Leading the way forward through COVID – Part 1 of 5

As supply chain professionals, we are called to a responsibility that goes beyond the bottom line. The profession can lead the way through the pandemic.

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Editor’s note: This is the first of five articles that breaks down the key issues that all supply chain managers should focus on as they emerge from COVID-19 and carve a path forward for their organizations.

No strangers to disruption, global supply chains were hit hard by the COVID-19 health crisis. Referred to as a low-probability, high-impact “black swan” event, the global pandemic is something that’s never happened in the modern world. As supply chain managers worldwide scrambled to provide consumers with essential goods, source their own raw materials and keep their operations running, they felt the brunt of the impact.

With no historical data points for reference, managers quickly found themselves in a difficult spot. There were no “lessons learned” to lean on, no historical models to work from and a limited amount of subjective information to rely on. Left largely up to their own devices, supply chain managers spent most of the early stages of COVID trying to explain why their organizations weren’t prepared for worst.

Coming off 10 years of economic prosperity, the fact that the pandemic caught supply chain managers off guard comes as little surprise. In fact, some would argue that there really was no good way to prepare for this once-in-a-lifetime crisis. Still, when you watch the news, read the articles and browse social media posts, you wonder to what extent we will be better prepared for this again; not only from a bottom line perspective, but from having a clearer understanding that the supply chain industry has a clear social responsibility to better understand, identify and prepare for these events.

That’s because as supply chain professionals, we are called to a responsibility that goes beyond the bottom line, surpassing economic issues to also incorporate social welfare. After all, supply chains feed the world, keep it stocked with essential goods and support our lifestyles. That reality hit companies smack in the face during COVID—an event that at first wasn’t immediately connected to social welfare. However, as issues like food insecurity, unemployment and the particular plights of under-served populations rose to the surface, it was clear that the supply chain as a whole could have been doing more to mitigate these issues.

Cascading supply chain effects
The pandemic not only created a health crisis, it also created cascading supply chain effects impacting daily life for individuals, organizations, and associations. Worldwide, supply chain operators are strained from dealing with this ever-present conflict between keeping people safe while providing streamlined access to basic necessities (e.g., food, cleaning supplies, first aid items, PPE, etc.).

As our industry struggled to match distribution capacity with consumers’ lumpy demand patterns, food waste and needless deaths due to mobility/connectivity challenges all mounted. As a consumer, not having direct access to disinfectant, grocery items and toilet paper was frustrating. As a supply chain professional, watching the video clips of produce being left to rot on vines and fresh milk being discarded as the supply chain upended itself due to the crisis was even more disturbing.

Many members of the supply chain community knew exactly what was missing, and most importantly, what could have been done differently (in hindsight) to prevent some of the issues we all endured.

Supply chain as the ultimate connector
As a logistician, I’ve always viewed the supply chain industry as the “ultimate connector,” one that is standing by and ready to respond. Unfortunately, quarantines, social distancing rules and stay-at-home orders converged to create consumer panic across food and grocery distribution channels. Warehouses were forced to balance physical/social distancing practices in their labor operations with trying to stay ahead of the massive wave created by forward buying and consumer stockpiling.

Accepting the painful reality that a good crisis is a bad thing to waste, I wrote this series examining what the supply chain community could have done better. By leveraging increased awareness of supply chain management for the everyday consumer and reprising the role of government and public policy to support private sector activity, I believe we can and will do better next time.

By working together with external groups in a more cohesive way, the supply chain professional can emerge from this crisis with a renewed sense of purpose centered on leading the way for improved economic and social welfare—and ultimately supporting the broader betterment of society. In fact, we can all be doing more to collaborate with others and work proactively with communities and governments to help drive policy—not just comply with it.

In this articles that follow, I’ll delve into some of the core supply chain issues that surfaced during COVID, show how they impacted organizations and individuals, and discuss the steps that we can take now to avoid similar scenarios in the future. For while COVID itself may have been a black swan event, supply chain disruptions are taking place around the world every day.

Join me on this journey as we review opportunities for supply chain, public, and government policy offerings that impact everything from the food that we put on our tables, to transportation mobility, to the safeguarding, security, and continuity of our goods and service flows.

About the author: Yemisi Bolumole, Ph.D., CLTD-F is associate professor of supply chain management at the Eli Broad College of Business, Michigan State University. Her areas of research emphasis include the policy and public sector implications for supply chain managers. A regular speaker at sundry professional events, Bolumole currently serves as Chair of ASCM/APICS’ CLTD certification exam committee. She can be reached at [email protected].

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