APICS is the premier professional association for supply chain management.

Getting to the Bottom of It

By Jonathan Thatcher, CSCP | November/December 2011 | 21 | 6

To conquer certification exams, think like  a detective

Reader C.S. writes, “I have taken the Strategic Management of Resources (SMR) exam twice without passing, although I have gotten close to the passing score. My main problem is many questions seem to have two or more right answers. How do I determine the correct one?”

First, it’s important to note that SMR stands apart from the other Certified in Production and Inventory Management (CPIM) exams as it is a synthesis exam,demanding the ability to integrate all concepts in CPIM. Mastery-level certification exams require knowing not only what is right, but what is wrong and why. This is especially critical in the SMR exam, because strategic analysis takes a big-picture perspective. It examines what is present, what is hidden or missing, and the role of cause and effect in decision making—specifi cally with regards to facilities, the sup ply chain, information technology, and organizational design.

Once you complete the SMR course work and have read the associated sources and references, it may seem there is nothing more to learn. But put on your detective’s hat and perform the following steps to see what you might have missed.

Master the terms and definitions. This means more than simple memori zation. Know the distinctions between definitions, why those distinctions exist, and the situations that require those distinctions. A good way to tell if you’ve reached this level is by explaining the terms and definitions to a novice.  Can you convey the nuances in simple  language and explain why they exist?

Put learning into practice. Support your study with hands-on activities. For SMR, this means case studies, simulations, and game theory. The MIT Forum for Supply Chain Innovation offers a free, online “Beer Game” to  help with supply chain game theory.

Replay the challenges that you  or your organization faced. Draw  on your professional experience to make connections to the material.  What strategies were in effect at the time? Did they work well? Did execu tion of strategy occur as planned?  What would you change and why?  Also, play the role of consultant, treat ing your challenges as the customer. Can you solve all the problems with  the ability of a skilled consultant?

Find and read strategy manage ment articles—in particular, those that bring up weaknesses or flaws in com mon business practice. Find areas to incorporate your study knowledge. Is  the article missing content that SMR  demands? Where is the article right or wrong? See http://blogs.hbr.org/ hmu/2009/03/four-fatal-flaws-of- strategic.html for a good example of  an article to begin your exploration.

Strategic thought can be likened to creating a story of processes, decisions, outcomes, and cause and effect. If  strategy seeks a specific outcome, and  that outcome occurs, what will the  environment look like then? You also  must question the basis of your assumptions. If you cannot make a clear connection to a topic in the exam content  manual, you may need to approach  the question from a different angle.

Sharpen your exception logic
If you were writing mastery-level  exam questions and answers, how  would you write the incorrect choices?  Use methods such as the following:
  • “That would be correct, except for …”
  • “It’s almost right, but the problem is …”
  • “This doesn’t work as intended because …”
  • “This looks complete, but it’s missing …”
  • “It’s on its way to being correct, but …”

During the exam, stay within the scope of each question and answer choice.  Avoid forcing unsupported external  presumptions into the question. Use  exception logic to identify the property  in the single best answer. For example, maybe the right answer is more consis- tent in its best practices approach. Or it may require dependencies that rule out less-than-best practices.

The SMR exam rewards actual experi ence and hands-on practice that simulates experience. The exam demands the ability to attentively grasp each question in itsentire scope and apply exception logic to each answer choice. Only the right answer will survive the power of superior logic.

Jonathan Thatcher, CSCP, is director of  research for the APICS professional development division. He may be contacted  at askapics@apics.org.

All comments will be published pending approval. Read the APICS Comment Policy.


  1. Lacy Montford March 10, 2016, 06:47 PM
    I came to this website searching for insight. I am discouraged, I failed this exam the first time by 4 points and the second time by 9 points. I have studied the material front to back but as I continue to read it seems as this exam is strategically different than the rest. I am looking for insight, pointers etc. that may help me get through this exam. I support this process and the learning has been excellent, however, I am really struggling with this last section.
  2. Nick Velazquez March 12, 2016, 01:31 PM
    Dear Lacy,

    I came across your post and would like to offer you some assistance on getting your APICS CPIM Certification.  I am sorry to hear that you are having difficulty getting passed the SMR exam but hopefully I can help.  Could you email me directly with the issues you are experiencing and I can perhaps provide some insight and help put together a study plan for you moving forward.  I look forward to hearing from you.  Thanks!

    Nick Velazquez
    Senior Manager of Certification Committees
  3. Mauricio Cayo Reinoso June 05, 2016, 08:25 AM
    Hello I am also quite frustrated with this last exam. I have failed already 3 times (once was due global APICS system problem, when my results couldn't be saved on the computer).

    I have exam simulators from APICS, I have alredy tried it but unfortunately the hardest one Exam Simulator which I also failed doensn't come with answers, so how can I study from it!?
    I have read all the chapters, through a proper material from my company Unilever, and additionally I have bought the APICS book and Dictionary.

    What elese could I do?

    Thank you
  4. Jonathan Thatcher, CSCP June 06, 2016, 02:33 PM
    Certification exams require a mix of speed and precision in identifying the best answer instead of the "almost-best" answer.  But the way we work and study may not prepare us for this. Taking the exam a few times and not passing means that the distracter options seemed more correct than the best answer. The way out of this trap is to broaden your knowledge scope to be able to identify the correct versus nearly correct. 

    While you’re working through that, here are some common misconceptions:

    Misconception: If I pass enough practice exams, I must be ready for the real exam.
    Truth: A balanced study diet is necessary for meeting the demands of speed and precision. Practice-exam questions probe in very specific areas. The best practice exams will have explanations about why distracters are wrong and why the correct answer is correct, but not all of them do this. A good way to use a practice exam is to explain—or imagine explaining—to a beginner colleague why the distracters are wrong and the correct answer is correct. If you can't do that for one or more practice questions, seek out a skilled colleague and ask him or her for the same explanation. Next, ask the same person for some other ways the practice test could have asked the question. 

    Misconception: My company's way or my experience is what I must select on the exam. I know that way works.
    Truth: The exam tests for the APICS best answer, not necessarily your best answer or your company’s best answer. For example, some methods might work for your company, but they might not necessarily be the best practice.

    Misconception: The exam questions can’t really be about such minor points. There must be more to this.  
    Truth: The differences between the distracters and the best answer really are seemingly minor points. Minor points network together into an integrated view of something important. A single minor point can derail you from forming the right conclusion.

    Misconception: If I keep taking the exam again and again, based on sheer statistics, I am sure to pass it.
    Truth: Statistically you will get the same results again and again. The system of randomized questions, different question orders, and different answer choices, among other factors, means there is no way to take the same exam more than once and eventually, by chance, select enough correct answers.


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