonna struggle in the new world as a supply chain leader.

[00:26:10] Rodney Apple: Hey, Robert, I know you’ve written some books, understand a fiction book as well, written some books on lean. Could you give our audience just a quick rundown of the books that you’ve written, kind of the core focus on each, and then second part with TrailPaths, just where can we find more information? Is there a way to get involved, just so our audience knows how to check out your work?

[00:26:32] Robert Martichenko: Yeah, thanks Rodney. Well, the very first book, which probably isn’t even available anywhere, was just something I wrote while I was doing my M B A and the essence of the book writing in general is through my work. I traveled a lot. Every week. Out Monday, home Thursday or Friday. And I remember once I was sitting in a hotel room and I was on my like fifth episode in a row of Dog, the Bounty Hunter. And I just said to myself, oh my goodness, I’m wasting my life. I’m like, absolutely wasting my life. And I just said to myself that I just said to myself that I cannot do this anymore. So I turned the television off. And I picked up my laptop and I started writing and I was just writing about, the first book was Lean Six Sigma Logistics that I co-authored with Dr. Tom Goldsby, who’s now a professor at the University of Tennessee. And then that just turned into the writing.

So, every canceled flight, hotel rooms, and anytime that I would normally have sat there and kind of wasting my time, I just lifted up my laptop and started writing. And that resulted in the Everything I Know About Lean, I Learned in First Grade, in the Building, the Lean Fulfillment Stream and our people book, which is the leadership book. And then the last business book that I co-authored with Peter Marks, who’s the retired CEO of Bosch, North America, so we did volunteer work together in Charleston, Discovering Hidden Profit, which, I thought it was just gonna be the book that changes the world because it’s about connecting sales and marketing with operations, and the core processes of the business, really to create that ecosystem.

And the fiction book, I set out, we were having some health challenges inside my family at a personal level, which meant I needed to be home a little more. And there was lots going on that at the time that was very emotional and the novel just kind of came out of me. It was supposed to be 72,000 words, which is the length of Catcher in the Rye. And I think when I finally closed the lid on my laptop, it was 193,000 words. So, it’s a bit of a bear. It’s called Drift and Hum. It’s about four boys growing up in Canada and the mischief that you can get into growing up in northern Canada.

At the heart of the writing from a business point of view was I wrote in order to clarify my own thoughts. Everybody has their own technique on how to clarify your thoughts and make sure you understand something before you dare go teach it or actually try to do it. And writing for me was a vehicle to understand how well I believed I understood something myself. And so that was kind of the technique and the fact that resulted in something that you can tangibly have was just kind of a really, really nice side benefit from it.

Relative to TrailPaths, there is a website and it’s www.trailpaths.com, trail p a t h s.com and everything’s there and there is a way to sign up for the community there. And that’s what we’re trying to do right now is to get the conversation started, with the conversation being how are we going to create meaningful employment environments? So, team members in particular, hourly team members, can go from just surviving a job to actually thriving in a job the way that many of us get to do in our own careers as well.

[00:30:03] Rodney Apple: Robert, this has been a wonderful conversation. Thank you so much for your insights about supply chain careers.

[00:30:09] Robert Martichenko: Yeah. Rodney, Michael, it’s always my pleasure and thank you for all the work that you’re all doing, in our industry, and it’s great to keep these conversations going.