After seven months of work and planning, we finally held the Smith Strategy and Operations Case Competition!
I had been working on this project with my classmates in the Supply Chain and Operations Club, the Healthcare Business Association, and the Business Enterprise Technology Association for a very long time.
In October 2011, my classmate and I approached USAID to ask if they would like to be the subject of a national case competition. USAID was excited about the idea and we worked with them to identify a current challenge they are facing for which MBAs could propose solutions: cost control and service level improvement for their global condom supply chain. Condoms are a critical health commodity because of the role they play in preventing the spread of infectious disease and enabling family planning. Both of these metrics are closely tied to economic development.
Beyond helping USAID solve this challenge, this was also an opportunity to engage business students in global health issues. 75% of the participants didn’t have any experience in the health care industries and none had experience in global health. This was a chance to show business students how their skills could be used to make a difference to improve a field that traditionally draws from students and practitioners in public health and the nonprofit sector.
After developing a scope of work and agreeing on a contract with the Agency, I led a small group of MBAs to write a case analysis to be the basis of the competition. I enjoyed my supply chain coursework and this was an opportunity for me to put it to real world use! Working with USAID and its partners from John Snow, Inc., we sifted through thousands of shipment and inventory records to write the case report and create a data file that participants could use in their analysis.
My classmates also managed the marketing, communications, logistics, and fundraising for the event.
Learning from Experience
Having participated in at least five case competitions (I’ve lost count!), it was really fun to take the best practices I had seen in other competitions and apply them to our own competition. In particular, I recognized that participants really value a high level of service from hosts. At the Hult competition, each team had their own liaison to escort them between rooms, get water, food etc. We didn’t provide nearly that level of service (we didn’t have enough people), but we tried to make sure the communication and on-site process was free of complications that would distract the participants. We also made sure to keep the team and judge identities anonymous throughout the competition. Judges were drawn from academia, consultancies, USAID, and USAID’s contractors.
There were hiccups, of course – like a table of wine collapsing, spilling alcohol everywhere! – but I think we performed admirably given this was our first time handling the competition. It’s definitely an experience next year’s club leaders can use to improve the competition in the future. I’m proud of how we came together as a team to make the experience relatively seamless. In the end, USAID seemed happy with the way the event went.
Outcomes and Debrief
There were very impressive recommendations from the 1st Round and Finalist teams. My personal favorite came from the the team from the Kellogg School of Northwestern University, who suggested publishing a “dashboard” summary to consignees to give them feedback on whether their orders were fitting parameters (e.g. frequency, size, time to desired delivery date) that improved the overall supply chain. This would be published to all consignees with a list of Best and Worst consignees. This would provide some social pressure on poorly performing consignees to change their ordering behaviors. I thought this was an elegant solution because it was low cost, relatively simple to implement, and hit at what I think is the key problem: influencing behavior in the absence of a price mechanism.
After the competition, we will synthesize the best proposals in a debrief meeting with USAID and present some of our own proposals. It would have been unfair for my research team to enter the competition and we are really glad to be able to present our own solutions to USAID as well. We used what we learned this year in spreadsheet modeling to model the placement of regional distribution centers and create an improved demand forecast. I also applied my interest in public policy to suggest changes to the choice architecture of consignees and suggest minimum order quantities that would make better operational sense for USAID.
Congratulations to all the competing teams and to my fellow competition organizers! Thank you to all the professors, staff, and professionals who supported us to create meaningful output for USAID!