Student Life

Can Drumming make you better at Supply Chain Management? Yes!

Supply Chain enthusiasts and leaders can benefit a lot from learning to play drums.
Written by Nilay Kumar

Supply Chain enthusiasts and leaders can benefit a lot from learning to play drums.

I began playing drums in undergrad because I really liked the beats and rhythm of classic rock music. When I got introduced to bands like Led Zeppelin, Iron Maiden, Metallica, Nirvana, and Guns N’ Roses, I felt like a spark had been lit inside of me. I spent hours behind the kit practicing, learning to play all the different parts of the kit, and covering the beats of some of my favorite songs (Smells like Teen Spirit, Immigrant Song, Hallowed Be Thy Name, etc.).

However, most of the people around me weren’t really into drums. The majority of my friends and peers wanted to play the guitar or sing the vocals, and the reason behind that was very clear – to find a place in the spotlight. The science behind this notion is quite clear. As shown by Maslow, our desires for belonging and recognition never vanish, no matter what our age is. And standing in the shadows backstage as a drummer just doesn’t give you the chance to be in the spotlight.

Unless, of course, you’re a supply chain manager! Before joining the MIT SCM program, I had a seven-year stint in the supply chain industry, working with Johnson & Johnson and PwC US Advisory. During that time, I’ve noticed that supply chain managers often feel that they are stuck in the shadows, playing drums behind the lead singer and guitar player. And whenever I encounter someone who feels this way, I remind them how indispensable drummers are to a live concert. Think about it: people at a concert dance to the beats of the drums, not to the vocals.

Just like drummers design the beat that helps gain the popularity of a song, Supply Chain Management (SCM) delivers value that is essential to the growth and performance of an organization.

Although I jammed through undergrad and my MBA, I ultimately chose to enter the field of Supply Chain Management in 2016. But my passion and learnings from playing drums still resonate with me throughout my career. Let me elaborate below on how learning to play drums made me a better Supply Chain professional or manager:

  • Leading from the back

My personal philosophy on management – Good management remains invisible.

The drummer hangs in the background (literally on stage and within the sound), but at the same time, the drummer keeps the whole song on track, efficiently, and on time. Supply Chain managers also hang in the back (far away from the eyes of the customer), making sure there is sufficient inventory of raw and packaging materials for production of finished goods, optimizing the production schedules, managing the transportation of goods in the network, and ensuring the right inventories are present at distribution centers to service the customers.

If the guitarist or the singer wants to try something new, they look to the drummer for his signal and then go ahead with it. If the song being played isn’t doing well and needs to end, the band members look towards the drummer, and the drummer brings it all to a close. Similarly, in an organization, whenever a new product is to be introduced, the cross-functional team tends to turn to Supply Chain managers for their insights on demand forecasting, technical feasibility, commercialization scale-up capabilities, etc. And when the organization wants to improve their gross profits, they turn to supply chain management for improvement initiatives like SKU rationalization of slow-selling SKUs that would help in segmentation and focusing on whether to drop the SKUs or invest more in improving their features or margins.

  • Learning by Doing

I personally love action-based learning or on-the-job learning. I find it more engaging than reading or watching tutorials about the same exercise. So I decided to teach myself how to play the drums. I didn’t go to drum teaching classes, nor can I read sheet music or drum annotations. So how did I get this far? I relied on my ear to figure out the techniques John Bonham incorporated into his deceptively simple yet thunderous groove throughout “When the Levee Breaks”.

I feel that as Supply Chain managers, we must also be close to reality to have better control over processes and their outcomes. Sure, reading up about optimization methods would give us invaluable knowledge. However, when trying to model real-life scenarios, we must put ourselves out there and really get our hands dirty in order to solve challenges that really plague efficiencies across the supply chain. Whether it be travelling with an actual truck driver to understand the bottlenecks they face while delivering the goods or spending time on the shop floor to see what’s causing the downtimes that lead to delays in production, the best way to learn and expand your knowledge in the field of Supply Chain Management is to engage in more action-based learning. And I’m grateful that MIT allows us the opportunity to be part of a Capstone project that allows us to work with sponsoring companies, thereby enabling us to be close to the problem statement.

  • Ability to Multi-task and Collaborate

It’s interesting to find out that the design of drum kits came out of financial and real estate constraints in theaters, where they needed a single person to multi-task and cover as many percussion parts as possible. They needed someone who could own the different parts and, at the same time, collaborate seamlessly with other musicians in order to achieve their common goal of making music.

In the age of digitally connected global supply chains, a good supply chain manager would have to take ownership of not just under his area of responsibility but also foresee potential impacts or constraints across all the nodes of the supply chain (Plan, Source, Make, and Deliver) thereby ensuring the maximum or best customer experience. Not to mention, we would also have to juggle between coaching and mentoring people, managing strategic projects, providing feedback to our team members, and working on the health and goals of the team as a whole.

I believe that the best drummers and supply chain managers understand that their biggest skill is their ability to work with large groups and numerous stakeholders and, whenever possible, set the tone of the collaboration and support the cross-functional team in every possible manner.

As a current student in the MIT SCM program, I can safely say that I have benefited from both the individual and collaborative delights I discovered as a drummer. I believe that drumming has played a big part in my professional progress so far and will keep me prepared for future success.