A renewed focus on management: The Cranfield Perspective

By Steve Macaulay

As the pandemic forces strategic shifts across all sectors, the role of core managers in strategy implementation has never been more important. This is particularly evident in supply chains, which are left vulnerable when business strategies are determined without managers recognising the impact these strategic decisions will have.

For more than 20 years, Cranfield have been world leaders in the fields of Supply Chain Resilience and Management Development. Associate Steve Macaulay offers The Cranfield Perspective; stressing the critical approach for businesses today is to look at a wider end-to-end demand chain and its vulnerabilities.


Managers in the supply chain sector need executive development to cope with current pressures and serve their business with agility. By engaging middle managers with the strategic implications of business decisions across the wider demand chain, leaders can ensure that the supply chain can be a value creator and a source of competitive advantage. 

The current pandemic and its knock-on effects have brought into sharp relief the core management skills required under today’s challenging conditions. Extant management practices focusing narrowly on past priorities are too rigid for the current global business environment. Agility has become a critical priority for organisations, and managers need to approach their role in a flexible way; reviewing and sharpening their skills to keep everything on track and help to secure the future.


Agility has become a critical priority for organisations, and managers need to approach their role in a flexible way


In their efforts to build resilience from the top down, it appears many business leaders have simply forgotten what a critical role core management plays. Contrary to popular attacks on middle managers, they are often quiet implementers of new ideas, developing creative improvements ‘below the radar.’ Putting our management lens over supply chains reveals a need for a strategic shift; shifting focus away from narrow efficiency and cost reduction to supply chains where strategies are updated and flexibly implemented throughout the whole chain. Managers need to be closely in tune with the strategy and motivated to put it into practice. Now is the time to develop their skills and promote creative thinking in operational management and implementation.

Rapid adaptation to survive

The double whammy of Covid 19 and Brexit have emphasised the importance of agility. Every industry is moving in this direction and for consumers, supermarkets have been the most recent visible example of that.

Management and ‘delivering the goods’ have had a lot of attention recently during the pandemic. In the retail sector, solid management skills have been required to meet significantly changed consumer demands; from ramping up production of toilet rolls and pasta, to serving consumers as they move from in-store to online, and at the same time keeping the business on track.

Widespread critical scrutiny has been focused on the millions of pounds spent and delivered on PPE, drugs, equipment and testing processes. Out of the bright lights of publicity, hospitals have handled major capacity, resources and staffing challenges with understated expertise. All thanks to in-depth management experience and skill, despite those teams and managers facing enormous pressure and stress themselves.

Middle managers as quiet implementers

To ensure delivery of products and services in the current environment, you need well-honed management skills: good teamwork, forecasting, planning, logistics, as well as supply chain management. This ‘management of implementation’ role has never been more important than it is right now: reinforced or new methods and approaches may well be needed as managers strive to work effectively in changed circumstances in the future.

In delivering a product or service, managers are subjected to many pressures and therefore need a robust understanding of how to apply the principles and practices of management. Contrary to popular attacks on middle managers, they are often quiet implementers of new ideas, developing creative improvements ‘below the radar’, and assisting others to put good ideas into action. Many middle managers are facing unpredictable work patterns, long hours, tight deadlines and squeezing more from limited resources. There is a case to be made to strengthen the role of managers and give them more autonomy and discretion. Yet in many organisations, management jobs are being cut.

Managing is not done by algorithm

One of the founding fathers of management, Henri Fayol, a century ago, said that a manager’s key task is to plan, organise, co-ordinate, command and control. In many ways this still holds true. But managing is not achieved using a tidy algorithm. For effective management, an essential part of getting things done is to define operationally what resources, capabilities and processes are required to achieve results, then monitoring, measuring and delivering those results. The globalisation of business and the pressure for cost reduction have in turn created supply chain risks. Especially critical today, operational plans need to be highly tuned to adapt to changing customer needs.

It is a key management skill to apply the right elements in the right direction to achieve results. In a research study1 by Cranfield School of Management, middle managers were often found to have no administrative assistance, support staff were often part-time, and their services were likely to be shared by several managers. This scenario leaves little space for creative problem solving. Core management skills are not static, they require flexibility and attention to organisational culture, individual and group attitudes and motivations as well as active management of measures and processes.

Good management shows in business results

A major study in 2005 on management practices2 concluded that sound management was directly correlated with business results and that poor management showed in poorer outcomes. (Sound management was measured using a total of 18 defined management practices, later grouped into four critical areas. Business results were measured by productivity, profitability, growth rates and market values).

Let’s consider critical management skills within four main management practices.

  • Shop-floor operations
    Every organisation has its shop-floor or operations, where work is processed to output. Shop-floor management is concerned with ways to enhance efficiency and analysis. For any big programme or project, creating a guiding management group of line and specialist managers is essential to oversee but also initiate implementation in each local area in the organisation. Has your company adopted the spirit of agility and improvement?
  • Performance monitoring
    Performance monitoring can spot day-to-day but also big, underlying problems. Any shortcomings may have a trail which can lead back to other management and organisational issues-something which managers can sometimes be reluctant to uncover and deal with. How well do you track what goes on inside your organisation?
  • Target setting
    Target setting Implementing targets can be a strong motivator-but equally a lot of skill is involved in devising and communicating targets so that people feel ownership of them. Are you setting the right targets and tracking the right outcomes?
  • People priorities
    Core managerial skills demand managers who understand people and provide them with the environment and incentives to succeed. Is your organisation hiring, developing and keeping the right people?


Core management: some further questions you need to be asking

Ask yourself whether your managers are able to:

  • Communicate priorities and direction in ways people understand in their part of the organisation.
  • Put together an effective team of diverse skills and talents.
  • Review and encourage individual and team performance.
  • Recognise and reward effective contribution.


Learning management lessons and setting priorities for action

Now ask yourself these fundamental management questions to review and consider how you are managing the operations and service provided:
  • How well do people in your organisation understand the management contribution?
  • What can be done to enhance the management of your organisation?
  • How are managers generating enthusiasm and motivation for the success of the organisation at all levels?
  • Are the confidence and skills of your managers strong and up-to-date, so that they feel confident to make decisions which fit current circumstances?
  • Throughout your organisation, how are you keeping consistent management focus on changing priorities?

Rapidly adapting supply chains: The Cranfield Perspective

We are moving into a time of procurement for resilience rather than for cost, meaning that every manager and senior executive needs supply chain skills as we move into the new normal.

Cranfield’s seminal research in the field of supply chain management and resilience revealed that managers with supply chain responsibilities tend to focus on internal operational risks3. When core managers are not explicitly required to engage with supply chain vulnerability or resilience, there is disconnect between the business strategy and the people who are operationally responsible for delivering it.

Business continuity planning tends to focus on the internal network, yet the message that needs to be understood and acted upon is that the biggest risk to business continuity may well come from the wider supply chain rather than from within the business. Whilst this message has been taken on board by best practice organisations, in the light of the current situation all organisations should review and take a second look at how far they have embedded these principles throughout their organisation. Equip your future leaders for the decade ahead.


Supply Chain Management

Global business is becoming ever more reliant on logistics and supply chain management in order to keep pace with the demands of an increasingly global economy. In the midst of the 4th Industrial Revolution, highly responsive customer value delivery requires developing your supply chain management teams and continually fine-tuning supply chain practices in order to stay responsive. With the right management, your supply chain can be a value creator and a source of competitive advantage.

Find out how Cranfield’s Supply Chain Management Programme will equip your future leaders for the decade ahead. 


About the author
Steve Macaulay a Management Development consultant specialising in Human Resource development and is an associate at Cranfield Executive Development. View full profile.

Academic contributors

Professor Michael Bourlakis holds the Chair in Logistics, Procurement and Supply Chain Management. He is the Director of Research for Cranfield School of Management and the Director of the Centre of Logistics, Procurement and Supply Chain Management. View full profile.

Dr Martin Christopher's work in the field of logistics and supply chain has gained international recognition. He has published widely including recent bestselling books such as Logistics and Supply Chain Management and Marketing Logistics. Also regularly contributing to conference and workshops around the world. View full profile.

Professor Richard Wilding OBE brings a wealth of expertise and experience with his significant contribution to Supply Chain Risk Management. In 2013, Richard was recognised for his outstanding achievement to logistics and supply chain management, he was appointed an Officer of the Most Excellent Order to the British Empire (OBE). View full profile.


1 Buchanan DA, Denyer D, Jaina J, Kelliher C, Moore C, Parry E & Pilbeam C (2013) How do they manage? A qualitative study of the realities of middle and front-line management work in health care, Health Services and Delivery Research, 1 (4)

2 Management Practices Across Firms and Nations Nick Bloom , Stephen Dorgan , John Dowdy , John Van Reenen, and Tom Rippin June 2005

3 Creating Resilient Supply Chains: A Practical Guide – Cranfield University School of Management in partnership with the Department for Transport, 2003

Tags: leadership, article, logistics and supply chain