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Is it a Supply Chain Issue or Poor Project Management?

We are in a global crisis. It’s a matter of life and death. There are shortages of supplies and equipment across the world including acute shortages in America, and yet we are supposed to have a national stockpile, and a coordinated government response. Having 50 governors in 50 different states running in competition with one another for supplies and medical personnel and enforcing different policies is not the optimal way of dealing with the pandemic. Everyone seems to be dealing with supply chain problems – even at the grocery stores where it is impossible to keep paper products and antiseptic wipes in stock.

On the one hand, it’s kind of cool to hear all these laypeople talking about supply chains even though they hardly understand what we do as supply chain professionals. Unfortunately, on the other hand, the talk is mostly negative – “There are shortages in the supply chain,” or “We can’t depend on the supply chains.” 

But is this really true?  It seems to me what we have is a crisis of project management, not a crisis of supply chains.

We know there is plenty of manufacturing capability around the world for consumer goods, PPE, testing equipment, and medical devices such as ventilators. Individual buyers, sourcing agents, and brokers can get all grades and types of masks and gowns, foot coverings, head coverings, and gloves. But procurement by thousands of individual hospitals and multiple governmental agencies is uneven and inefficient and we end up with variable pricing, too much inventory in some places, and not enough in others. If supplies of medical devices and test kits are not FDA certified, they cannot be sold or used in the U.S. In addition, there are plenty of active counterfeiters selling hospital supplies.

While the Trump Administration invoked the Defense Production Act and assigned GM to shift from vehicles to ventilators, it was pretty clear that the understanding about how manufacturing actually works was very low. 

As the Wall Street Journal put it last week, “The switch from vehicles to ventilators requires more than a dash of American ingenuity. Cars and engines are built on assembly lines with power drills and robotic welding machines. Ventilators are made at workbenches with hand tools.”

Do we have the PPE and equipment that we need? No, probably not, particularly when it comes to PPE for hospital workers and first responders and testing supplies. But how is this possible when we have plenty of manufacturing capacity in the U.S. and around the world. If we had planned correctly, we could have easily tapped into these capabilities early and often to prevent shortages. 

It’s not a supply chain issue, but rather a reflection of poor planning and execution.  These are project management issues.

So how should we prepare for a “black swan” event like Covid 19? In reality, the only thing unknown about the next black swan is when, rather than if it will happen. As supply chain professionals we need to flex our supply chains to meet the needs of the event, no matter what it is or when it is. But to execute our response well and effectively, we also need to be excellent project managers.

So, what is good project management?

Professional project managers will tell you that successful projects require planning, discipline, and good, regular communications. Taking the time to set priorities and develop an end-state vision create the framework for successful execution.

Here are a few principles to include in your project:

  • Principle 1: Establish a Vision and Mission, Define the Project
    Take the time to develop a vision and mission with clear definitions of the problem to be solved. This activity may only take an hour or two, but it is critical that everyone on the team moves in the same direction.  Remind the team of this vision often and correct it if the situation changes significantly.
  • Principle 2: Set Clear Milestones and Ultimate Goals
    Set overall goals for the project including timing, budget, and clear milestones. Set individual goals for each work stream. Goals must be clear and measurable.  Make sure everyone on the team understands what they are working towards. Define the work to be done in manageable segments.
  • Principle 3: Require Transparent and Regular Status
    Measure progress, hurdles, and stumbling blocks. Be transparent about everything so that problems can be solved and project leadership can help clear the way forward. Ask for help when needed. Remember, everyone’s goal is to be successful.
  • Principle 4: Communicate Progress
    Inform all stakeholders and the public regarding specific project progress toward milestones and success. Don’t be vague or overconfident. Tell the truth about progress.
  • Principle 5: Declare Success
    When you have reached your goal, but not before, declare success.  Be able to demonstrate that you have met and passed every milestone, and achieved the stated vision and mission. Do a project ending review and learn from what went well and what needed to be improved. Learn from your mistakes.

Project management is an essential part of successful supply chains. It is structured and disciplined and a difficult task. It isn’t for the faint of heart.  Successful supply chain leaders must also be excellent project managers.


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