The Soft Supply Chain

Margaret Heffernan writes persuasively about “Wilful Blindness“, our ability and tendency to ignore what is sitting in plain sight.

In the semi hysterical bunfight that was the debate around Brexit, much was made of the issues of possible trade friction and the dependence on certain sectors on the economy on imported labour – particularly farming and the NHS. It was treated as though these were somehow neatly boundaried issues that could be dealt with. Not a lot of systems thinking in evidence.

Enter Covid-19. Unbidden and unexpected. And all of a sudden, the systems make themselves apparent.

Uncertainty over travel, export restrictions on pharmaceuticals and face masks.

The contribution to the collapse of FlyBe. which is turn disrupts people who have got used to commuting from the South West to Greenwich on a daily basis.

Working parents who face the real possibility of having to look after children who would otherwise be in School or Nursery because they are either closed or isolated.

The need to enable working from home for those not geared up for it.

Small businesses facing the additional costs of sick pay starting from day one in the event of self isolation (entirely reasonable, but not budgeted)

People’s irrational and emotional responses to the fear of something poorly understood. Empty Shelves in Shops. The “otherisation” of those whose nationality appears Asian.

What Covid-19 has brutally exposed is the fragility of our human supply chains. Both the structure, and the culture.

It’s easy to see, but convenient to ignore. Only the most sophisiticated enterprises will have factored it into their risk management plans, and even there my guess it will often be incomplete. Emerging reality has little respect for our plans.

In six months time, we will likely be past the worst of this, and will look back in embarrassment at what we are doing today, and our foolishness at not being prepared.

Right now however, we have to deal with what is. Now. No time for considering options, or making contingencies.

People are not turning up to work, or conferences, or shops. It will cause exposed businesses to fail. I overheard today a conversation about cancellation of conferences in Italy, and energised discussions about who was to blame and who should pay.

Whatever business model you have, it is likely that today finds it a bit bent out of shape.

We need to consider three things:

  • The facts as best we can determine them. That which we can measure, prove, and evidence.
  • The way we see those facts. The Italian conversation was governed by the same real facts, but it didn’t sound like that.
  • The way we think about the facts. Our own and others heuristics and biases. If we can tame those, options appear.

It’s really challenging to think about a problem when you’re part of it. Particularly when it’s immediate and in your face.

It often needs somebody outside the problem to see the bigger picture, the unneccessary blockages, the options and opportunities.

It’s a real skill – a combination of knowledge, experience and training. Not an advisor, a “wing man”. Somebody whose sole interest is in your clarity of the problem. and supporting your decisions and your action.

Consider who you know who can do this for you. You’ll value then over the next few months. Some of you will have non execs, some of you will be part of a peer group, some will have long standing friends.

If you don’t know any, contact me. I know some of the best.

Choose carefully. Things have changed. There will be more of this as Brexit becomes real, as AI encroaches, and we have to deal with the realities of climate change.

This is good practice.

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