Supply chain managers are noticeably invisible amid the COVID-19 crisis.
There have been no supply chain executives standing beside national leaders as they made speeches and announcements.
There have been rarely any interviews with supply chain experts about how to deal with shortages of food and difficulties in transportation. If there were, much of whatever was said had been largely ignored.
A lot of people have viewed the coronavirus disease, COVID-19, as a medical problem requiring a medical solution, i.e., hospitalization, quarantine, finding a cure. As much as it is a medical issue, it is more of a problem that needs a social solution. Such a solution needs four (4) things:
- convincing everyone to re-align their lifestyles to that of good hygiene, sanitation, avoidance of unnecessary travel & physical contact, and healthy living;
- rapid segregation and isolation of suspected infected individuals;
- boosting capacities of facilities and mobilization of medical personnel;
- synchronising supply chains to stockpile and deliver inventories of essential items such as medical equipment, parts, supplies, food, water, fuel, and other essential goods.
Many countries did the first two, (a) & (b), many are scrambling with difficulty to do (c), and as for (d), it has been a nightmare of shortages and desperation.
Supply chains are overwhelmed amid the COVID-19 pandemic. Business firms and organisations are fending for themselves. There is no united front, no coalitions formed. There is no high-profile leadership to rally the logistics and manufacturing industries. Countries aren’t cooperating with each other; how could one therefore expect enterprises to do the same?
Despite the strides in bringing supply chain talent to corporate board rooms, many executives both in business and government have not engaged the supply chain professionals in the fight versus COVID-19. Instead, the supply chain experts are relegated to the side-lines, sweating away somewhere untying bottlenecks and moving merchandise as fast as they can to where they are needed the most.
Many enterprises only see supply chains as networks working within the boundaries of their respective businesses and not as continuous lines of flow of materials and merchandise that cross from one enterprise to another as they accumulate in value from one point to the next: from mines & farms, to factories & warehouses, to stores & e-commerce cross-docks, and finally to users & consumers.
As much as executives may justify confining supply chain management within imaginary boundaries as a means to foster their respective enterprises’ competitive advantages, there is great potential in designing supply chain systems and networks that synchronise the streams of products, information, and capital from the sources to customer’s shelves.
This is made more apparent with supply chains becoming more vulnerable to adversities such as COVID-19.
Adversities are those that disrupt the routines and flows of operations, particularly supply chains. Adversities come in different forms, degrees, shapes, and sizes. They are never the same from one to the next (similar, maybe, like with typhoons but different in that typhoons never follow the exact same path with the exact same intensity of wind & rain).
Because supply chains have stretched themselves to the four corners of the world, they have become more susceptible to varying adversities. Global supply chains are spread thin; their links ever more sensitive to disruption and change.
As supply chains have become global, supply chain management, however, has remained local. As mentioned, enterprise owners are reluctant to collaborate and link with vendors and customers for fear of compromising their competitive positions. Hence, there’s no overall organized effort to synchronize because there’s no strategy or structure for such in the first place.
The COVID-19 pandemic has shown that supply chains can’t function productively without synchronisation. And it has also shown that societies suffer when supply chains become adversely unproductive.
How do we synchronise supply chains to make them if not keep them productive?
The answer is not in management. It’s in engineering.