Calling time out

Feb. 23, 2023

Fallout from the 1986 Space Shuttle Challenger disaster motivated the publication of a popular political cartoon sporting the caption, “The O-Ring Committee,” a reference to the uncovered and underlying cause of the midair explosion nearly two minutes after liftoff (O-rings that failed to withstand intense heat).

“The O-Ring Committee” was meant to be a paean to the proverbial blame game. The cartoon depicted a group of people lined up in a circle, each pointing the index finger of blame to the person next to him or her. This seemingly indicated no end in determining a culprit to take the fall for NASA’s space program to save face and rebound in the public eye.

We know – if not believe – that time remains a linear concept. Forget about all the sci-fi films, super-hero movies and television shows that postulate the ability to travel to alternate dimensions, realities, times and universes. For us, it’s past then present then future.

To an extent, many classify the supply chain as linear, too. You start with gathering raw materials to be used in manufacturing products, then move to the manufacturing of products, then likely to distribution (for those manufacturers that prefer not to go direct to customers) with group purchasing organizations (GPOs) in the contracting mix linking providers to suppliers and vendors.

While it may be convenient for the supply chain industry to establish its own circular “O-Ring Committee” when things go south, more often than not the squabbles show up as finger-pointing to the left or to the right, whichever direction makes sense for the accuser(s).

Arguably and conceptually, supply chain may not be a linear function. Never has been. Likely never will.

In fact, perhaps the supply chain technically resembles one of those old-time Cecil B. DeMille films that rely on the mass action of hundreds, if not thousands, of extras in the cast and on the set. Think “The Ten Commandments” in 1956 or “Ben-Hur” three years later.

Pandemic-inflamed demand surges reinforced that notion now as supply chain professionals scrambled to outrun, keep pace or not lag too far behind the logistics channels moving product from one place to another. Should supply chain pros – particularly in healthcare – have anticipated the disruption?

If anything, the pandemic forced healthcare supply chain pros to do what actor Matthew Broderick did in his 1986 movie, “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.” He frequently “broke the Fourth Wall” to talk to the camera and face movie goers sitting in theaters. Similarly, pandemic-stricken supply chain leaders creatively (or desperately?) reached outside their comfort zone, their linear feed, so to speak, to accomplish their missions and do their jobs.

When you cannot get what you need from upstream in the chain you branch out and venture over to alternatives; when you cannot send out what you need downstream in the chain, you branch out and venture over to alternatives.

Outside of healthcare and with the meteoric adoption and implementation of automation and computer technology, organizations recognized nearly a decade before the pandemic that the traditionally acknowledged borders of supply chain operations were no longer relevant – or applicable.

The development helped motivate the experts at MHI to study the process and title its 2016 annual industry report, “Accelerating change: How innovation is driving digital, always-on supply chains.”

Outside of healthcare, the descriptor “digital, always-on” applied to supply chain makes as much sense as it should in healthcare, which is expected to be “always on,” just as the supply chain that fortifies it continually.

Maybe all of this is more like the string theory depicted in the 1989-1993 NBC-TV show, “Quantum Leap” (“Oh, boy.”) or the chaos theory posited in the 1996 film, “Independence Day” (“Don’t say oops.”).

On second thought, gazing back at the last two years, perhaps Jeff Goldblum’s satellite technician character “David Levinson” aptly represents the plight of Supply Chain leaders today.