Lines and margins

June 23, 2023

CHICAGO – Every year the Reuters Supply Chain USA conference offers a grounding and sobering viewpoint on the state of supply chain in industries and segments outside of healthcare providers, the most recent being no exception.

While it may be convenient and easy for healthcare supply chain professionals to pass up the opportunity to attend this event as travel budgets tend to be extremely tight and targeted for healthcare-specific intelligence. Further, supply chain needs to be on call and on site seemingly 24-7-365. That’s why, by and large, Healthcare Purchasing News attends this event to learn and share with you throughout the year what’s happening in those industries purported to operate a step ahead of healthcare’s curve – but not too far ahead. 

Not surprisingly, the financial and operational fumes from the COVID-19 pandemic continue to linger throughout the non-healthcare supply chain with ongoing concerns over shipping routes, port access, labor issues, and rail and trucking challenges, but this year the buzz centered on artificial intelligence (AI), machine learning (ML) and machine-to-machine (M2M) communications. Prior-year events saw 3-D printing, Amazon, autonomous vehicles, blockchain and robotics and robotic process automation (RPA) as attention ticklers. 

Much of the value of this two+-day event, attended by roughly 900 supply chain executives, resides in the conversational details during panel discussions and one-on-one interviews with key supply chain executives who share their inner management philosophies and mindsets in how they approach crises, strategic planning and tactical throughput. 

You might think that these multimillion-dollar corporations might have little to worry about because they’re seemingly flush with much more cash than hospitals, give supply chain way more influence and power courtesy of C-suite respect for being so connected to top-line revenues through sales as well as bottom-line expenses. And supply chain on “the other side” doesn’t have to deal with healing people and saving lives. No matter. In many aspects they face similar challenges, grapple with difficult decisions and help people in different ways. 

Some observations and decisions can be familiar and predictable, while others may elicit a head-nod and arched eyebrows. Either way, the viewpoints encouraged attendees to read between the lines and annotate in the margins where great thinking can germinate and simmer. 

“If anything, the pandemic opened eyes as to what we do and why it’s so important,” said one high-ranking supply chain executive. “They may not understand it, but they appreciate it.” 

Added another supply chain executive who was among those acknowledging that just-in-time (JIT) distribution models took a hit: “COVID exposed how dependent we are on each other to make the ecosystem work better and more seamlessly. Society is better off when we haul more freight.” 

Still another echoed that “supply chain went from being behind the curtain to in front of the curtain so that people see the impact of what we do.” He followed up with something of a cerebral bombshell: “How do we transition from being a utility company to being a strategic weapon for our customers with the value we offer? How do we empower our people at work? Everything we do should be how to make life better for them.” After all, it’s the people who take care of the organization that services the customers. 

These executives, like other speakers throughout the conference, view technology more as an enabler rather than a replacer or supplanter. “We focus on process first before we put the technology on top of it,” one noted. Other improvements involved integrating idea-sharing, migrating to a “culture of learning” from a “culture of knowing” that reinforces the value of “being directionally correct” versus “100% perfect.” 

Another promoted AI as a tool to “help us do things in a different way.” He encouraged attendees to embrace technology, empower workers and the worker experience as well as be open to new business models that technology will help create and sustain. 

One supply chain executive synopsized the mentality with an apt mantra: “Data informs but people perform.”