The World Needs Supply Chain Engineers

Not leaders.  Not managers.  Not business executives.  We have plenty of leaders, both real and wannabes.  Managers and executives too; we have enough. 

We need supply chain engineers. 

The global supply chain is a present-day 21st-century reality.  We get much of our goods from all over the world.  We buy shoes from Europe to sell in America.  We ship rice to Australia and import minerals in return.  We travel to trade and we negotiate with our tablets and mobile phones. 

E-commerce has expanded the reach of supply chains.  We order and pay via the Internet.  More and more enterprises deliver door-to-door, business-to-business, person-to-person.  Transportation’s new normal is multi-modal: airplane-to-van, van-to-vessel, vessel-to-truck, truck-to-motorcycle.  Ordinary people ferry food and merchandise to homes as much as courier companies deliver packages to businesses. 

There is so much room for improvement that supply chain management has become a high-profile career choice.  But this is not a promotional message for supply chain management; this is a call for action.  Supply chains are facing challenging adversities and supply chain management, as is, is no longer capable to deal with them. 

Supply chain engineering is the “application of scientific and mathematical principles” for the design and synchronization of highly complex supply chain operations.  It is a field the world needs to synchronize supply chain operations and networks.    

It’s not only because supply chains have so much room for improvement.  It’s also because adversities have become too significant to ignore.  The adversities, which some may classify as supply chain risks, are real. 

Adversities in recent years have caused plenty of pain to supply chains.  They’ve disrupted transport, caused shortages of critical raw materials, and brought widespread inefficiencies.  As much as they’ve been manageable, the adversities are not getting any fewer.  In fact, they’re getting more disruptive and threatening.  To an extent, they can shut down supply chains and cause not only economic failure but also society chaos.  The most prominent example of this is the COVID19 virus pandemic. 

Just as we need doctors to deal with disease, we need engineers to deal with supply chain disruption.  Management as a profession and talent is no longer enough because management is only about planning, organising, directing, and controlling.  We need engineering, that is, we need to have people with skills to design and install systems, networks, and methods to synchronize and integrate the various supply chain operations and make them adversity-resistant. 

We need problem solvers that can define problems before they happen.  Anticipating adversity and mitigating it, if not overcoming it, are the key tasks of the supply chain engineer. 

Where can we find supply chain engineers? 

They’re closer than you think

Where are the Supply Chain Experts?

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:

  1. convincing everyone to re-align their lifestyles to that of good hygiene, sanitation, avoidance of unnecessary travel & physical contact, and healthy living;
  2. rapid segregation and isolation of suspected infected individuals;
  3. boosting capacities of facilities and mobilization of medical personnel;
  4. 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

We Need a Playbook and It’s the Last Thing We Need

Many enterprises and countries around the world have playbooks to deal with pandemics such as COVID-19.  These range from ISO standards and those based on the United States’ Occupational Safety & Health Administration (OSHA), Center of Disease Control & Prevention, and even the US Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases (USARMIID).   

But as much as present-day playbooks may have protocols for pandemics, they don’t have any for supply chains.  Enterprises and governments may have response plans such as quarantines and allocations of resources for medical facilities & personnel; there wouldn’t be any, however, for cross-border supply chains.

Why is that?  Because global supply chains have become prominent only in recent years.  Governments and many enterprises still manage supply chains as if they exist only within their borders and factories. 

Global supply chain relationships are mostly in the form of contracts with vendors and 3rd party providers.  Most of the links, from the sources, to the transportation, to the storage & deliveries are siloed, that is, they’re autonomous and overseen separately.  Collaborations and interactions are mostly done between individual representatives such as between sales agents and purchasing personnel. 

With no real connection, there is no protocol, and therefore no synchronisation that can overcome widespread disruptions from adversities such as what has happened from COVID-19.  Every link on the supply chain is actually vulnerable to whatever form of adversity, more so a global pandemic.

If enterprises can synchronise (some people call it integrate) their supply chains, then there would be a united front versus any adversities.  Enterprises would be able to adapt together.  Goods would keep moving.  People will get their products.  Economies would remain stable.    

Playbook protocols and procedures, however, are the last thing supply chains need.  Synchronising supply chains requires several things first: 

  1. Management commitment;
  2. Establishing comprehensive policies and strategies;
  3. Setting objectives and performance measures;
  4. Designing structures and systems to support the strategy;

Many enterprises have embraced (1), (2), and (3).  Many have not been fully successful with (4).  This is because many enterprises have trouble finding the talent to do (4). 

Doing (4) is an engineering effort.  It requires talent that will be sought for because before enterprises can sync their supply chains, they’ll need to engineer their networks to establish the links. 

Only then can enterprises rewrite their playbooks and prepare for the next pandemic and whatever adversity that comes their way.