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Nov. 1, 2023

Spartans drive the global supply chain

Michigan State University’s top-ranked supply chain program takes on real-world challenges to make a difference worldwide

Reading time: 6 minutes

Ever walked around the grocery store and wondered how everything got there? Or, more likely, why an item wasn’t there?

From toilet paper to PlayStation, the height of the COVID-19 pandemic shined a spotlight on the impact of disruptions in receiving consumer goods and services. It’s something faculty and researchers at Michigan State University’s supply chain management program have known and studied for more than half a century.

“Supply chain isn’t really a chain; it isn’t linear. It is a web of connected processes and decisions,” says Jason Miller, interim chair of the Department of Supply Chain Management — home to the leading undergraduate and graduate programs in the nation — in the MSU Broad College of Business.

“Supply chain managers need to be creative systems thinkers to understand how one decision impacts the rest of the web.”

For an overview of what supply chain is and how it works, who better to explain it than Spartan faculty from the country’s top program.

MSU’s end-to-end approach

In the 1960s, MSU broke the mold of supply chain education by approaching the industry holistically. While other universities focused on one aspect at a time, MSU faculty recognized that procurement, operations and logistics — supply chain’s three pillars — are not independent processes.

“Our approach was different than what was being done at any other university,” says Miller.

Jason Miller and Li Cheng sitting and looking at a laptop.
Jason Miller (left) and Li Cheng are faculty in the MSU Department of Supply Chain Management, one of the top programs in the nation.

“Some people think supply chain is just logistics or just transportation; that is not true. Supply chain management is an end-to-end process that involves collaboration across different functions and multiple stakeholders, including suppliers and customers as well as nontraditional players like government bodies,” says Li Cheng, assistant professor of supply chain management.

“It’s essentially an ecosystem.”

MSU’s holistic approach extends to the classroom by looking at supply chain management from end to end and integrating topics from manufacturing operations, purchasing, transportation and physical distribution into a unified program. Students learn how to improve supply chain operations, reduce costs within the supply chain, reduce failures and mitigate risks as well as promote sustainability and ethics.

To provide an even broader perspective, classes focus on different types of industries, including hospitality, where the goods are actually a service being delivered.

“We give students a rigorous curriculum that allows them to understand supply chain management in different ways — the functional areas and the skills they need to become effective decision-makers,” adds Cheng.

Today, MSU’s supply chain management curriculum is still at the cutting edge, consistently recognized by U.S. News & World Report with a No. 1 ranking for undergraduate and graduate programs.

“The classes are practical, not just theory, so we learn how to actively think and solve problems. Plus, the professors have real-world experience to share,” says Peter Estefan, a fourth-year student in supply chain management and president of the Supply Chain Management Association, one of the largest student organizations at MSU.

Faculty work to stay on top of business trends and the challenges presented by rapid advances in technology. The curriculum now includes data analytics and big data. Understanding these tools allows graduates of the program to help their employers forecast the future with what they know about the past.

The college also offers a class on business “soft skills,” which are as important to supply chain managers as processes and data. Supply chain managers maintain strong relationships with partners and work to understand problems from their perspective while using their insights to make decisions.

“Supply chain management is 50% science and 50% art,” says Miller.

Setting Spartans apart

Another hallmark of MSU’s supply chain management department is the strong connection to business, in Michigan and around the world.

For more than 40 years, industry leaders on the Supply Chain Management Council have supported the teaching, research and business involvement of MSU faculty and students. While the council format is used by multiple universities, MSU members are partners in top-ranked supply chain research, as well as educational and recruitment opportunities with students.

“The college does a really good job of keeping industry connected with the program,” says Adam Robbins, principal director of strategy supply chain and operations practice at Accenture and member of the MSU Supply Chain Management Council. “We have regular opportunities to connect with students and faculty.”

Council members frequently give presentations to the student-led Supply Chain Management Association and host student tours at their facilities. Members also participate in capstone project presentations, allowing students to gain experience and receive feedback from company leaders and potential future employers.

“Even my colleagues who did not go to MSU recognize there is something different about these students. Spartan students and graduates tend to be well advanced in the supply chain discipline given their academic background, extracurricular activities and internship experiences,” adds Robbins. “They have a lot of hustle and are ready to go. Their learning curve is less steep.”

Peter Estefan
Peter Estefan spent the summer of 2023 in Oregon for an internship with Nike. He found the position by connecting with MSU supply chain management alumni on LinkedIn.

More than 86% of MSU supply chain management bachelor’s degree recipients are employed full time after graduation, with another 7% pursuing advanced degrees.

“There are a lot of great schools, but you can’t make these connections anywhere else,” says Estefan. “The investment and involvement from the faculty and alumni really stands out. At MSU, you will learn and have fun, and the connections you make will set you apart.”

Industry-shaping research

MSU supply chain management faculty are exceptional leaders in research impact and productivity. Since 2010, the college has been ranked No. 1 in the SCM Journal List for research output in empirically focused journals. In that work, researchers focus on real-world problems, such as corporate social responsibility and the role of the consumer, that have direct relevance to businesses and the community at large.

“We are seeing consumers become more concerned about where the product is coming from, a company’s labor practices and their environmental impact,” says Simone Peinkofer, associate professor of supply chain management.

“There are rising requirements for brands to consider sustainability and ethics in their operations,” adds Cheng, whose research focuses on the decision-making processes in supply chain management, recently with a focus on diversity, equity and inclusion.

Cheng, Peinkofer and other MSU supply chain management researchers share their findings with industry partners to gather real-time reactions. This creates a feedback loop for researchers to not only have a better understanding of how their research is interpreted by industry partners but also to find new areas to explore.

“Research shows retailers who are transparent in the practices actually signal to consumers a high product quality,” says Peinkofer. “Looking at changes in customer behavior generates insights companies can use to develop more effective and efficient supply chain strategies.”

Story: Melody Kindraka
Video: Garret Morgan, Nick Schrader, Anthony Siciliano
Graphics: May Napora, Sydney Tomlinson
Voice: Matt Davenport