Top summer reads: 6 unconventional books with supply chain lessons

Inspiration can come from many places, and these books can provide just that.

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Joe Woodland sat on a beach in Florida more than 70 years ago and ran his fingers through the sand. The lines reminded him of the dots and dashes used for Morse code, and he soon discovered that inspiration and insight don’t always come in a laboratory.

Woodland’s doodles sparked an idea for solving a supply chain challenge that he and Bob Silver had been working on—creating a usable product code and a machine to read it—and by 1952, they had a patent for a “classifying apparatus and method.”

It would be nearly 20 more years before IBM’s George Laurer, with Woodland’s support, developed the industry-accepted Universal Product Code that’s now ubiquitous in modern retailing. The origins of the UPC, however, go back to Woodland’s realization that such a code was possible by using lines of varying thickness like the ones he had drawn in the sand.

As you head off for summer vacation, it’s worth keeping in mind that solutions to your supply chain challenges can emerge from unlikely places, including the books you carry to the pool or beach.

A quick search reveals more than 3,000 titles for books on supply chain management. And while many of those are worth reading, we’ve found that some of the best books on supply chains aren’t actually books on supply chains. Consider these six when packing your beach bag:

1. How the War was Won

Written by Phillips Payson O’Brien, this book provides a logistics perspective on World War II. In an effort to reduce allied casualties, the United States and United Kingdom decided early on to attack enemy supply posts. Therefore, they invested heavily in their navies and air forces.

This story, backed by a variety of charts and graphics, provides several examples of attacking supply chain choke points (most famously, ball bearings production). It’s also interesting how strategic bombing led to production dispersion in both Germany and Japan, which cut into productivity and made both countries more vulnerable to potential disruptions in transportation. When transportation networks were attacked after this dispersion, the axis economies foundered.

2. The Goal

Written by Eliyahu Goldratt, The Goal shows that inspiration for managerial challenges can come from the most ordinary of circumstances. Manufacturing plant manager Alex Rogo is facing some serious troubles at work and at home—something with which many supply chain leaders can identify. The entertaining narrative keeps readers engaged while they learn to think about identifying and ultimately managing the constraints that are part of any business process. Rogo memorably finds inspiration when he is volunteering on a hike with his son’s Boy Scout troop.

Goldratt uses fiction to teach about the Theory of Constraints, which supply chain managers can apply to a variety of contexts and challenges. Along with Rogo, the reader understands that even if the right answer doesn’t come immediately, you must keep trying, evaluating data, and refining. These are keys to efficiency and profitability.

3. The Box

Written by Marc Levinson, the authors argues that the most transformative technology of the 20th century was a steel box. The creation of the uniform shipping container by Malcom McLean broke unions and shrunk the world by reducing the costs for global transportation. We are still feeling the economic and social reverberations.

4. Supply Jane Clears the Way

Written by Megan Meyer, this one is perfect for summer travels that include the kids—or if you are a kid at heart. Supply chain practitioners who have struggled to tell their kids (or anyone else) exactly what they do for work can count on Supply Jane, along with her dog, Fifo, for a helpful and fun understanding of the discipline.

5. The Last Place on Earth

Written by Roland Huntford, this book examines nearly every aspect of the race between Britain’s Robert Scott and Norway’s Roald Amundsen to reach the South Pole. This adventure story details the importance of depot locations, transport speed, and supply chain agility. The expeditions were all about where to set up depots, as well as what—and how much—to put in them.

Amundsen gets it right; Scott doesn’t and pays with his life. Among other things, Amundsen used dogs, while Scott worked with ponies and primitive snowmobiles. Humans and dogs can eat the same thing in a pinch, but humans cannot survive on gasoline or hay— food for thought while nursing a cold beverage on a hot beach.

6. The Book Woman of Troublesome Creek

Written by Kim Richardson and set in 1930s rural Appalachia, this historical fiction follows the life of Cussy Mary Carter, who works as a librarian as part of the Pack Horse Project in Kentucky. She selects books and delivers them to people in the isolated communities along her route.

Several supply chain and logistics themes run through the story. Carter’s transportation and logistics challenges of delivering books to her patrons are the most obvious, but you can’t miss the care and intention she shows in making selections that will provide education, amusement, or escape as she builds relationships with her patrons. Supply chains exist to meet the needs of customers, and Carter shows the impact of them feeling known and valued.

These are a small supply of examples that can meet your demand for non-supply chain reading about supply chains. Because supply chains are integral to life, most books connect in some ways to the movement of materials. So whether you are reading a western by Larry McMurtry (like Dead Man’s Walk), science fiction by Andy Weir (like The Martian), or a beach-themed novel by John Grisham (like Camino Winds), you are sure to find inspiration somewhere within the pages.

About the authors:

Andrew Balthrop (PhD) is a research associate within the Supply Chain Management Research Center at the Sam M. Walton College of Business at the University of Arkansas. His research focuses on the interaction between supply chains and public policy. He can be reached at [email protected].

Stephanie P. Thomas (PhD) is an associate professor of practice in the J.B. Hunt Transport Department of Supply Chain Management in the Sam M. Walton College of Business at the University of Arkansas. Her research focuses on challenges related to buyer-supplier relationships in supply chains. She can be reached at [email protected].


Inspiration and innovation can come from many places, and these non-supply chains books can provide just that for supply chain professionals.
(Photo: Getty Images)
Inspiration and innovation can come from many places, and these non-supply chains books can provide just that for supply chain professionals.
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