According to Yossi Sheffi, professor at MIT and director of the MIT Center for Transportation and Logistics, supply chain is typically the “asphalt of the road” —that is, when it works, there’s no need to talk about it.
In 2020, of course, everyone wanted to talk about supply chain, thanks to both real and perceived challenges in getting products from factories to consumers during the Covid-19 pandemic. From toilet paper shortages and shipping delays to problems getting PPE to healthcare workers and delays in rolling out Covid-19 vaccines, few topics were front and center in the media like the trials and tribulations of the global supply chain.
The biggest takeaway regarding supply chain’s 2020 trials and tribulations? The supply chain did hold. While there were egregious, devastating missteps around medical supply (“The lack of PPE surprised me,” says Sheffi), on the whole, the supply chain did not break. “This was the supply chain’s finest hour, with people who did heroic things,” he says.
Consider the nation’s food supply: Overnight, half of the locations receiving food deliveries — including university campuses and large institutions — closed completely in mid-March. The supply chains for those recipients were not built to efficiently deliver to supermarkets or restaurants, because the machinery was meant for huge pallets and 100-pound sacks of products such as rice and flour, rather than the one-pound containers supplied to retailers. Consumers also changed their consumption habits dramatically, buying less fresh produce, for example, and more bread and pasta.
Now, while companies look to succeed in 2021, the pandemic still rages — but there is a light at the end of the tunnel. The challenge is how to keep supply chain flexibility and speed but not cut corners, says Sheffi: “You want to eliminate unnecessary bureaucracy but keep the necessary gates and hurdles.”