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Supply Chain Lessons from the Golf Game of Tiger Woods

By Paul Lord | February 18, 2015 | 0 Comments

For some reason, I tend to see parallels between supply chain and golf. Both are incredibly complex pursuits that involve the need to combine physical mastery (functional operations) with emotional maturity (systemic orchestration). In this regard, it is difficult to overlook the plight of Tiger Woods for insights.

A February 9 article by Brandel Chamblee of the Golf Channel (, titled “Tiger Woods’ Quest for Perfection Causing His Downfall” immediately caught my attention. Consider for a moment Chamblee’s summary conclusion that “The reason for Tiger’s fall is his ill-fated mythical quest for perfection.” Chamblee supported this with observations over the years that “Tiger wanted the perfect swing, to drive it straighter than (Fred) Funk. He wanted the perfect body…He wanted the perfect record…to surpass the legend of Jack Nicklaus.” This was recognized by several of Tiger’s coaches over the years. Some of them tried “pointing at the leaderboard in an attempt to get him to stop trying to unravel the rainbow. They knew from their playing backgrounds…that a good shot mattered more than a good swing, and what mattered more than anything was a clear head.”

The saga has played out in recent years by Woods’ hiring of a new coach, Sean Foley, who “comes at this game from more of an academic background”, and was able to “persuade Tiger at age 35 to change his swing once again. These changes were …rooted in math. There is a linear beauty to numbers that is simple and indisputable, and to someone as talented and as malleable and as addicted to perfection as Tiger, irresistible.”

“But the problem is, golf is not like that. It’s not linear, it’s abstract. It’s not beautiful, it’s messy.”

This description feels a lot like the complexity of supply chain. Yes, we can model our supply networks with increasing granularity and speed to quantify complex tradeoffs that improve our decision-making confidence. But judgment is still needed, and (often) speed and flexibility are more important than precision that will hypothetically extract that last 2% of value. Cost-optimized operations are often brittle and risky as well, which we now observe with the oversized post-Panamax ocean vessels waiting out the Long Beach port strikes because they are too large to pass through the Panama Canal or fit into smaller ports.

Just as importantly – relationships, talent development and organizational renewal are critical to sustaining the hard earned gains from process improvements in basic planning and execution. So when we talk or hear about the imperatives to pursue digital business, leverage advanced analytics and strive for that next stage of S&OP maturity, let’s not allow perfection to be the enemy of good. Maintaining organizational equilibrium and humility (a clear head) will allow us to be vigilant to risks that need mitigation or constraints not sufficiently represented in decision-support models so that pursuit of ‘the perfect plan” does not get in the way of delivering value to customers and outcome to the business.

As Chamblee says of golfers seeking technical perfection, “Inevitably the misses don’t make sense (and) frustration builds…until he begins to think that the problem is with him and so he works harder…but what he does in the process is beat up his body, and confidence is replaced by timidity. The joy of the game is gone.” One of supply chain’s biggest challenges is luring talent away from easier and more lucrative roles and industries. Making supply chain fun, rewarding and business relevant is important to maintaining an enduring and competitive capability.

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