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Walton College

The Sam M. Walton College of Business

Episode 62: Mitchell Webb Discusses Autonomous Supply Chain and the Ecosystem of Northwest Arkansas

March 11, 2020  |  By Matt Waller

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Mitchell Webb is the Senior Director, Walmart at Blue Yonder in Northwest Arkansas. He has been involved in supply chain since the 1980s. Mitchell started his career in capacity and has held roles at JDA Software, IBM, and SAP.

Episode Transcript


00:07 Matt Waller: Hi, I'm Matt Waller, Dean of the Sam M. Walton College of Business. Welcome to beEPIC, the podcast where we explore excellence, professionalism, innovation and collegiality, and what those values mean in business, education, and your life today.

00:27 Matt Waller: I have with me today Mitchell Webb, Director of Operations for Blue Yonder's Retail Center of Competency in northwest Arkansas. Now, I gotta tell you real quickly, prior to last week, Blue Yonder was called JDA. And at the end of the podcast, we'll talk about why the name changed and a little bit about that. But first, I wanna say just a little bit about Mitchell Webb. He's been involved in supply chain since the 80s, but he has a extensive experience in manufacturing. He started his career in manufacturing R&D for capacitors with Compaq Computer, which was eventually purchased by Hewlett-Packard. And he also worked with Pritsker & Associates doing stochastic simulations, finite capacity scheduling, and implementing something called The Theory of Constraints which was developed by Eli Goldratt. Many of you may have read the book called The Goal. I read it a long time ago. It's a great book, it's a fable really, but it teaches you a little bit about factory management, and production management, and scheduling, and things like that. He was working with i2 and looking at providing memory resident enabled supply chain planning.

01:51 Matt Waller: And then after that, he was with Paul Corporation in high-tech filtration manufacturing as a Program Director and global SAP and change management. And then he was with IBM's business unit that used predictive analytics and CPLEX. CPLEX is an optimization solution. And then currently, he's with Blue Yonder, which is formerly JDA. Again, we'll talk about that a little bit later. So, Mitchell, welcome. Thank you for joining me today.

02:25 Mitchell Webb: Thank you for having me.

02:27 Matt Waller: Mitchell, of course, this is an area I've been involved in a long time too, so it's easy for us to have a conversation about these things, and I have a lot of questions for you. But with your experience and your expertise, and your network really, you have probably one of the best networks in supply chain management in general, why are you in Northwest Arkansas?


02:56 Mitchell Webb: Oh, it's a great question, and my wife asked me the same thing when I announced that we were moving to Northwest Arkansas.

03:02 Matt Waller: How does she like it so far?

03:04 Mitchell Webb: My entire family loves it. We feel like it's a playground that was built for us. From a business perspective, I think northwest Arkansas has the uniqueness about it like no other. And of course, we have the number one retailer in the world located here. That always helps. I quickly discovered it's so much more than that. It's really the ecosystem around it. And I think the time is right. You're mentioning our journey in our supply chain careers over the decades, and I see a lot of similarity from what we went through in the 90s with such success and high tech, and then in discrete manufacturing. I see the time is now for retail.

03:51 Matt Waller: You're familiar with Geoffrey Moore's book and topic about crossing the chasm. In some ways, what we're going through is similar to that. So what do you think about that?

04:05 Mitchell Webb: It is. The chasm is like the perfect storm, and it's another reason why I feel like the time is now. But if you look at where we are with technology, with the scalability and availability of artificial intelligence, machine learning, watching the internet of things, we're in a place that we've never been before as far as the potential, but it takes more than that to get inside the tornado. There's a lot of business changes that has to take place and you have to have the talent. Northwest Arkansas really has all three of those components.

04:50 Matt Waller: So that's the reason you're here.

04:53 Mitchell Webb: Yes, and from a retail perspective, I really feel like we are moving into that tornado phase of Geoffrey Chasm's Crossing The Chasm.

05:03 Matt Waller: I know one thing you're very interested in is the autonomous supply chain to create a frictionless omni-channel experience. Would you mind telling me a little bit about that?

05:15 Mitchell Webb: I think if you recognize where we are in retail, it's all about servicing that customer of one or the consumer and creating the experience that they expect, and companies can no longer do that. The reality is it's value streams competing with value streams, and it's ecosystems competing with ecosystems. Autonomous supply chain is the technology component that enables that. Now with the artificial intelligence, machine learning, we're able to predict disruptions, respond with corrective actions or prescriptive recommendations, and the model is capable of learning and getting better and better over time. And the person that wins is the consumer. They get what they want, when they want it, at the price they want.

06:00 Matt Waller: Absolutely. And in a lot of ways, northwest Arkansas's positioned to lead in some of this. And I know you've thought that before with respect to talent, technology, and value stream stakeholders. So what challenges do you see that make that difficult to achieve?

06:00 Mitchell Webb: Well, this is where we can draw on our experiences over the decades because we've been through this before. And I think we can... We're focused on retail, but I think we can learn a lot from looking at other industries. Because as we talk through this, I think you'll recognize so many similarities to the adoption. And let's take discrete manufacturing and high-tech as an example. We had the technology long before it was successful in the industry. So there's a maturity curve that we have to go through and it takes time. Sometimes I'm amazed at how persistent myself and my peers were at... We believed in something. We believed in constraint-based planning and optimization. And we saw it as a better mouse trap, but it took us years and years to really see the success.

07:47 Mitchell Webb: Let me give you a couple of quick examples of the lessons learned there. So early on, this is going back to the 80s, I went into aircraft manufacture in Georgia thinking, "Okay, aerospace, this is gonna be really advanced manufacturing and impressive." It was anything but, right? You walked through their shop and it was nothing more than a big job shop, and they literally had two plus years of work-in-process inventory on the floor. So young and eager, I wanted to show my mouse trap. It's like, we can solve this problem. And it took several years, and we were trying to convince them, "Embrace this higher level of planning." They wouldn't do it. They had progress billing contracts. So they were incented to push the inventory as far as they could, whether they needed it an assembly or not. So that's just an example of some of the business changes, the contractual relationships between supplier and retailer that will have to be in place for us to be successful deploying some of this technology. So that slows the change down.

09:10 Matt Waller: Have you seen the movie recently 'Ford versus Ferrari'?

09:15 Mitchell Webb: I have not seen that. It's on my list.

09:17 Matt Waller: It's a great movie.

09:18 Mitchell Webb: Yes, I wanna see it.

09:19 Matt Waller: I've watched it again. I rarely watch a movie twice. In the movie, Ford at one point they were offering to Ferrari. And of course Ford invented the assembly line.

09:30 Mitchell Webb: Right.

09:31 Matt Waller: And they walked into Ferrari in the movie and it was clearly a job shop, and the Ford people weren't impressed with that, of course, many of them. But Iacocca who was the VP of Marketing at the time was the one that was really interested in this. But it would be interesting to know if... 'Cause it is so hard for a firm to transition from a job shop to something more efficient.

10:01 Mitchell Webb: Right.

10:01 Matt Waller: It's very difficult. Even if they have the volume to do it.

10:04 Mitchell Webb: Right.

10:05 Matt Waller: 'Cause it's a totally different mindset.

10:07 Mitchell Webb: And now think of doing that across companies, right? So you're going across responsibility domains and trying to get them to automate their processes. It's even more challenging. In that aerospace environment, we finally achieved the vision of creating focused factories in all of the fabrication areas. We had assembly coordination, we created a true pool environment. And the business impact was amazing. And then later, I think another proof point is, after a decade of pushing these advanced planning concepts, Dell computer was one of the ones that really embraced it. That's an example of, when the time is right, how it will be embraced and it will transform the industry.

11:04 Matt Waller: How could we accelerate this vision?

11:07 Mitchell Webb: Well, it's not gonna happen organically by a single company. The challenge exists from end to end, so it's going to require a higher level of collaboration. And that's another reason I'm so excited about northwest Arkansas, is that we have so many thought leaders. I think that forms the ecosystem that can really bring the stakeholders together.

11:32 Matt Waller: Who are some of the key players that would be involved? Obviously, certainly Walmart, J.B Hunt and Tyson are big ones and...

11:41 Mitchell Webb: Yeah, exactly. So I would group them into three different groups from a value stream perspective it's clearly the stakeholders from Walmart and all of their suppliers. Secondly, it's the thought leaders and the people. There's two locally within the University of Arkansas. So your business school and the Supply Chain research center, along with the CSCMP organization locally. So I'm working with Brian Miller, who's the president of the round table here, and we're working to energize this chapter and really creating this collaboration across the value stream.

12:30 Matt Waller: For those of you that don't know, CSCMP stands for Council of Supply Chain Management Professionals, and they have chapters around the country that are called round tables. And the one in northwest Arkansas has been here since about 1995. So it's been around a while. But I just thought I'd point that out 'cause some people wouldn't know.

12:56 Mitchell Webb: Too many acronyms. [chuckle]

12:58 Matt Waller: Exactly. Exactly.

13:00 Mitchell Webb: Right. But it's a great professional community. And I think it's perfectly poised here locally to really be a catalyst. So in addition, northwest Arkansas I think has one of the best chambers of commerce. It's led by Graham Cobb and Jordan Carlisle. Just outstanding. And their relationship with the Northwest Arkansas Council, which is chaired by Bill Groves, Chief Data Officer from Walmart, it takes a village and it's gonna take an ecosystem for us to accelerate the adoption of this autonomous supply chain.

13:39 Matt Waller: So JDA just announced a name change to Blue Yonder. Tell us what's behind that?

13:45 Mitchell Webb: Oh, it's very exciting news. JDA has such a rich, rich history. 35 years of developing intellectual property and servicing the supply chain industry. But we've been working on something really for about three years that is more forward looking than that. Part of that strategy was acquiring a company called Blue Yonder who had the artificial intelligence and the machine learning expertise, intellectual property, and incredible people. Just really sharp data scientists. And our leadership team realized that that is much more representative of where we're headed. So thankfully, they embraced it and we announced it. "We're all in on blue." The company is so energized around this, but what it means to our customers is we have a commitment to software as a service. That's what we do and we are delivering it through a platform. Imagine the common data model with your supply chain data managed in one location and a common user interface, so your experience is consistent no matter what service you're using. So now sandwiched between those, you have the 35 years intellectual property and solutions from JDA, and you have the data science and intellectual property and expertise, all between this common data and the common user experience.

15:37 Matt Waller: Well, this is really exciting. Of course, this is why supply chain management evolved from logistics originally because of the recognition that... If you think about it, the reason logistics came about was because people were optimizing the DC or their warehouse or their transportation. There was, "now we need to optimize those together," and that formed logistics. But then they thought, "well, wait a minute. Clusters need to optimize in a network. You can't just optimize one piece not taking into account what the others are doing as well." And that's where supply chain came in. So really it's... We're starting now to talk about the real implementation of this and that's very exciting.

16:30 Mitchell Webb: It's amazing how we talked about the same business problems for decades, right? So the vision has been there, but you have to have the right ecosystem. You have to have the right timing, the technology, and the people, like from the university and other groups in northwest Arkansas can all come together, and we can really accelerate the adoption of this autonomous supply chain.


16:58 Matt Waller: Thanks for listening to today's episode of the beEPIC podcast from the Walton College. You can find us on Google SoundCloud, iTunes, or look for us wherever you find your podcast. Be sure to subscribe and rate us. You can find current and past episodes by searching the beEPIC podcast, one word. That's B-E E-P-I-C podcast. And now, beEPIC.

Matt WallerMatthew A. Waller is the dean of the Sam M. Walton College of Business, Sam M. Walton Leadership Chair and professor of supply chain management. He is also the host for the Be EPIC Podcast for Walton College.


Walton College's EPIC values -- Excellence, Professionalism, Innovation and Collegiality -- are the heart of Dean Waller’s podcast. Since the beginning of the series, Waller has interviewed business professionals, industry experts, CEOs and Walton College students to bring listeners first-hand accounts directly from the entrepreneurial world.


Waller is an SEC Academic Leadership Fellow and coauthor of “The Definitive Guide to Inventory Management: Principles and Strategies for the Efficient Flow of Inventory across the Supply Chain,” published by Pearson Education. He is the former co-editor-in-chief of Journal of Business Logistics. His opinion pieces have appeared in Wall Street Journal Asia and Financial Times.


Waller received an M.S. and Ph.D. from Pennsylvania State University and a B.S.B.A., summa cum laude, from the University of Missouri.

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Walton College of Business

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