Enterprising Minds

Comfortable with the uncomfortable

Dr Jag Srai

WHO? Jag Srai is a Director of Research in the Department of Engineering and Head of the Centre for International Manufacturing at Cambridge's Institute for Manufacturing (IfM). He is also Co-Chair of the World Economic Forum Global Future Council on Advanced Manufacturing and Value Chains.

WHAT? Supply chains, how they work and how to improve them. Having come to Cambridge after a successful career at Unilever (where he had been a technical director at the age of 32 and its first supply chain director), Jag now works with some of the world's most successful businesses to put new supply chain thinking into practice.

WHY? In today's world we depend on supply chains for everything, from a tomato or a Tesla. Those networks are increasingly global, complicated and digital - and increasingly susceptible to shocks such as pandemics, wars and climate change. We need them to be both more resilient and less harmful to the planet.

Was it always the plan to go into industry after university? Yes. When I graduated (in chemical engineering), I had an option to do a PhD and go down an academic route, but I was more attracted by real-world process engineering and manufacturing operations.

That path took me to Unilever. They had two management trainee schemes: one general management and one engineering. I applied to the engineering one because I wanted to use what I had learnt at university. It turned out later that the difference between the two schemes was a bit of a branding exercise!

Unilever has a very fast-track system - and I was keen to be the fastest.

Would you say you were 'enterprising' while at Unilever? I think you could say I was unconventional. I get a kick out of finding unexpected ways round a problem.

"I get a kick out of finding unexpected ways round a problem."

Jag Srai in his office

One of my first projects was to upgrade a soapmaking manufacturing operation. We made soap by putting the liquid raw materials in a tank which was heated by a hot-water jacket. But the storage tank was going to be too heavy for the floor, which we were therefore going to have to reinforce at significant cost.

I got my old chemical engineering textbooks out and said, "Why don't we design it using limpet coils instead?" This was another way of heating tanks which hadn't been used at the Unilever site before.

We carried out a feasibility study and found that if we did this, we wouldn't have to reinforce the floor. Like many large organisations, Unilever had a very structured way of doing things which you had to follow to the letter.

By having the confidence to stand back and look at the problem from first principles, I came up with a completely different solution.

Later, having spent time running factories in Europe, I moved to head office to undertake a review of Unilever's global detergents research strategy. At the time, the heads of labs were the senior roles with the product category managers subordinate to them. One of my proposals was to reverse that, so that the 'big barons' became more akin to facility managers.

That must have been a difficult process to manage? We set up a transition organisation where the product category leads - who were mostly in their mid-30s - and the barons - who were mostly in their mid-50s - were now on a level playing field.

At that stage, there was still a culture of deference towards the owners of the facilities. But you could see it gradually shifting.

The aim of the transition organisation was to keep everybody on board. It was definitely not comfortable, but it was doable. And it proved to be a game-changer for how Unilever carried out its R&D.

Being comfortable with being uncomfortable is definitely a recurring theme. I wasn't afraid to make major organisational changes about who gets to take decisions and what constitutes good business performance.

"I wasn't afraid to make major organisational changes."

Why did you switch to academia? I originally came to Cambridge to do a one-year, funded MPhil as I wanted to learn about supply chains outside the sector and wasn't anticipating moving away from industry at that stage. To my surprise, fast-moving consumer goods supply chains were more advanced than others and, now armed with some cross-sector knowledge, I went on to do my PhD at Cambridge.

Although the concept of integrated supply chains had already emerged from the research, people didn't know how to apply this new thinking.

As I had found, it was more through perspiration than inspiration that we were getting things done in an integrated way. Understanding how to reconfigure supply chains to deal with major disruptions in markets and technologies is a key outcome of the work and one which has become even more resonant now.

After the PhD you decided to stay in research? Yes - because at the IfM I can have a foot in both camps. Through it and its commercialisation arm, IfMEngage, I've been able to continue to work with industry and also to drive the academic conversation.

The role suits me. I wasn't comfortable with doing pure execution in industry, because it tends to favour the conventional and the short-term. And I wasn't comfortable with sitting in an ivory tower and not involved in putting ideas into practice.

Do you still have scope to be enterprising? If that's about doing new things or doing things differently - absolutely. For example, we have set up the Digital Supply Chains Consortium at IfM in which firms share their successes and failures and we provide insight into why things have worked or not.

We work closely with many leading organisations. For example, since 2014 we've been advising Schneider Electric, which typically leads supply chain excellence surveys. With Caterpillar it's been 20 years and with IKEA maybe 10 years. Working with sector-leading organisations on their forward supply chain strategies is really energising and chairing our annual symposium where ideas and practices are shared is a great example of knowledge exchange.

For a couple of years now, I’ve been Co-Chair of the World Economic Forum's Global Future Council on Advanced Manufacturing and Value Chains looking at new operating models and new business models and how digital platforms can enable them to connect suppliers with customers through digital infrastructure. Chairing sessions at Davos these last few years, I have had the opportunity to consider policy impacts too, be they economic, social or environmental.  

It's exciting that we are setting the forward research agenda, looking particularly at decarbonisation and circularity and how supply chains need to adapt to mitigate climate change.

What achievements are you most proud of? I'm proud of coming from a very inner-city background and ending up in leadership positions in both academia and industry.

"I'm proud of coming from a very inner-city background and ending up in leadership positions in both academia and industry."

In 1968, Enoch Powell made his 'rivers of blood' speech. In the run-up to that speech, he made the controversial claim that a constituent had told him that his child was the only white pupil in their class. That was my primary school.

I went on to a comprehensive that didn’t offer O-levels, so I entered myself. My older siblings had done it before me, so it was already a family tradition.

Were your parents focused on education? Not at all. They were first-generation immigrants, highly ambitious, but whose own education was interrupted by the Partition of India and Pakistan in 1947. So I had parents who were not formally educated and I was going to the toughest schools in inner-city Wolverhampton.

I took my A-levels at a further education college. The one thing my education taught me was to be an independent learner, making the transition to university very easy.

And then I got a place on the Unilever management scheme which only takes one in 1,000 applicants. I wasn't an obvious pick, but they must have thought 'this guy looks interesting. Let's see how far he goes.'

Another thing I'm proud of is the establishment of the first Gurdwara (Sikh temple) in Cambridge. I'd say my activities outside work are as intense as those in work, whether it's the Sikh community or the local cricket club!

What drives you? If I wasn't still pushing the boundaries, I'd probably retire. It's not so much about proving oneself, it's about having a sense of purpose and having an impact.

I would also say that it's a privilege to be in my position. If I'm just sustaining that position, not trying to push things forward, is that good enough?

"It's not so much about proving oneself, it's about having a sense of purpose."

How would your colleagues describe you? I think they'd say that I’m quite calm, unflappable, resilient. I don’t get too excited by successes or too disappointed when things don’t go my way.

What's next for you? We’ve got about half a dozen projects all in the pharmaceutical supply chain space. We are creating an interesting consortium of firms that span the whole supply chain from raw materials and the production of active ingredients, through manufacturing, packaging, wholesale and distribution right the way through to the patient.

This is an area we have been working on for a number of years, but it has been accelerated through advances in digital technologies which allow us to connect parts of the supply chain which were previously very siloed.

Of course, the net-zero agenda is critical. We are contributing to that both academically and in practice, through our work with industry.

There are still not clear career paths for people like me. I’m excited by operating across the academic-industry divide so I've created a role that allows me to do that. With research funding bodies and other stakeholders asking more from universities in terms of impact, I suspect there will be more people like me.

Quick Fire

People or ideas? Ideas.

On time or running late? Always running late.

Team player or lone wolf? That's a difficult one. In terms of ideas, it’s more lone wolf. In terms of execution, more team player.

Risk-taker or risk averse? Risk-taker.

Be lucky or make your own luck? Make your own luck.

Work, work, work or work-life balance? Work, work, work but it’s how you define work. I am as active outside work as I am in it, if not more. It’s a workaholic-type mentality but it’s not on a single track.

Enterprising Minds has been developed with the help of Bruno Cotta, Executive Director of the Entrepreneurship Centre at the Cambridge Judge Business School.

Published 10 November 2022

Photography by StillVision.

The text in this work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License