Sunday, July 21, 2019

What Have The Tariffs Taught us About Supply Chain?

This is not a political or even an economic posting relative to the tariffs and the current "tariff war".  Rather, I have been doing a lot of thinking about what this teaches us about supply chain and specifically global supply chain design. 

First, this topic has been talked about for a long time and it goes under the banner of "supply chain disruption".  We have always thought of these disruptions as either "natural disasters" (think hurricanes and earthquakes) or "man-made" disasters such as wars.  In either case the recommendations have been for supply chain professionals to stay very close to the impact of these and how long a company could survive should one hit.  Perhaps this tariff war is a way for us to practice before something we really cannot control occurs.

In 2011 both the hard drive industry and the auto industry were hit hard and interrupted significantly by flooding in Thailand.  Closer in time, the graph below from EPS news shows the types and number of disruptions just in the 2017 / 2018 timeframe:

You can see this is not an uncommon occurrence so, while the cause of this particular disruption this year (tariffs) may be surprising, what should not be surprising for supply chain professionals is the fact their global supply chains are susceptible to disruption.  What should you do about it:

  1. Plan, Plan, Plan - scenario planning and conducting FMEA's are a must in this environment.  You should not have to make it up as you go along when a disruption hits.
  2. Think about your supply chain as a portfolio.  You likely would not invest your entire life savings in one stock would you?  Why would you do it with your company's supply chain?  Diversity is critical to mitigating risk
  3. Develop early warning indicators - each with a plan of action if it appears it is happening.  As you develop your FMEA you will likely identify a bunch of interruption scenarios along with probability and severity ratings.  You will then want to work diligently on the scenarios with the highest likelihood with very severe outcomes.  But, it is not good enough to just know them.  You then have to determine what the indicators you will begin to look at to determine if something is going to happen.  How can you monitor the global situation and determine the likelihood of an event?

    For example, on tariffs, this was a topic of the election and the US is doing pretty much what it said it would do during the election.  This was a red flag.  While you would never have known for certain what you did know is the "likelihood" of supply chain disruptions due to tariffs increased dramatically on January 20, 2017.  Was it enough to change everything that day?  Probably not.  Was it a good time to pull out your disruption FMEA's off the shelf and update them?  Absolutely.  
In conclusion, I am not sure the tariff situation has taught us anything new but what it has done is reinforced what we already knew and brought it to reality.  This was not a "Blackswan" event.  This was all within the realm of probability knowing what was being discussed.  

Time to get back to the basics.  Conduct FMEA, execute scenario planning and manage your portfolio.