Wednesday, December 15, 2021

Supply Chain Update - Hint: Disruption is Not Going Away and as The Who Warned Us: Don’t Get Fooled Again

I am traveling for the last time this year and when I am on the road I get to reflect a lot on what is actually going on within supply chains and what we can expect into the future.  Here are some things I have reflected on and believe for 2022:

Disruption is not Going Away:

Short of a major economic turndown, the container issues, ship issues, port issues, driver and transportation issues all will continue through 2022 and into 2023.  There is no evidence that until significant ship and container capacity comes on line (2023) there will be much improvement.  As we have learned this last few weeks, the “appearance” of improvement has been somewhat of a mirage.  Ships are slowing down and they are at anchor just further out at sea.  

COVID Is Moving from a Pandemic to an Endemic:

The definition of an endemic is something that is around us and never going away.  Covid will be around us, at a baseline level for the foreseeable future.  The next time you hear someone say to you, “When this is over… “ , remind them we are going into our 3d year. This is the “way it is” and masks, vaccines and therapeutics will be needed likely for the remainder of my life.  Supply chains cannot “wait until this is over “  to implement change and execute process improvements.  We have to learn to work within it. 

Shippers Will Continue To Take More Control of The Assets:

We all have seen the stories of big companies leasing ships but who would have thought a large furniture company would buy a large trucking company?  This is a perfect example where shippers will be adjusting their supply chains to deal with the massive margin inflation in purchasing of supply chain services.  It takes a while but supply chains will adjust.  Product will be on-shored, assets will be insourced, and networks will be redesigned to adjust and mitigate the inflation.  

This was started by Amazon when they bought Kiva Robots and they have progressively taken control of their own destiny.  Amazon will surpass UPS and FEDEX as the largest package shipper (on their own assets) sometime next year.  The massive margin inflation passed to shippers this year is not sustainable and it will end. 

We Will See 3 Interest Rate Hikes in 2022:

This is breaking news as it was today the Fed had their press conference after the December FOMC meeting.  You decide what this means for your business but suffice to say the “punch bowl” is going to be removed from this economy.  I personally believe this will mean a number of “zombie” companies will struggle to survive.  The easy money will be gone and companies which generate no profit will not continue to be valued at such high levels as they are today.  

A Few Charts:

Those who know me know I track the FRED Inventory to Sales ratios as an indicator telling us what stage the restocking and the “normalization” of supply chain is in.  The news is that we are still dramatically lower than we need to be and this means restocking will continue for the foreseeable future (See Disruption is Not Going Away above):

Below is a great visualization showing what is happening with COVID and is updated through today, December 15th:

Over the next few weeks I will get a bit more granular on my predictions however this provides a good high level overview of what 2023 looks like. 

With this information it really makes sense to play The WHO:  Don’t Get Fooled Again!

Friday, October 22, 2021

Thursday Note on THE Supply Chain - Birth Rate in The United States

 This is just a quick note on some learnings from the last few days.  While there are a lot of issues in supply chain which are well documented both here and other places (i.e., international capacity, truck capacity, shortages of materials etc.) the single biggest issue I hear from all my peers is the labor issue.  So, why is this such a big issue?

First, it appears to be a very systemic issue which is pervasive and has no easy fix.  A lot is discussed about pay rates but the reality is America is running out of workers.  it is simple math.  The chart below from MacroTrends (Source United Nations) shows it clearly:

The birth rate of the United States is the problem.  Combine that with a very restrictive immigration policy of late and you can see the problem.  This was not an unforeseen problem.  5 years ago, at a HBS reunion I heard the head of the Dallas Federal Reserve say this was coming.  Is it COVID related?  Well, like all things, COVID did not help, but this was coming for a long time.  We are just now here.

So, if you are young and fertile… get at it and do your patriotic duty and have kids. 

Second, I hear over and over again from friends in almost every industry in America:  They cannot produce fast enough to meet the demand for everything.  Thus, there is a shortage of everything.  Given how long it takes to spin up large capital projects I would just say we have to learn to live with it.  

Finally, the trend of the markets valuing and investing in technology instead of assets continues.  Flock Freight is now the newest unicorn according to TechCrunch.  Another app to try to help me find capacity.  This, I will admit is a bit unique in that it is not just another brokerage app but more assistance in co-loading.  Co-loading has been the holy grail for 30 years so I will watch this closely but so far, app or no app, no one has seemed to be able to make this work.  

OK, that is it and the song for tonight is in honor of these unicorn companies getting 100’s of millions of dollars:  Winner Take It All, by Abba:

Wednesday, October 20, 2021

Wednesday - Mid Week General Thoughts

 Here is just a quick summary of some things I am looking at this week and also some things which just make you go ... hmmmmmm:

  1. California Ports 24-Hour Operation is Going Unused - WSJ).  So far the 24 hour out gate at the ports of LA/LB are considered a total bust.  Unfortunately, those making these rules don't understand the "chain" in supply chain.  It is not just about time available.  It is about trucks, drivers, port space, all sorts of workers, chassis and a myriad of other things.  If nothing is done on those fronts, the chain breaks and no amount of extra "open" time will fix it.  More to come but so far I rate the 24 hour port plan a F-.  

  2. Driving up and down the highways at night allows you to see a big part of the problem.  Trucks parked all over the highway as they run out of hours and there is no parking for them.  Is anyone addressing this issue?  Does anyone think that parking on the side of the road, with no facilities and with no safety will attract people to the trucking industry?  Remember, for in trucking for every "machine" you employ you have to employ at least one person.  It is not like manufacturing where a "machine" eliminates the need for a number of people.  In trucking the capital employed to human is 1:1.  Treatment of Drivers: F.

  3. Anyone been to Costco lately?  I have been in one in Michigan and one in Georgia recently and guess what?  The toilet paper shortage appears to be coming back.  This time I think it is more about lack of trucking capacity than anything.  Come on Costco, you can get restocked!

  4. Inventory to Sales Ratios both total and just retail show little to no improvement.  This means my "when will this get better" meter is moving to the beginning of 2023 when I had it pegged at mid year 2022.  Still not coming off of the 2022 but the likelihood of it going into 2023 is getting more real. Likelihood of a quick resolution to the supply chain issues in America ending soon - D

    Total Inventory to Sales:

    Retail Inventory to Sales:

  5. Port of Savannah is still the best port out there by far however it has been "found" by some big retailers who are slow to move their boxes off the port.  This has meant some ocean carriers have cancelled calls to Savannah and added the Ports of Jacksonville and CharlestonI think just about everyone is starting to look at "over the water" movements to the East Coast versus getting into the mess of LA/LB then trying to move it over ground. Port of Savannah is an A

  6. JB Hunt  (Stock information: JBHT)is the best run trucking company in America by far.  They knocked their quarter out of the park and they have even better days ahead.  They have transformed from an old school, irregular route trucking company to a high tech, well disciplined supply chain company.  And, the market is rewarding them for it as they have a P/E that values it like a tech company and just about everyone upgraded their stock this week.  YTD J.B. Hunt is up 44.64% as compared to Schneider (SNDR) who is up 19.7%.  (See comparison chart here).  JB Hunt is an A+

  7. Costs continue to rise in all facets of the supply chain:  Various data sources tell us that yes Virginia, there is inflation, and a lot of it. 
OK, I just wanted to pass on some thoughts for mid-week.  Things I am working on include: 

  1. Why is the market not putting capital into asset companies?  Just today another $200M investment in a tech company that is supposed to help you find a truck.  So, we keep building apps but we don't staff trucks.  Not helpful but the folks doing investing must know something I do not know. 

  2. Should there be a reserve corps for Supply Chain Professionals?  I am really thinking we need this.  People join just like you would join the Army reserve except it is a national supply chain corps.  You would get the same protections the old "Soldiers and Sailors Relief act" provided and you would get called up as needed.  This would accomplish the same thing as calling up "the military" but you would get a lot more professionals to join as they would not have to do all the "Army Stuff"
More on those topics later.    I thought it fitting to end this post with "Bad Moon Rising" by Credence Clearwater Revival.  This should be the theme song for all supply chain experts!

Sunday, October 10, 2021

This is Not Just COVID - Supply Chain Disruption Has Been Building for Years

 I will not bore you with all the pictures and the discussion of how many ships are off the coast of LA waiting to get unloaded.  If you are reading this, you already know that fact.  What I do want to discuss is the real problem with supply chains and the root cause of this mess. 

My fear is everyone is attributing everything to covid-19 and covid-19 certainly did not help.  Covid-19 dramatically changed the buying patterns across the world (from experiences to things) and that impacted supply chains tremendously.  However, like a lot of things related to covid-19, the impact merely accelerated a trend which was already growing.  My thesis is this:  The infrastructure of global supply chains was cracking and breaking and Covid-19 sped it up.  What is included in infrastructure:

  1. Driver capacity
  2. Lack of investment in highway infrastructure (just look at the trucks parked all over every night)
  3. Lack of investment in port infrastructure
  4. Lack of connectivity in systems (i.e., you book a container to come to the US but the people on the ground don't know when or even if it is coming)
  5. Lack of a cohesive strategy on chassis management
  6. Massive disruption and economic distortion with "on again and off again" tariffs. 
  7. Lack of investment in real assets.  A lot of money going into apps and other systems for visibility etc. but what we need our trucks, drivers, trailers, containers and ships. 
My belief is until we get a comprehensive national strategy to deal with these issues, much like we have a national security strategy, petroleum reserve strategy etc. we will have these problems forever and what you see now may actually be the "new normal".  If you look at the group that is meeting now with the White House they still signal their belief that this is just a temporary covid-19 problem.  Their newest idea?  Keep the ports open longer!  Will that help? Yes, but does that deal with the core problems?  Absolutely not.  It is the aspirin for a headache which is actually caused by high blood pressure.  Your head will feel better but eventually your heart will burst.  

As much as we may dislike it or may hold an "all things government does is bad" idea we have to develop a national strategy to address these issues.  Remember, the Interstate Highway Network was a project the federal government did, with private industry, to ensure we could defend the country and it had the effect of enabling smooth frictionless commerce.  We need a big idea like that now.  

Don't let the excuse of covid-19 cover up all the issues in the supply chain in the United States. Despite all the billions of dollars invested in technology over the last 5 years, the global and national supply chains are performing worse than ever. 

And, for those of you who just cannot get enough of it, I will provide the obligatory picture of ships backed up at port. 

Wednesday, May 19, 2021

Is the Chief Supply Chain Officer now A Chief Crisis Manager

The last two years have been incredibly challenging for anyone in supply chain.  It started with a supply disruption out of China in late 2019 / early 2020.  We then went into a demand crisis in April / May of 2020 and then for many industries it very quickly turned right back to a supply crisis.  Both with inventories being low and then the entire country trying to restock at the same time which led to too much demand and not enough capacity to move global products.  Even US based products were effected because whether made in the US or not, many of the components come over seas. 

One hidden part of the capacity issues was the fact that passenger planes stopped flying.  In the "belly" of passenger planes flies a lot of cargo and when those planes stopped flying, cargo which normally went by air had to find another way to travel.  This added to the supply chain issues.  

Much of this has been covered and many articles written so I will not rehash them here.  However, what have we learned?  What will we do differently?  The first thing I think about is crisis management.  It turns out, if you are going to be a great supply chain leader,  you need to be a crisis manager.  That has somewhat always been the case but in the last two years it has gone "mainstream".  So, what does it take to be a good crisis manager.  Here are my 4 learnings from the last few years:

  1. Honesty - Be Honest and Straightforward in Communication:  This is akin to the idea that you will never solve a problem or deal with a problem unless and until you face up to it and admit it.  In your company you need to honest with your executives, your associates, sales and even, yes, your customers.  

    When these supply issues hit hard two companies stood out: Peloton and Ikea.  Both companies went public early on, described what the problem was, what they were doing about it and what people could expect.  "Bad news does not get better with age" applies here.  

    This also applies to associates.  Make sure you are honest and straightforward with them as well. 

  2. Be Calm and Do Not Panic:  Panic is a flight response to an issue that is somewhat embedded in our DNA.  However, we as humans can control our responses to anything.  This is the time when you have to lead with calmness and strength.  Stay focused on the mission(s) at hand.  Focus on solving problems. 

  3. Be Decisive:  You will not have all the facts by the time you need to make a decision.  You need to get as much data as possible but when the time comes you are going to have to "make a call".  And this is where the job can get lonely - YOU need to make that call.  As Matt Damon says in Ford v. Ferrari, "You cannot win a race by committee".  You then need to have all your antenna up to read new and conflicting information, synthesize it quickly and adjust if necessary.  Procrastination is not a decision.  

  4. Provide a Vision of the Future:  Most people understand when a crisis hits and they understand the work is going to get difficult and they are OK with working incredibly hard if they see what the end vision looks like.  For example, out of this pandemic and supply chain crisis we will have actions in place to get us through even more difficult times should they come up in the future.  The company is going to do great when the consumer hits the great reopening period.  Those are two examples of hope and vision.  
Finally, as Toyota taught us a long time ago, use a crisis as a major learning event.  A lot of "rocks" were uncovered during this period in business, in government and, in some cases, in personal lives.  Don't cover those rocks with water again - use this as a learning period and fix them.  

To learn this, and for some entertainment, I offer you the lessons of Carroll Shelby in Ford V. Ferrari about lessons learned and how to go forward.  Notice how Carroll Shelby applies all of these - Especially at the end when he gives Henry Ford II a vision of the future when "the only thing that didn't break were the brakes":

Monday, March 29, 2021

What Does The Ever Given Episode Teach Us?

 Many have focused on the Ever Given episode as a symbol for the dangers of international shipping.  Some have discussed it in terms of "choke points" such as the Suez Canal where when one thing goes wrong entire supply chains are disrupted.  And, some have taken it as an opportunity to discuss the topic of the size of the ships.  Have ships become too big?  What happens when there is a problem with a 20K TEU ship?

All of these are very important questions and are being addressed however I believe the question is even bigger.  It is about how we structure our supply chains.  It is about the age old debate of efficiency v. resilience.  Basically, how much insurance are you willing to buy to mitigate the potential of disruption? 

Start with inventory.  What is inventory?  As I have discussed previously, inventory is merely a buffer of product to substitute for the lack of perfect information. In fact, Lean teachings tell us that inventory is considered waste.  What do good managers do with waste?  They try and eliminate it.  

So, as we have done over the years companies have fallen in love with the idea of eliminating inventory because it makes the balance sheet look amazing.  But, is inventory really waste?

I submit that inventory is not waste just like your fire and auto insurance is not waste.  Think of your insurance policies.  You may pay a couple hundred dollars a month for a product you hope you will never use!  Wouldn't you consider that waste?  Well, not if you are protecting your portfolio you wouldn't.  

So, now, let's go back to the Ever Given.  The lesson here is we need more insurance (read: resilience) in global supply chains.  If we have learned anything in the last year we have learned things will go wrong.  Buffer stocks help mitigate this.  

The next question is whether we will learn that lesson from this incident.  My answer is, I doubt it.  Efficiency drives short term results and effectiveness is for the long term.  Most businesses will not be able to resist the allure of the efficient.  Even if in the short term they sacrifice efficiency for effectiveness most will eventually look for efficiency.  Not only are businesses likely to do it on their own but Wall Street will demand it for the publicly traded companies.  Another reason private companies will always have an advantage. 

What can a supply chain manager do?  Well, first, we can strike from our "lists of wastes" the word inventory.  Inventory, as I have hypothesized above, is not waste, it is insurance.  Second, become a story teller.  Supply chains in the age of COVID and Ever Given should be remembered for what they have become - stretched to the limit.  The mantra of "Never Forget" comes to mind. 

If you have doubt of my position look at my favorite graph (posted here for years) measuring, for the United States, our sales to inventory ratio:

Notice the far right of this graph.  Here you will see our inventories in the US relative to our sales is at the lowest point since April of 2012.  This is what leads us, as consumers, to scramble for everything.  

Let's not make it so every generation has to learn the same lesson.  Let's build resilient supply chains.