COVID-19: Providing a Light at the End of the Tunnel

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I’m not sure about you, but for me remembering life pre-COVID-19 is beginning to get more and more difficult. It is all encompassing. Work, home, family, friends, news, sports — there doesn’t seem to be an aspect of life left untouched. It has further intertwined home and work to the point where it’s hard to distinguish where one begins and the other ends.

Without a barometer, it is easy to get stuck in the churn of the “now” and not see the light at the end of the tunnel. Those of you who have read my past blogs have likely picked up on the fact that I tend to draw parallels to help make sense of things. Although it seems embarrassingly insignificant now, I think back to training for my first (and to this point only) Ironman competition. It was a monumental personal challenge, but one that was made possible through a phased training plan. Focusing on phases was important to ensure I didn’t undertake things too early. It broke something down that was too big to tackle in its entirety into manageable pieces and it helped keep the end goal in perspective. Similarly, I believe a phased approach is important in keeping our organizations on track for recovering from the COVID crisis. The trick is not to get stuck in the first two phases.

Phase 1: COVID-19 Crisis

We entered Phase 1 rapidly and it was filled with a lot of questions. We were still trying to figure out what COVID-19 was, where it was spreading and how it was going to impact the supply chain. It seemed as though we were trying to “prepare” for the coronavirus at the same time we were triaging its impact. I refer to this phase in the past tense because I believe we’ve progressed past this point.

Phase 2: Working Within the New Realities

We now have a sense for what our near-term reality looks like, even if we don’t know how long it will last. The borders between home and work are nonexistent as we monitor and protect the health of family, friends and colleagues. We are managing a split workforce, one remote and the other in warehouses, trucks and manufacturing plants. Even with economies shutting down, transportation is constrained. We struggle with the questions, “When is the right time to restart operations?” and “Can I adequately protect our workforce if we do?” Many are and more will experience rolling operational shutdowns as the virus appears, facilities are cleaned and reopened — only to repeat again. Supplier financial health is again a major concern. Some are even answering the call to supply items our medical community is in dire need of by realigning talent and resources. These are our realities now…but those too will change.

Phase 3: Recovery and the Aftermath

A time will come, hopefully very soon, when the focus is on recovery. This means not only rebooting the supply chain and positioning the business for different economic recovery scenarios, but also healing the organization. Focus will need to be placed on employee engagement. For some, this will mean reaping the benefits of the goodwill built through the crisis, for others it will mean repairing the damage. For many, it will mean an extra focus on cost optimization, but in combination with the need to fill the gaps exposed by the crisis. For years, many invested money and resources to increasing multi-tier supplier visibility, but at a time when it was needed most, it didn’t extend as far as needed. Many of these gaps will require the need to pitch for investment in an environment where the default answer will be “no.” It will be the time for organizations to look back and understand how the organization did or didn’t work in its response to crisis. Many will uncover the need for instilling a “learning culture” and what Sarah deLiefde, a Gartner colleague of mine, calls “turn-ready talent.” Many will question the level of supply chain risk that is appropriate for the organization and the best way for determining it. This is the phase we heal.

Phase 4: Finding Opportunity in Crisis

In tragedy there is hope, in crisis there is opportunity. We as leaders can ensure our respective organizations exit the crisis stronger than they entered. It’s in strengthening the employee/employer relationship and finding new ways to enhance the customer experience in difficult times. It’s in accelerating technology adoption and leveraging the longer-term adoption of things like remote work that were forced upon us by the coronavirus. It’s in identifying vertical integration or other acquisition opportunities that didn’t exist pre-crisis that may now be available. It’s in finding gaps in available products and services that create startup and new market opportunities.

It can be difficult to think about opportunity in times like this, but opportunity doesn’t need to be at the expense of others. Opportunity provides a light at the end of the tunnel. If that’s not enough incentive, there are organizations already focusing on Phases 3 and 4, betting their competition will get stuck in the second phase.

Michael Uskert,
Chief of Research,
Gartner Supply Chain
[email protected]



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