Nicole Xu


In supply chain management, you don’t want to have a single source or only work with one shipper, carrier, or packaging company. Diversify your portfolio of vendors and sourcing, no matter which part of the supply chain you’re looking at. It will come at some cost, but the more you diversify, the more prepared you will be.

By Rachel Hastings

As the former Global Head of Supply Chain Planning & Analytics for home goods giant Wayfair, Nicole Xu T’11 knows a thing or two about managing challenges like manufacturing slowdowns and labor shortages. But Xu, now COO at Boston-based health tech startup ZOE, wants the world to know that operations leadership in a digital world goes far beyond making and shipping goods.

Though Xu matriculated at Tuck without any intention of focusing on operations, Professor Joe Hall’s Operations Management course soon won her over. “He was able to broaden my understanding far past my simplistic view,” she explains. "In the real world, you see that operations management is central to everything. It’s that variation and problem-solving that has kept me engaged throughout my career.”  

We asked Xu for her tips for operations leaders—and her thoughts on the ongoing supply chain crisis.

My Advice for Employers

When people ask what operations is, I find that it’s easier to tell them what operations isn’t. Essentially, the day to day of every business is operations. People tend to only think about it in relation to manufacturing and physical goods, but so much today is digital, including functions like customer service that fall under operations. For a lot of MBA students, operations doesn’t sound the most sexy. But I’d urge them to give it a chance—it’s full of fun and challenging problems to solve, and it’s so critical to every company.  

There’s this extreme sense of urgency on a day-in, day-out level, with minute-to-minute promises you have to deliver on. Then there’s the medium-term thinking. Most manufacturing in China happens in batches at certain times. You have to plan ahead for that window, so that means preparing for the holidays starts in March. And over the long term, you have to project and plan for the business’s future needs. Building a warehouse, from finding a location to hiring the labor, usually takes at least 24 months, if not a few years.  

When you think about supply chain and logistics, picture a set of dominos. All these pieces are linked together. With physical goods, supply chains with raw materials start in a factory in Asia. Then they go to a container ship; then they’re transferred to a truck; then a warehouse, all before they ship to you. If one of the dominos in the middle falls, suddenly you’re in a situation where you have blockages on both ends. The pandemic has been especially complicated because upstream manufacturing in Asia stopped just as demand rose in the US, creating a squeeze on both sides.  

When the supply chain gets backed up, it’s very difficult to catch up. If you’re already running a 24x7 operation to meet demand and you have a two-month disruption, what do you do? But most companies aren’t willing to think about their maximum capacity and what will happen if demand exceeds it. They want to match capacity to demand so they don’t spend money on capacity they don’t use.  

We need to come to peace with the overall health of the industry and our labor. There has been a shortage of frontline workers, like those working in warehouses, for a long time, but the pandemic made it so much worse since many people permanently excited the market. The job has also become more dangerous, and as a result, people are demanding more pay. That may mean we need to reevaluate the cost of labor and what is appropriate compensation to make a healthy, good environment. Companies are going to pay more, and the cost will eventually get passed on to consumers.  

This crisis might be an opportunity for innovation. I think people will learn and try to stay on top of things. In supply chain management, you don’t want to have a single source or only work with one shipper, carrier, or packaging company. Diversify your portfolio of vendors and sourcing, no matter which part of the supply chain you’re looking at. It will come at some cost, but the more you diversify, the more prepared you will be. You need to get ahead of disruptions and have a contingency plan.  

There’s almost always a way to make things work. If you’re out of supplies, you can start a waitlist and give people a 10% discount if they sign up. There are things you can do really fast digitally and things you can do medium term. For example, ramping labor might not be as quick, but it could be done over three months. Every problem in your supply chain will have a different time frame for how long it takes to solve, and you just have to come up with a targeted solution to minimize those delays.

Continue Reading

Related Stories

BEYOND THE BALANCE SHEET: Meet Derrick Johnson T’96

How an analytical mindset and a Tuck MBA helped propel Derrick Johnson T’96, SVP and COO of Agiliti Health, to the forefront of health care operations.

Read More

A Strategic Approach to Talent Management

Liberty Mutual Vice President and Senior Talent Advisor Alice Lin T’14 shares how effective leadership and data analytics can drive positive company culture.

Read More

How to Shake Up an Industry, with Tomo Cofounder Carey Schwaber Armstrong T’10

Carey Schwaber Armstrong T’10, cofounder of Tomo, is working to transform the homebuyer experience.

Read More

How to Be a Successful Product Marketer with Meta’s Federico Queirolo T’14

Federico Queirolo T’14, product and go-to-market leader at Meta, shares his experiences and tips for successful product marketing.

Read More

Driving Innovation in Health Care: Meet Jeff Woods T’05

Health care in the U.S. is a $4 trillion industry. Jeff Woods D’97, GR’98, MED’98, T’05 believes private sector innovation will make it more efficient and effective. 

Read More

Story & Strategy: Meet TikTok CMO Kate Jhaveri T’03

Building strong, vibrant, and supportive communities like the one she joined at Tuck has been a central theme throughout Kate Jhaveri’s decorated career.

Read More

Owning Her Career Path: Meet Lucile Chung T’08

YouTube Chief of Staff/Product Operations Lucile Chung T’08 has leveraged her curiosity and zeal for problem-solving to build a successful career in tech. 

Read More

Addressing the Opioid Crisis through the Power of Community: Meet Steve Kelly T’18

As cofounder of Boston-based Better Life Partners, Steve Kelly T’18 is focused on providing same-day treatment for opioid use disorder by tapping into a network of community organizations.

Read More

Making the Most of Time at the Laundromat: Meet Courtney Bragg T’18

For Courtney Bragg T’18, founder of Fabric Health, the key to helping the millions of low-income people across the country started in an unlikely place—the laundromat.

Read More

Greg Maxwell

After spending eight years in the military, Maxwell says Tuck’s general management curriculum gave him the foundation in business he needed, and he still relies on what he learned in his business strategy, communications, and negotiations courses. “Those soft skills courses really stay with you because they’re timeless.”

Read More

Technology Rules

The next generation of operations leaders looking to drive growth and optimization will need to be students of technology, says Peter Giordano T’11.

Read More

Making the Impossible, Possible

A conversation with Vincent Wu T’11, COO of NewsBreak, about the broad skillset it takes to become a “full stack COO” at a rapidly growing media company. 

Read More

Answering the Call

How Tuck and Amazon prepared Cem Sibay T’05 to embrace change and navigate disruption.

Read More

Caryn Nightengale

With the potential to become the world’s first self-flying air taxi service, Chief Financial Officer Caryn Nightengale T’02 says the company is poised to become a game-changing disruptor in the aerospace industry.

Read More

Anu Codaty

As VP of interventional pain at Medtronic, mission-driven leader Anu Codaty T’04 is helping to alleviate patients’ pain, restore health, and extend human life.

Read More

Julie Skaff

Julie Skaff’s health care career has provided her the opportunity to make meaningful change, and fostered a deep appreciation for the type of wise leadership the industry needs.

Read More

Phong Nguyen

Phong Nguyen made the leap to health care with Accolade, a provider of personalized health and benefits solutions to employees and their families

Read More

Diane Daych

After Tuck, Daych worked as “a generalist in the buyout world,” before making the conscious decision to focus on health care during a time when the industry was becoming dramatically more complex.

Read More

E. Selemon Asfaw

 E. Selemon Asfaw’s interest in health care came later, awakened during a summer internship at Goldman Sachs and sharpened the next year in a Tuck elective.

Read More

Enoch Kariuki

Enoch Kariuki’s blend of scientific knowledge and business training is suited to the current moment in biotech, where breakthroughs in the understanding of the human genome and technologies have opened a world of new opportunity.

Read More

Si France

France began his career at McKinsey as a health care consultant, where his exposure to urgent care centers in Portland, Oregon called to mind a Tuck lecture entitled “Is Your Industry Ready for a Rollup?”

Read More

Simplifying the Search for Therapy: Meet Jonathan TranPham T’10

Jonathan TranPham T’10, founder & CEO of reflect, wants to improve lives by making it easier to access quality mental health resources.

Read More

Improving Financial Health in the COVID-Era

Prudential President Jamie Kalamarides T'94 on how to improve your financial health during the COVID-19 era.

Read More

Melissa Llarena T’10 on Feeling Empowered Amid Uncertainty

As a career coach and host of the An Interview with Melissa Llarena podcast, Melissa Llarena T’10 is driven by helping marketers and creative professionals rediscover their sellable strengths.

Read More

Laura Ward T’89 Is Tackling the Mental Health Stigma

Armed with an MBA and an MPH, Laura Ward T’89 is building a more informed health care model for individuals with histories of trauma and abuse.

Read More

How to Create a Customer-First Culture

Alison Elworthy T’11, SVP of customer success at HubSpot, offers advice on how to put customers first—no matter the size of your organization.

Read More

Driven by Wanderlust: Peter Sisson T’94

For serial entrepreneur Peter Sisson T’94, life has been one big adventure.

Read More

How to Build Your Personal Leadership Style

Successful leaders develop their own authentic and personal leadership style, says long-time PetSmart CEO David Lenhardt T’96.

Read More

The Humble Leader

In 2015, Tuck alumna Aisha Barry decided to change the course of her career to help other people who felt immobilized by the health care system and a disease diagnosis.

Read More

Laura Scott

At Wayfair, Tuck alumna Laura Scott completely transformed the company’s operations. Now she’s dipping her toes into the startup world with Takeoff Tech.

Read More

International Development

As the vice president for Latin America and the Caribbean, Andrei Belyi T'01 leads TechnoServe’s mission of providing business solutions to poverty in 11 countries.

Read More

Work Hard, Dream Big

From Buffalo to the boardroom, Yancey Spruill T’97 has found the formula for success.

Read More

How to Keep Your Company Data Secure

What Alison Connolly T’11 finds fascinating, most corporate leaders find terrifying. The director of strategic partnerships at DarkOwl is an expert on the darknet.

Read More

Juliet Horton

With Everly, Juliet Horton T’14 is changing how couples plan their wedding

Read More

How to Make a Successful Startup Pitch

In her seven years as a venture partner at LaunchCapital in Cambridge, Mass., Heather Onstott T’07 has heard about 1,000 pitches from startups.

Read More

Marketing a Disruptive Brand

Together, two Tuck alumni, Kate Jhaveri T’03 and Michael Aragon T’01, led marketing and innovation at the growing global brand Twitch.

Read More

Susan Hunt Stevens

In 2006 Susan Hunt Stevens T'98 started a blog as a "a guide to going green without going berserk." Years later the idea evolved into WeSpire, a platform that uses technology and social media to promote sustainable living.

Read More

Betsabeh Hermann

Before you know what she is, you first need to know what Betsabeh Hermann T’13 is not: She is not an astronaut. Or at least, not yet anyway.

Read More

Sprague Brodie

Sprague Brodie T’14 works in the heart of Silicon Valley at the sprawling Mountain View, California, campus of tech giant Google.

Read More

John Sory

In pioneering new health-care models emphasizing preventive care, John Sory T’93 overcame skepticism in the most direct way possible: He guaranteed better results.

Read More

Lea Tompsett

At Boston-based nonprofit Health Leads, Lea Tompsett T’06 is working with health care providers and social service agencies to ensure patients have access to basic necessities: food, transportation, housing.

Read More

How to Promote Diversity and Nurture Talent

After Tuck, Suzanne Schaefer T’02 went into management consulting, figuring that eventually she might connect with a particular industry—to her surprise, she instead felt a strong pull toward recruiting and talent development.

Read More

Duncan Reece

Duncan Reece T’08 was seven years into a career in finance when he realized he wanted to have a greater impact on the world around him. He found that connection in the health-care industry.

Read More

James “Jim” Lindstrom

Jim Lindstrom T’01 has a career of both investment and senior operational roles—a unique perspective to lead a multinational corporation in today’s dynamic environment.

Read More

Amrit Ray

Amrit Ray T’02 is working to improve compassionate access to investigational medicines and medicines for children—callings that combine his professional strengths with his personal convictions.

Read More

Torlisa Jeffrey

One size does not fit all—that’s the philosophy of Torlisa Jeffrey T'12 , a senior product manager for Williams Sonoma. 

Read More

Chris Weasler

As director of global connectivity for Facebook, Chris Weasler T'97 is helping to bring online the 60 percent of the earth's population currently without internet access.

Read More

Gibson “Gib” Biddle

NerdWallet's Gib Biddle T'91 came to Tuck as a marketer, but then realized he was more of a builder.

Read More

Chris O’Neill

Evernote CEO Chris O’Neill T’01 is helping the digital productivity and note-keeping company do more by focusing on what it does best.

Read More

Elisabeth Hartley

As head of strategy and product development for Beats Electronics, Elisabeth Hartley T'05 is on the cusp of creating what the future of music could look like.

Read More