Supply Chain is at its Best When You Can’t See it

June 16, 2016

Written by Jonathan Matthews. This guest post originally appeared on Kinaxis’ industry blog, the 21st Century Supply Chain.


Playing hockey the other night, there was a particularly boisterous individual on my bench.  One of my teammates made the comment that essentially boiled down to, “they should be seen and not heard,” which started me thinking, strangely enough, about supply chain. When a supply chain is working at its best, the general population doesn’t see it and often has no concept of the complexities behind it. They’ll walk into the local department store, fill their carts with paper towel, clothes and cookies never taking a moment to ponder the supply logistics required to get those products into their cart.

They’ll of course see the transport trucks rolling down the road as they pass by, knowing their trailers are full of cargo, but they’ll never bother to think about how that order is triggered, the decisions involved with how much quantity to order, or the complexities (such as expiry dates) of getting that order to their local store. To our local consumer, supply chain is simply out of sight and out of mind; for all intents and purposes, it is invisible.

This is, of course, all thanks to supply chain managers working diligently to keep supply chain issues out of the news, but despite their best efforts, supply chain problems do happen. And unfortunately, when they do, it is spread throughout water cooler conversations, and if it is big enough, it’s on the news. For example, to look at an issue so painfully familiar with most, the absolute chaos of December Christmas shopping. Postal services get absolutely assaulted with packages, taxing them to the limit.

Moving a package from point A to B is simple enough… compared to other supply chain companies, such as a pharma company that needs to accurately forecast demand for a new drug which can be extremely expensive, manufacturing the product, and in some cases, worrying about expiration.

The Christmas rush, however, brings the supply chain process to the front of every consumer’s mind. Supply chain problems will be front and center of conversations with news media covering the whole spectacle. Delays here, even by a day, could mean a missed present on Christmas, which, to that 3-year old, means Christmas is ruined for the year.

In defense of the postal service, delays due to the Christmas rush certainly doesn’t constitute a supply chain failure, unlike what Canadians witnessed a few years back with the arrival of the highly anticipated US retailer, Target. Canadians were excited across the nation for Target, but that enthusiasm quickly dampened upon entering the store. This wasn’t due to a failure to be cheaper than their other Canadian competitors, a lack of different styles and brands of clothing or even new products not seen in Canada before. Rather, it was empty shelves. Much has certainly been made about the many areas of failure throughout Target’s entire supply chain because Target was unable to get these issues sorted out. Canadians quickly abandoned the retailer and its empty shelves. Years later, this failure is still on the minds of Canadians.

Supply chain issues can also rise to the forefront of conversation when it experiences catastrophic failures outside of human influence. Natural disasters such as hurricanes, tsunamis, avalanches or earthquakes absolutely destroy supply lines and their supporting infrastructure. Even as soon as rescue operations are underway, managers are working feverishly to set up and re-establish supply lines of food, water and medicine to the beleaguered area while insuring the wounded and affected are able to be evacuated.

Although the general population associates the moving of goods and items in, the movement of people out, is also considered part of a supply chain. A rescued disaster victim needs to be moved from the disaster area, triaged, loaded onto the vehicle going to the correct destination and all under a critical time frame (depending on the severity of the injury). Which comes upon the next point. Although it was a hockey game that started my thought process for writing this article, it was my four hour delay at the Chicago airport that gave me ample opportunity to write this post and reflect.

At a high level, I am nothing more than an item moving from one destination to another through various modes of transportation (car and plane). Someone, (for the sake of argument a travel agent, and yes, I realize most don’t uses these anymore) had coordinated my trip from beginning to end. The airport manager at each airport I ended up at had to work tirelessly to insure that I got from one flight to another and the taxi dispatcher had to make sure a taxi was available when I landed.

When everything is operating smoothly, your only thoughts are of sitting on the beach sipping that margarita and not of the supply chain you traveled to get there. But when I’m told there is a four hour long delay and that instead of spending my afternoon on the beach it’s spent in an airport, questions invariably start cropping up. Why is the plane late? Is there a back-up plane? Why was this not anticipated better? Everybody else in that waiting room is asking these questions, leading to rumblings and the evaluation of the supply line that got them to this point.

This is the same thought process our consumer ask themselves when they reach for that box of cookies that were on sale, but are now sold out. Why was the order not increased to meet the increased demand? Are there any out back? Who was in charge of forecasting the sale? And as the consumer ponders these questions, they start down the path that every supply manager has to deal with every day. Except, unlike the supply manager, the consumer can simply decide to move on from the sold out cookies, dropping that thought from their mind in just a few minutes. With our consumer turning their attention to the next in-stock item on their list, the logistics, intricacies and management of supply chain fade once more into the background, becoming invisible until the next disaster hits the news (and disrupts their world). logo_icon

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