The Circular Supply Chain Network with Deborah Dull

June 1, 2021

Deborah Dull is a supply chain and circular economy rock star …. nicknamed the “Circular Nomad” for her global travels and efforts to educate about the benefits of circular economy. She leads the operations performance management, supply chain optimization and circular economy economy efforts for the GE Digital division of GE.  

John Shegerian: This edition of The Impact Podcast is brought to you by ERI. ERI has a mission to protect people, the planet, and your privacy. It is the largest fully integrated IT and electronics asset disposition provider and cybersecurity-focused hardware destruction company in the United States and maybe even the world. For more information on how ERI can help your business properly dispose of outdated electronic hardware devices, please visit eridirect.com.

John: Welcome to another edition of The Impact Podcast. I’m so excited and honored to have you with us today, Deborah Dull. She’s the founder of the Circular Supply Chain Network and also a Principal at GE. The famous iconic brand General Electric. Welcome to The Impact Podcast, Deborah.

Deborah Dull: Hi John. Thank you so much for having me. I’m thrilled to be here.

John: You know, you and I were digging a little bit offline. This is the first time I’ve had 1500 of shows here at Impact Podcasts over the last 14 years. I don’t think I’ve ever had the pleasure and the honor to interview someone in Hawaii.

Deborah: Wow, can you imagine the honor? This is the place to start the interview.

John: This is wonderful. But listen, before we get going into all the important work. It is very important given the times that we live in that you’re doing both of GE and the Circular Supply Chain Network. I’d love you to please share a little bit of your backstory. How do you even get here? This is important and really interesting work you’re doing. What was your journey leading up to these great roles that you have right now?

Deborah: Yeah, thanks. The shortest version and I’ll give a mid-length version.

John: Okay.

Deborah: I love Supply Chain. I think it’s the most interesting topic in the world. But listen, don’t leave everybody. Stay with me. I promise I’ll win you over. Inventory is super interesting. If you look around everything in front of you right now, it was brought to you by a Supply Chain Manager. Somewhere in the world, when you bought the shirt you’re wearing and you bought blue instead of purple, an inventory manager panicked somewhere in a corner planning. It’s wonderful and marvelous. I tripped and fell into the Supply Chain and I’m so glad I did. I actually originally started studying marketing. I grew up in the smallish[?] town in central Washington State. Apple capital of the world. I really wanted to get out of a rural setting and out of America. Gosh, the world is such a big place. What could I do? And my guidance counselor at my small High School said, “You could become a stewardess if you like to travel.” Literally, the word stewardess. I decided not to do that. But I thought everybody buys something so I’ll go into marketing.

John: Good choice.

Deborah: Yes. What has been a very fun life, I think. But I still get to travel a lot. A lot of really lovely flight attendants have there of course called now and help me out. Here I am in my undergrad. I am taking my required operations and management class. On the first day of class, my professor has us plan thanksgiving dinner. And so here he’s saying, “What are we going to have for dinner?” And we say turkey and lobster and cakes and pies and everything. And he goes, “Okay, now you’ve got one burner and one oven. How are we going to pull it off?” It was the most brilliant first day of class. I don’t remember any of my other first days of class. But he’s taught us resource constraints. How to exploit within your constraints a work back schedule? Really cool elements. I said, “Wow, is this actually something I could get paid to do?”

Anyhow, we fast-forward and I learned to become a Supply Chain Professional Microsoft. A brilliant place to grow up in a profession and got a chance to move around to a lot of different roles and move internationally. I then really pivoted and started to use Supply Chain to figure out how can we make the world a better place. I got to spend a couple of years with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. I lived in Ethiopia for a year spent the majority of my time in resource-constrained environments and challenging everything it is that I learned what was true about Supply Chain. To try to figure out how to bring equity through public health and international development, a fascinating time. And then I pivoted. So I really focused on health people communities. I thought, what else can be done with Supply Chain? I discovered the Circular Economy 3 years ago. One of the big reasons I actually came to GE was thinking about the breadth and scale of the industrial operations that we meet around the world. We use almost every element in the periodic table. The impact we can make internally and then the majority of my customers are actually external is just really very exciting to me.

Along the way, I have found lots of other Supply Chain nerds, who think this is really fun. About six months ago, we started this nonprofit called the Circular Supply Chain Network, which is just a free slice of the internet for all of us to get together and nerd out on what’s happening now. It went needs to happen for us to truly transition. So, Circular Economy and as I say, avoid water wars. Because let’s face it when I’m 90, I am too old for that. I can’t fight for ice for my cocktails. You really got to look out for ourselves in the future.

John: It’s so true and for our viewers and our listeners out there that want to find Deborah’s Circular Supply Chain Network, go to www.circularsupplychain.network. I’m on that site right now. It’s a beautiful sight and you’re doing great things there. But let’s talk now about the interrelationship. A principle of GE is a big role. Being the founder and now also overseeing your vision at the Circular Supply Chain Network. How do you intermingle those and let both of those inform each other and make both of those opportunities even bigger?

Deborah: A great question. One that I think about all the time as we’re recording this, we’ve all spent 15 months inside. If you’re like me, you’ve taken everything that used to fill your life with joy and instead filled it with commitments and new hobbies, and new ideas. That’s what I’ve done. But I spend my free time really exploring the relationship between the Circular Economy and the Supply Chain. I find that to be very fascinating. So, how do we balance? There are discussions in the land of manufacturing, automation, execution. How do we run industrial processes and manufacturing better? Over these last couple of years, I’ve spent in the company, we’ve gone through a couple of leadership changes. My current leadership, I have incredible amounts of faith in. I think we’re on a great path where we listen very, very carefully to what our customers are asking.

Right now, it’s clear our customers are all making commitments towards circularity and recognizing that we need to change the relationships we have with materials. We’ve got quite a few really exciting and it’s just going on working closely together with our customers. Now, how does my other half fit into this? Now part of the shift we need to meet is the ability to take our corporate hats off. There was a time when we were really our companies and when we go out in the world. Everything we say then is due to the company. But I see a lot of that shifting and changing the role of social media obviously is making a big change there. The network allows many of us to come together take our company hats off, and really show up as Supply Chain professionals. Through this work, I’m able to speak with Chief Supply Chain Officers, Vice-presidents, Inventory Managers, Junior Analysts from all different types of companies all around the world.

John: Really.

Deborah: We usually have room for four continents throw up for meetings. And I can then start to share and populate learnings between both of those different platforms.

John: That’s fast. Really the access that the Circular Supply Chain Network has created for you has been informative and beneficial to your principal role at GE and vice versa. But for our listeners and viewers out there that are new to this type of discussion and new to this terminology, can you explain, Deborah where we were historically as a society as a country in a Linear Supply Chain Network? How we’re moving to a Circular Economy? What that really mean? What does a Circular Supply Chain Network mean?

Deborah: Sure. Right. So listen, it’s probably not a surprise that you’re not familiar with today’s economy which is built on what’s called a Linear Economy. I personally well, I have an example, most people don’t go out to a happy hour and talk, “Oh, men not Linear Economy today.” Listen, what we’ve done is spent the last hundred years or so perfecting what we call the Linear Economy. We extract items from the planet. We make something extremely efficiently using the technologies of the first and second industrial revolutions and lean management all of the work we all have learned. We put that item somewhere. Might go to a landfill. Might be ended up at the ocean. It might be out in the world. But the problem with this is twofold. One, the materials that we’re casting aside have more value to give to the economy. We could charge something for it which is important because we need to give that material as many chances that it can to generate value for us. Thus growing our supply chains, our businesses, and our economies.

The second part of this, the second problem is that we are running out of materials on the planet. There may be some skeptics out there saying, “No, that’s not true.” Go and do an internet search. We have less than 50 years of mineable gold left in the planet. Gold is really important for a lot of what we do as a society. We need to shift our relationship that we have with materials and resources like metals, plastics, wood, heat, water, etcetera. So, interestingly enough actually this all kind of happened if we take a short little history lesson, 1924. Right as Henry Ford was coining the term mass production. There is a clandestine business meeting in a side street in Geneva, Christmas eve. The problem is that this product their business owners who are on the same product. It wasn’t making them enough money. It was lasting too long and people weren’t buying enough of it. All these companies were going to go out of business. That product maybe surprisingly, is the light bulb. And GE was in that room. Basically what happened was we said, “You know what, let’s cap the life” That’s almost half the life span of this light bulb so that people need to use it more. Better fuel sales and we can stay in business. This is a significant meeting because it’s the first known meeting of what’s called planned obsolescence or how do we plan trash into the economy.

John: Right.

Deborah: The big decision for all of us, of course, is that what point does it become trash? We optimize around that. So very, very interesting. We’ve just spent so much this time basically the entire nineteen[?] hundreds perfecting this model. Now for the two reasons I mentioned and with the amount of disruption we’ve seen in our Supply Chains in the last year, we’re reminded of just how long these Supply Chains are. Items are going thousands and thousands and thousands of miles. It means silly items like pears and little plastic containers go 18,000 miles to reach an American consumer. Your iPhone went around the Moon and back. It’s just getting out of hand in terms of how much we’re shipping around the world. Meanwhile, Global Logistics contributes 15% of the emissions put out into the world every year. You’ll see these pieces start to come together. It gives us a chance to make more money. Employ people for less money and also to save the planet which is pretty great that we can do both at the same time.

John: Right. With the focus now everyone’s hearing about ESG. The Circular Economy fit in what is being discussed on a macro basis as good ESG behavior. Corporations and governmental entities having now to report on their ESG behavior. Are you right on time with this concept and the merging of Supply Chain Network Behavior, Circular Economy, and now this new macro trend of making everybody be transparent about their ESG behavior?

Deborah: I sure hope so. I think this idea of circularity is not a goal in itself. I think it can be a strategy for supply chains.

John: Okay.

Deborah: We have to report. We need to be more transparent and report on these ESG metrics. But I argue that supply chains will continue to add value in 3 ways to organizations, time, cost, and quality.

John: Okay.

Deborah: Yes, we’ll need to support these efforts around decarbonization etcetera. But our job then is to make sure we can continue to provide time cost quality while also doing these other commitments. I find as we apply circularity as a strategy for supply chains, we can be very successful here. For example, if you were to take a total landed cost of a section of your Supply Chain. Something that’s being shipped really far away.

John: Right.

Deborah: Imagine what might happen if you decentralize that production and put miniature warehouses or manufacturing facilities closer to point to views. This isn’t so crazy. Unilever just launched what they called a nanofactory. The entire food production line inside a 40-foot container. They can plop it down close to point of views. Now, this cuts dramatically a lot of that negative impact supply chains put out into the world. We’re only producing what’s needed. We’re producing up closer to point of views. We can pull less on the resources that we need. In this way, we can save money. Maybe innovate a bit with local market tastes and then also go faster because you don’t have to go all the way around the world a few times and contribute to your ESG commitments.

John: As you see, then a result will be great transparent behavior that is reportable up into the ESG reporting requirements. But that’s just a great outcome of good Supply Chain Management.

Deborah: That’s right. Yep.

John: I got it.

Deborah: I think the way we do Supply Chain will start to shift, right? So you have to really shift into let’s make one good system so that the right decision to make is the only decision to make. Right now, we’ve got a lot of degrees of freedom. There’s some standards we need to set as an industry. I think there’s a couple of ways they can go after that together.

John: For our listeners and viewers who are just joining us. We’ve got Deborah Dull. She’s the founder of the Circular Supply Chain Network. To find Deborah there, you can go to circularsupplychain.network, and also she’s a principal at General Electric. Deborah, talk a little bit about how wide has the reach become for the Circular Supply Chain Network? How many countries and people and organizations and how many countries have now joined on and are now informing and cross-pollinating information at the Circular Supply Chain Network?

Deborah: Thanks, John. I’m really excited to share our story. We are new. Just about six months old and we always surprised ourselves. We’ll have a weekly Round Table discussion. We move the time around so that it can be inclusive to different time zones around the world. We always have two, three, four, sometimes, five continents represented. We may only be one or two countries per continent. It may be one person joining from India late at night, but we get credit for that continent that represented. It’s a really fun part of coming together in this type of a virtual space. That there’s no barrier to entry here. There’s internet, that’s one barrier but we don’t charge anything. People can come together and find that actually, they all speak the same language because we’re supply chain professionals. We can start in the same place. We’ve got a few dozen countries. We are focused on individuals. I’m asked a couple of times a week about partnerships between organizations and we’re still coming up with our perspective on that. This is really meant to be for individual humans to get together. Like I said earlier in our discussion, we’re finding a dramatic shift away from this idea that everybody is their company logo. We all have such good ideas. We need to be able to share. That’s calling it in a pre-competitive space.

How do we make it possible for us to come together? But I am so delighted by the response we’re getting. We have gotten some pretty impressive big, big brand names to reached out. We’ve done some really cool convenings. We’ve also worked with very small, you know, Independent Consultants who say, “Hey, I want to build a business on this. Can you help me do that?” Our intent is everything we build as a public good. We don’t really have time to fuss around with who can access what the words putting it all out into the world. Hoping to catch the attention of some great thinkers who can unlock the puzzle that is shifting to a Circular Economy.

John: Let me understand this if I’m a senior consultant, a new entrepreneur, or a top executive at a publicly traded company, or a government executive trying to figure out how to run my Supply Chain Network better for the benefit of the public servant see what I’m doing. All of those people can join your network, the Circular Supply Chain Network.

Deborah: Absolutely right. Yep. In the next couple of months we- So every week we have a discussion. We usually spoke like someone externally who comes in and shares their story. We can show, “Look, this isn’t a scary weird academic concept that is happening today.” We talked through. Okay, what does or doesn’t apply? What are the questions we have? Something we’re going to switch to in a few is almost doing like a miniature problem-solving session where we’re going to get a really hard problem to solve from our speaker. We spend about half an hour doing quick in breakout sessions. What’s possible for us to start solving together? We see a huge desire to start problem-solving. The community is starting to get to a place where we all grasp the basics. Now let’s start to apply them into real-world situations. We’ll see how it goes. We’re going to give it a go and see where it goes.

John: Well, that’s a great idea. You’re basically taking your professor’s idea from thanksgiving and just applying it all in phases. I love it.

Deborah: That’s right.

John: Come on. In terms of where people are now, we talked a little bit about my first exposure to Supply Chain Network Behavior with Circular Economy was from Jim Gowen, who was a good friend over the last 10 years over for Verizon. Where he told me, he was Chief Sustainability Officer and also Supply Chain Officer. He was merging his knowledge to benefit, of course, the great brand Verizon. Is this going to be a trend that you foresee, Deborah, in the future Supply Chain Officers and companies also getting heavily involved with the sustainability departments at the companies as well?

Deborah: Absolutely. We’re seeing this more and more I see on LinkedIn Chief Supply Chain Officer and Chief Sustainability Officer. It’s coming together in the same space. Given the importance of Supply Chain and operationalizing any sustainability goals that you have, many companies are realizing that having those rules separate is just not feasible. A couple of years ago, as I started to attend Global Circular Economy events that could be can go in person. I would go find these Sustainability Executives and I’d ask, “Hey, what is your Supply Chain think about all of these Circular Economy concepts?” They would kind of cock their head at me and say, “My who?” Why would I ask them? I was just flabbergasted because I thought yes there’s design change we need to do. Yes, there’s business model change. There’s material science change but who is going to actually do any of the buying, the moving, the storing, bringing it back refurbishment. Who’s going to do all of that work? It still seems that we have this idea. There’s a magic tribe of elves in the back of the target that filled our items. That this idea that there’s a real Supply Chain out there is still sort of flabbergasting to people.

John:: Right. Deborah, you’ve got two huge positions, being the founder of the Circular Supply Chain Network and also a principal at GE. You’re a young person with a long time in front of you. What’s your goals in the months and years ahead at both organization? Share with our listeners and our viewers a little bit some of your more immediate goals but also long-term goals in both seats that you sit in.

Deborah: Perfect. Look, if you are in Supply Chain, even if you’re not, there’s a time in the year that the Supply Chain folks get surprised by sales. The conversation goes something like this, “Hey, good news. We sold a hundred thousand units.” And the Supply Chain goes, “Wow, we have 20,000 units.” Now we’re in a scramble mode, it might happen at holiday. It’s whenever you are peak season is. I predict we will have a similar discussion the next few years. It’s not going to be very long from now and we have a chance to get ahead of this. You should not be surprised by this. This is not new. It’s going through the Gartner Hype Cycle. There is a lot of discussion around circularity 5, 6 six years ago. We’re coming back out of this. You know the hype cycle goes up and it comes down and it goes back up again and that the topic is starting to catch up. I see publications all the time saying Circular Supply Chains are the future. They don’t know call them that anymore. I think 5 or 10 years from now, it’ll just be called Supply Chain. But all of our colleagues who do reverse logistics, which isn’t a huge Department usually. It’s only a couple folks. They are going to become our superheroes. All of the work we do that we don’t really talk about like harvesting metal from electronics. It’s kind of talked about these become our major platforms in the pillars for the economy going forward.

So my goal for both organizations is quite similar. We need more tools inside the Supply Chain to be successful. Success might be time and cost. It might be decarbonization. It might be all of our commitments and goals at a corporate level, but we’re starting to kind of run out of options to go faster and be cheaper pre-pandemic. I lived in Seattle, we ordered printer ink from Amazon Prime Now and I had it in 20 minutes. I don’t know if we need anything that fast. So we’re almost out. Right? How do we serve our organizations better? I think this gives us a brand new toolset. Like I said, we’ve got a big, big amount of work to do to clean up the planet, not just sustainably but regeneratively. We’ve pushed the planet a bit too far. If we just keep going the way we are now, we’re actually still going to run out of food and it’s not going to really end well for us. But we still have a chance to fix it. If someone large like GE can both inside. It’s one of the largest supply chains in the world. In their own operations, even takes one or two percent change and start to share that story externally, the impacts that can be made really are pretty tremendous.

John: We’ll all be online. The Circular Supply Chain Network and for our listeners again to want to find it, please go to circularsupplychain.network to find Deborah and everyone else. The great work you’re doing there, will it always be online, or do you foresee post-pandemic when science wins this very tragic period of world history that they’ll be an in-person annual event or semi-annual event or something like that?

Deborah: When we talk about this as a team and we’re torn. But the value of being in person is undeniable.

John: Right.

Deborah: However, our hallmark values are to create an inclusive space that doesn’t have barriers to entry. We know fewer women get sent to these annual events. We know frontier markets are not represented. Either they can’t get funding or they can’t get Visa sponsorship. I think it’s tragic. We’re only using one percent of one percent of the world’s thinkers. To solve this problem, we need to leverage everyone. We go back and forth. We wonder around the world. Can we piggyback on other large supply chain conferences? And might look like CSCMP, it might look like APICS, ASCM now, or SAPICS in South Africa speak in Cape Town every year now. It’s gone virtual. But can we piggyback on some of the other ones and leverage that time together to ideate? But ultimately, I see this staying as a single network that’s global and inclusive and available and accessible around the world. That no matter if you’re an executive and we have several joined, or if you’re still in school in your trying to figure out if this is what you want to do for the next 10 or 15 years that you’re able to connect and find each other. It’s the topic we talked about a lot and one that I think will continue to challenge ourselves on.

John: Wonderful. I love to leave our listeners and our viewers with actionable items. If they want to join your network after listening to your great vision, important vision. How do they go about joining? How easy is it to become a member?

Deborah: Super easy on our very homefront home page. You click the button that says join the network. You can click another button that says join with LinkedIn and you’re done. With that, you get to join what’s called our Members’ Circle. A play on words here on Circular Economy and this is the spacer. We really amplify the message of those in our community. We have humble but growing resource days for people to learn more about the concept of the Circular Supply Chain. Every single Thursday, like I said, we get together and we hang out together. You’ll see our calendar there. You’re welcome to join. We have pre-reads for every event. You can come in with a little bit of information and then we post the replays. You can go and check out our replays. You have several dozen by now and will continue to build this out. If you yourself have ideas or case studies, we have a program called the Co-Thinkers Program. Where you’re able to develop and contribute and put your ideas in your content as a resource for the entire network to consume.

So, more than welcome to come. We get almost daily e-mails of folks who want to join. There’s a volunteer or is it co thinker and it’s been a really, really fun experience. So we’re nice. We’re happy, we’re excited to laugh a lot. These are fun meetings. We mostly just relish in the joy that we’re all Supply Chain professionals totally nerding out on this.

John: That’s awesome. You know Deborah, you’re always invited back on this show because you’re making truly great important impacts both in the seat that you sit in at GE as a principal. Also, of course, with the Circular Supply Chain Network. To find Deborah and everyone else who’s doing great work switching our society from a Linear Economy to a Circular Economy, please go to www.circularsupplychain.network. Deborah Dull, you’re making the world a better place. For that, we’re so grateful. Thank you for joining us today on The Impact Podcast.

Deborah: Thank you, John.

John: This edition of The Impact Podcast is brought to you by the Marketing Masters. The Marketing Masters is a boutique marketing agency offering website development and digital marketing services to small and medium businesses across America. For more information on how they can help you grow your business online, please visit themarketingmasters.com.