Supply Chain and “Madam President”

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First, this is not about politics or even the recent election, but immediately after the election, hundreds of thousands of copies of Newsweek magazine, with a picture of Secretary Clinton under the title, “Madam President,” were distributed.  Oops.

Newsweek immediately went about recalling those copies and issued a press release saying that a licensee had released the erroneous edition.  “Not my fault” was the obvious assertion.

Although Topix Media had also prepared a Donald Trump version it thought it was safe to dispatch only the version detailing “Hillary Clinton’s historic journey to the White House”, as the cover put it. “Like everybody else, we got it wrong,” Tony Romando, chief executive of Topix Media, told The New York Post.

The edition appeared on shelves on Tuesday but was hastily withdrawn.

Well, this isn’t about politics – it’s about supply chain.  Newsweek licensed printing and distribution of their magazine to this supplier (you can call them a licensee or anything else, but they are a supplier).  Newsweek outsourced printing and distribution.  But they didn’t outsource their brand or the ultimate responsibility for the error.  They couldn’t!  You can only outsource the activity.  You cannot outsource the responsibility.

Did Newsweek’s licensee make a mistake?  Absolutely!  Should Newsweek have been hovering over them to make sure that the licensee didn’t make a mistake?  Well, that certainly is an approach, but I would boldly assert that the answer is a resounding “NO!”

Newsweek Madam President Cover TopixWhat should Newsweek have done?  Newsweek should have thought about what problems could arise with the licensee.  Might the licensee have had a catastrophic fire and not had the ability to fulfill their license?  Might they have had printing or distribution problems?  Might they have made an outright mistake and distributed the wrong issue (which they did)?  All of these possible circumstances are very real.  It’s not like similar situations have not happened before, and in today’s high-pressure, high-speed world, getting things done absolutely as quickly as possible sometimes means having two options ready to go in an instant.  That’s apparently what Newsweek’s licensee did.  The leadership at Newsweek should have thought about that potential and the egg on their faces well in advance – after all, the election is not the only situation in which alternate issues might be a good idea.  They should have predicted the potential problems.

If they had done that mental work and had foreseen the potential for a (very) embarrassing mistake, what should they have done?  They should have thought through all the low-effort, low-cost ways of working with their licensee to ensure that such an error did not actually happen.  I say low effort and low cost, because those are hard things.  It’s easy to brute force a process, but that is almost never the best answer.  They should have invested the intellectual skull sweat to develop some easy and simple processes to ensure that quality of delivery was built in.  They should have planned.

Having predicted and planned, Newsweek should have routinely exercised those plans to make sure that they and their licensees (and other suppliers) were familiar with the processes and could execute them quickly, easily and effectively.  They should have then, when the election surprised almost everyone, they should have performed and made sure that the cover with the picture of Donald Trump with the title, “Mr. President,” should have gone out.

None of this is rocket science, but it takes time and effort to identify the risks, create the plans and practice them.  Is that effort worth it?  I suspect that Newsweek’s leadership will experience the loss of face and damage to their reputation and brand for quite some time.  I think that you’ll have to ask them if avoiding the problem would have been worth it.  I think the answer would be “yes.”

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