In my last blog post, I pointed out that, when looking at the admittedly disastrous conditions disrupting global supply chains today, one thing stands out. The causes have almost nothing to do with the abstract integrity of supply chains themselves. Political interference, mandated lockdowns, arbitrary trade sanctions, quarantined ports, natural disasters—there is a vast range of external inference and disruption going on, but that says nothing about the intrinsic capabilities of The Triumph supply chain, much less the resilience and adaptability of supply chain professionals in the field today as they strive to cope with the torrential challenges.
Yes, one can lock down an economy, sanction all trade to a nation, and destroy the supply chains feeding it. But burning down a house says nothing about a contractor’s ability to build a good and sturdy one. And the disruption of global supply chains from above says nothing about our current ability to build viablesupply chains, chains better and stronger and more resilient than ever before. Those trying to understand the state of the supply chain industry today and predict its future need to look beyond the immediate moment to grasp its underlying strength and promise. Paradoxically, it is the very crises the industry is facing that is driving new solutions to overcome these crises, that generating new creativity, improvisation and inventiveness in supply chain efforts and analysis as never before.
In my novel Devil In The Chain I sought to describe one example of a full supply chain in operation from start to finish. In the sequel, Chaotic Butterfly, I expanded the scope, trying to show how external forces from politics to finance, from intelligence operations to crime, from irrationality to blind accident, impacted and distorted the operations of that supply chain.
What I did not do—not yet—was to dwell much upon those aspects of the present situation that not only support but are currently and continuously uplifting supply chains to greater and greater logic, profitability, and efficiency.
What are they?
Let’s start with the most obvious: growing awareness. Among business professionals as well as the public.
When I began in the supply chain industry, I honestly believe that most of the public thought of Supply Chain as the name of some forgotten rock band. Awareness of supply chains and their importance was minimal, and even that minimum was poorly informed and shallow. Factories made things. Trucks drove them to stores. That was how most people saw the process. ‘Supply chain analysis’ was an esoteric matter for the very few.
That has changed.
Discussions, analyses and prophecies concerning the supply chain now appear everywhere, from the New York Times to The Guardian, from Paris Match to the Financial Times. Expert discussion about the state of the supply chain takes place on the BBC, CNN, TASS, Al Jazeera, Haaretz almost daily. Independent news sites from Zero Hedge to Business Daily dwell passionately—if often ominously—on looming threats to global supply chain operations. Public discussions fill social media and animate online forums.
It isn’t simply that awareness of supply chain matters has grown. It’s the fact that awareness of the importance of those matters has grown. People are coming to realize that properly operating supply chains are what puts food on their tables, petrol in their vehicles, microchips in their personal computers, that it is supply chain that fills their shopping shelves, brings power to their electrical devices, delivers medical supplies to doctors and hospitals. What was once a rather vague sense that things appeared in shops and stores ‘somehow’ has transformed into the very motivating force driving all business: namely, Demand. The public now has a far greater sense of what supply chain is, and they want it to work. They are coming to realize that once the supply chains falter, the world as we know it stops.
If that realization has been sobering, even frightening, it has also been critically important in waking up the public, the corporate leadership and the government to this crucial element of global and personal survival.
Supply chain was once a marginal concern for business leaders. No longer. There are now supply chain specialists and experts at the very top levels of corporations and government. Chief Supply Chain Officers and Directors of Logistics now sit at the C-level, and the number is growing. So too with governments: the military has always had a critical concern with logistics, but supply chain management in government regulates how and which public funds are deployed when procuring goods and services, oversees how many of those goods and services are delivered, and strives to ensure that they are delivered in a way that is responsive to the needs of the society. What areas of society does this not touch? The shocks received via the pandemic have elevated supply chain awareness and the need for supply chain expertise to priority importance and to a requirement for sound business and organizational leadership across the board.
To this new sense of urgency has been added a new sense of subtlety. Some business leaders—especially those in what I think of as ‘musical-chairs’ management, passing from elite roles in one company to the next—shared with the public a sense of supply chain matters as primarily conveyance. Supply chain was a matter of moving raw materials from source to factory to shipping. Speed and efficiency mattered, of course, but marketing, sales, pricing, new product development, quality control were not seen as core elements of this process, or even elements of it at all. That too has changed. As supply chains have been disrupted, one business after another has come to an end, however strong those other elements. And the more supply chains have come to be seen as the key element in business survival, the more optimizing supply chains has come to be seen as a model for optimizing business operations overall. There is a new sense in the business world and in C-suites everywhere that optimal efficiency, optimalprofitability, lies with getting the supply chain right. Instead of being regarded as aspect of business operations, it is now becoming seen as the center
That rise in awareness has had a happy corollary: there is a large and growing new crop of students and professionals. As a career path, supply chain has never been more in demand. And just as Demand increases Supply, the need for resilient responses to burgeoning supply chain challenges is producing an entirely new generation of supply chain analysts, specialists and consultants.
A new generation marked by a new idealism. At my own training institute, the Supply Chain Mastery Academy, there has never been a shortage of students coming to learn and master supply chain techniques and approaches. But what has especially surprised and pleased me in the last few years has been the growing number of students who find meaning and purpose in what they do. From an industrial task which seemed to concern itself with little more than moving material from point A to point B, the flux of supply chain crises have invested supply chain students new and old with a newer and deeper understanding of how their labors provide critical support to others—thousands, millions of others.
At present we may be witnessing the wholesale shutdown of oil, gas, electricity, food supplies. What stands between society and disaster? I am not at all being dramatic when I say: the supply chain specialists; the executives and analysts and consultants striving passionately and with creativity and the coldest logic to bind up the broken supply lines, locate unthought-of alternative sources, find innovative new uses for existing resources, remove all no longer affordable existing inefficiency and waste. I have seen a new level of social responsibility, of ethical richness enter the field, a richness motivating even higher levels of performance.
We all know that we stand on the shoulders of many others. Those in the supply chain industry have done extraordinary things keeping businesses and society functioning throughout out all our recent debacles, and they have been able to do so because of the Edwards Demings, the Lillian Gilbreths, the Frederick Winslow Taylors, the Henry Fords and the Taiichi Ohnos that preceded them—the men and women whose cumulative knowledge and expertise have allowed industry to hold together so well in a time of unprecedented crisis.
What is not as well-known is how much new creativity and vitality, how much urgency and commitment and purpose is developing in the field today as we respond to these new challenges.
A growing awareness of the importance of the supply chain within the business community and among the general public, and a growing awareness of the social value and career opportunities in the supply chain, is lifting supply chain to ever greater strength and prominence. As a body of thought, of techniques, of methods and practices, as a community of professionals and business leaders, it is more and more permeating the commanding heights or the business and organizational worlds. Talk of disruptions and crises may fill the news, but underneath the drama is a steady accumulation of knowledge, expertise, personnel, and newfound passion. The headlines may be dark and get darker still, but the future is bright.