When the COVID-19 pandemic struck, the world found out just how unprepared we were for such an event.
The virus spread across borders and continents with alarming speed. The safety of citizens became paramount to governments around the world, and nobody seemed to know the right thing to do about it.
To save lives and contain outbreaks as much as possible, countries began imposing new rules on business operations, including travel restrictions, with the hope of slowing transmission rates. Yet problems cascaded, and subsequent solutions actually created more problems to solve. Use hand sanitizer? Hand sanitizer is sold out. Create a vaccine? Distribution is held up by government approval and testing.
Not surprisingly, businesses were left scrambling to shift their operations. The simple task of meeting with coworkers in person became a daunting event. Anything "in-person" was effectively forbidden. Nearly overnight, many businesses ground to a crawl, some to a total standstill. Curbside pickup, previously a novelty for retailers, became an everyday option because of COVID-19. Today, nearly every business has an app to help customers place orders for pickup or delivery.
Businesses were forced to find a way through the darkness. The popular saying "adapt or die" never rang truer. Many enterprises died, while those that adapted are thriving.
In 1519, Captain Hernán Cortés arrived at Veracruz to begin his great conquest. Upon landing, it's rumored that he ordered his men to destroy all means of returning home — to burn the boats so they would be forced to move forward.
The pandemic of 2020 "burned our boats" — there was no path back to "normal” business. From the experience sprang many new solutions, innovations and technologies. It forced people and organizations to make strategic decisions and back them up with tactical actions, often by drawing on existing technology to keep going at all costs.
Companies shifted operations to online, enabling customers to receive deliveries or pick up curbside in a "contactless" manner. Yet this solution to keeping the doors open spawned new obligations and problems. For many retailers, shifting to a delivery model with little or no prior experience led to a steep learning curve. Anyone who has been in a role related to delivery can tell you it's not as easy as it sounds.
Complexities abound. Perhaps the best illustration of the dilemma can be found in the classic mathematical puzzle known as the Traveling Salesman Problem. It asks the following question: What’s the smallest number of total miles one has to travel between different cities in order for each city to be visited only once?
For a few stops, the calculation is fairly simple. Most people could route 10 stops on a map and achieve a reasonable degree of efficiency. But this assumes they know the area, or that there aren't other complexities. For example, what happens when a customer’s order can only be delivered within a specific timeframe?
The Traveling Salesman problem starts to break the limits of the human mind the more stops you add. Imagine that you have 300 orders coming from your new online ordering system, and you’ve told customers that you'll deliver to them within 24 hours. How many drivers would you need? How would you get their routes sorted and ready to go? And how do you alert customers of the driver's arrival or delivery time? It can be total and utter chaos.
The good news is that businesses don’t have to solve the Traveling Salesman Problem. Thanks to automated route-planning technology, it has already been implemented within many operations, enabling users to build efficient routes and dispatch to drivers.
Much like a car, you don’t have to know how to build an engine or even how it works in order to drive it. All you need to know is how to press the gas and brake pedals, shift gears and steer. For businesses struggling to deliver to customers in a global pandemic, the key to success lies in checking your surroundings and understanding where you are.
The boats may be burned, but there is a path. That path is forward. Problems will continue to crop up, but so will solutions. It's up to us to choose to use them.
Dan Khasis and George Shechegolv are co-founders of Route4Me, a route-optimization software platform.