A recurring theme in this column over the years has been the sometimes thankless nature of supply chain work. As we’ve noted time and again, the staggering amount of effort it takes to keep global commerce flowing goes largely unnoticed and unappreciated.
That’s not to say those of us who work in (and cover) this industry and profession do not recognize—and are not grateful for—all the work that goes into a well-oiled supply chain operation. We know there’s nothing simple about getting everything where it’s supposed to be, when it’s supposed to be there, damage free, and at the right price.
But this is not a career for people who need a lot of strokes. In supply chain, you don’t get many pats on the back, high fives, or accolades. The best indication that you’ve succeeded at your job on any given day is that your phone didn’t ring because all of your company’s stuff was where it was supposed to be when it was supposed to be there.
If supply chain is often taken for granted by the business community, it’s nearly invisible to the population at large. On the rare occasion when the public takes notice of supply chain, it’s usually because something has gone horribly awry: The hottest-selling toy of the holiday season is stuck on the docks in Long Beach, California. Or a fried-chicken chain is forced to shutter most of its outlets because of a poultry shortage.
To the general public, supply chain is almost like tap water. You turn on the faucet, the water comes out, you use what you need, and then you turn the faucet off. You don’t think about the plumbing in your house that routes the water to the faucet. You don’t think about the water lines running underground from the street to your home. You don’t think about the municipal water system that runs through your community. And you certainly don’t think about the wells that are fed by aquifers that are recharged by the hydraulic efforts of Mother Nature. No, you just think about filling your glass with water and turning off the tap.
And so it is with supply chain—a profession whose inner workings, and practitioners, might as well be invisible. That is, of course, until something goes wrong.
Well, something has indeed gone wrong, terribly wrong, in the world these past five months. At this writing, we remain in the grip of a pandemic that is wreaking havoc worldwide, threatening peoples’ lives and pushing the world to the brink of economic collapse. It is causing millions of people to isolate themselves from their fellow human beings.
And, of course, it is testing companies’ global supply chains in ways heretofore unimaginable.
This has put logistics and supply chain on the public’s collective radar. Suddenly, everyone is talking supply chain—whether it’s politicians, government officials, or the talking heads who populate mainstream news outlets.
But this time, it is different. Supply chain isn’t in the news because of a disruption that’s creating a shortage of iPads a week before Christmas. It’s not in the news because a labor strike is keeping ships from offloading at the nation’s busiest ports.
No, this time, supply chain is in the news because it is saving the day. At a time when the delivery of critical supplies has become a life or death matter, supply chain professionals are finally being recognized for the work they do. The good work. The critical work. The life-saving work.
It is not for a reason anyone would have wished for. Nonetheless, the novel coronavirus has shined a light on the importance of supply chain not only to business but also to the lives of every single human on this orbiting rock.
It is recognition that is long overdue.