We’re facing the greatest disruption to global supply chains ever witnessed, with the pandemic grinding production to a halt across nearly every industry. But the political decision on when to reopen each state won’t act as a virtual on-switch for the economy, and back-up plans for alternative suppliers will only go so far. Things won’t return to normal, even after the threat has passed, a vaccine has been discovered, and businesses are free to operate once again. The “normal” we knew pre-pandemic will never be seen again.
That we’re very likely to see a “new normal” in global supply chains need not be a negative. On the contrary, it could be seen as an opportunity with the right strategy. As the world begins its gradual reboot, businesses will have two needs: dealing with the results of the disruption immediately, and preparing for what comes next. Supply-chain systems will need to be re-imagined, and new relationships will need to be forged.
But the need for re-imagining goes beyond logistics and supply-chain systems. Going forward, the process will depend heavily on the resilience of the people who run those systems.
Your employees, those of your suppliers and virtually every other person who touches your business directly or indirectly have had their routines disrupted. Supply-chain mechanisms can be tweaked, and new vendors can be sourced to replace older ones that couldn’t keep up in the wake of the pandemic. But the supply chain is dependent on more than mechanisms. It relies on people, and the rhythms they establish over time to keep the business running and supplies flowing. After all, a supplier is made up of people, and their rhythms have been disrupted just as much as yours have.
Business disruption goes beyond systems being thrown into disarray and the sudden unavailability of raw materials. The biggest disruption is to the people who are struggling to make things work during this emergency. Some long-time partners may have shut down. Offices might be unavailable, and people are working from home. This has caused an interruption to the rhythm of work, making people less resilient, even as businesses start to emerge from the shadows.
The greatest vulnerability faced by businesses in today’s emergency climate is the disruption of human routines. Working from home, for example, is often seen as a desirable benefit, but when imposed suddenly it can be more stressful than anticipated by employees, partners and suppliers who are accustomed to their normal office routines. They haven’t had time to establish a work-from-home routine. The office dress code is no longer relevant; social interactions and lunches with co-workers are gone, and communication with colleagues is suddenly taking more effort.
The Resilience Institute notes that resilience programs often fail when the revised mechanisms and reinforced systems aren’t backed up by direct engagement with the people involved. Building resilience into supply-chain systems in isolation isn’t enough. The resilience of those individuals, as well as of the systems they’re operating, is the key to bouncing back quickly.
Even if you’ve managed to adjust your supply chain, find new suppliers to replace those that are no longer available, and arrange new shipping routes (all of which are great challenges in this time of disruption), there are perhaps thousands of individuals in the supply chain whose sleep time has been disrupted, whose new at-home workspaces are still in disarray, and who are experiencing more intense pressure to participate in near-continuous team calls and videoconferences.
In rebounding from this emergency, companies are rapidly forging new relationships with new suppliers and people. Over time, established vendor and supplier relationships tend to achieve a comfort level and a natural rhythm of doing business. The people involved on both ends get to know the subtler under-the-hood facets that aren’t always written into procedures manuals. The buyer in the central office may, for example, understand that the agent at the supplier’s office takes a long lunch every Friday. They’ve probably never met face to face, but they know the names of each other’s children. They know what time the other person takes their coffee breaks. They know each other’s subtle rhythms. Those things — which exist only under the hood and are largely unwritten — establish a comfortable and informal flow. That rhythm has now been disrupted by the pandemic, and establishing a new level of resilience to bounce back, and get back into that rhythm possibly with a new set of unfamiliar people — takes some work.
Chances are that there will be video calls, many of which will be with new people on the supply side. Those on both ends will be working from home offices, perhaps for the first time in their lives. Remote communication between managers and co-workers is already ramping up into high gear, and weekly office meetings are being held via teleconference. Meetings with new suppliers are also being done via remote link. Here’s where resiliency needs to be built into the subtle rhythm that is only now being established.
Part of that resiliency is simply a matter of getting past the natural tendency to be overly casual while working from home. Even though you’re working remotely, keep in mind that others will be seeing you, often for the first time. Bouncing back requires some attention to physical presence, and that includes clothing and appearance.
There are two reasons for this, both having to do with resiliency. First, it’s a matter of looking like you’re ready to do business, and making an impression on what are likely to be brand new connections, and setting the tone for future interactions. Second, and perhaps more importantly, it’s the underlying psychological element of “being ready.” Each person within the organization needs to be resilient — ready to bounce back — but it’s just too easy to let things slide when you’re working in your pajamas all day. Do you need to put on a suit and tie every day to work from home? Probably not. But “business casual” will put you in the mood to get back to day-to-day business.
Supply chains are being tested. More often than not, companies are finding they lack the resiliency to continue after the pandemic, and are scrambling to put new relationships into place. Even those that had the foresight to create “Plan B” supply chains for occasions such as the one we now find ourselves in may be neglecting the resiliency of the people who make it happen. Resiliency in this respect has two sides: the logistical side of deals, and the personal side of how the people who run logistics are able to bounce back quickly when the unexpected, which we never thought would happen, strikes.
Dan Blacharski is president of Ugly Dog Media.
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