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Author's profile photo Beatrice Hulde

What do Triathletes and Supply Chain Planners have in common?

Recently, after a two-year COVID-19 related break, the Ironman Hawaii took place again. It’s probably the most famous triathlon (in long distance; 3.8 km swim, 180km bike and a marathon) and is the Ironman World Championship of the World Triathlon Corporation. I am a triathlon rookie myself (had my first one three years ago, but far away from a long distance…) but I couldn’t do any swimming during the last two winters as all the pools were closed.
Looking at this event made me think of how triathlon actually compares to my business life -working in Supply Chain Planning.

Disruptions, resilience and the pandemic

As with most things in our lives, the covid 19 virus has also affected the world of sports. Training was barely possible, events got cancelled or shifted. Professional athletes were of course hit the hardest – because as events got cancelled, so too was part of or their whole income.

But it’s not only the pandemic that can affect triathlons. 2018, the Hamburg Ironman had to be turned into a run-bike-run duathlon due to blue-green algae in the Alster that were considered a health hazard. This is a great example of resilience and agility: it’s how you respond to a disruption in your plan.

In 2020, during lockdown, SAP brand ambassador Jan Frodeno who won three Ironman World Championships and holds the world record in long-distance triathlon, showed his personal resiliency by setting up his own indoor Ironman. Not being allowed to leave the house, he completed the whole distance at home, swimming in his counter-current pool, cycling on his roller trainer and running on his treadmill, raising funds for charity.

How the pandemic affected supply chains is something I won’t deep dive into here – it’s a topic to fill several blogs on its own.
Just this: the companies that were least heavily affected were those that found quick and good responses to the disruptions. The ones that were risk resilient – shifting productions to other regions, adjusting their portfolio, e.g. from alcoholic beverages to sanitizers, and also moving from B2B to B2C channels to cater for the demand “at home”.

The fourth discipline: it’s not only about the sports, but also about the transitions

Being able to swim, bike and run very fast is not the only key to success in triathlon: there is the fourth discipline, the transitions. If someone is very fast in the water or on the track, (s)he can still loose valuable time changing the gear. Removing the wetsuit or changing the shoes can cost minutes if not executed well. Therefore, practicing these skills and setting up the accessories in the right way to streamline the transition can save important seconds.

The same applies to the disciplines of Supply Chain Planning: you can put the best Demand Plan, Inventory Plan or Supply Plan into place, but if you don’t have the processes aligned and a digital “handshake” in between them, the processes will stay siloed, causing interruption, data latency and loss of visibility.

Training and preparation solve half of the race

For a racer, there is so much more effort and time put into the training then into the race itself. Months or even years of preparation to get in shape and to increase endurance. Depending on the level, it’s not only about exercising the three disciplines. Building up stamina, additional muscle training, a special diet and ensuring you have enough sleep are all important factors that help you get your body and mind ready for the race. Also, right before and during the race, the nutrition needs to be finetuned.

To come to the final plan for Supply Chain Planning that will be put into execution, there is also a lot of input and iterative steps that go into the process. Data preparation is key to a good plan (as the saying goes “garbage in, garbage out”), the right algorithms need to be chosen and adjusted, and if the plan doesn’t match the goals – take a step back, look for other options, adjust until it’s ready for the race, the handover to execution.

Need to be fast, responsive, innovative and learn from experience

Of course, for a triathlete the goal is to be the fastest and to win the race.
However, there are different influential factors: depending on where the swim takes place, there might be waves or currents. The weather can be hot and or humid, which some athletes can bear better than others. A flat bike tire can hinder your progress. Even digestive issues can come into play. So, it’s not only about speed, but also about taking external factors into account, preparing accordingly and then being able to respond to unexpected event – being agile.

In Supply Chain Planning, you need to prepare your plan according to the expected conditions but have tools and processes in place to always adjust and be responsive to volatility in the market, whether demand is spiking or supply is breaking away. It is not just about planning in the perfect world, but also about being able to identify events that change that plan and have the ability to replan accordingly.

Innovation and technology

The best sportsman will find it hard to compete when (s)he uses outdated gear. They will be able to compensate for some of it, but especially on the higher levels, an athlete that does not have the latest bike or running shoes will be left behind.

Also, for Supply Chain Planning, leveraging the latest technology makes sense: in memory computing for higher performance, the latest UI technology for ease of use for the planner, ML algorithms for smart decision support are just some examples on how sophisticated system support can help planners.

Analytics drive better outcomes

Pro triathletes like the forementioned Jan Frodeno use powerful analytics (in his case, SAP Analytics cloud together with SAP BTP) to derive insights from his trainings and improve training outcomes.

For Supply Chain Planning, analytics provide end-to-end visibility, allowing for Insights to Action, offering early warnings on issues that are arising, bringing better information on actuals vs. targets, and to analyze situations and deriving targeted resolutions.

Pick your battles

There is a wide choice of distances for competing in a triathlon, e.g.  short distance vs. half distance vs. long distance. Depending on if you are a sprinter or more of the endurance type, you might choose a different one.

For Planning, there is a choice of more localized planning within a region or global planning, also you might want to focus on different planning horizons depending on if you are focusing on tactical or strategic planning.
(But let’s be honest, here is the difference: for Planning, you can start local and let the plan flow into a global one. Let’s aim for the Ironman of Supply Chain!

Best performer for the end-to-end race

You won’t let a triathlete compete against (marathon world record holder) Eluid Kipchoge in a marathon. Well, you can, but the result is quite obvious. But if you let Eliud Kipchoge perform 3 km of swim and 180 km of biking before he starts running, you might place your bets on someone like, Jan Frodeno.
(Who unfortunately decided to end his career next year. But well, timing and predictions only point to some more similarities….)

The same is true for Supply Chain Planning: You may find niche players that have a longer list of Forecasting Algorithms for the Demand Plan or a wider choice of industry flavors for the Supply Planning. But if you want the Champion for Supply Chain Planning in one tool – you may want to place your bets on best of suite instead of best of breed.

If you want to learn more about SAP’s best of suite Integrated Business Planning solution, visit

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      Author's profile photo Richard Howells
      Richard Howells

      Great read Beatrice - and good luck in your next triathlon 🙂