Uncertainty: The Bogey Man of 2011

As kids, the dumbest things creeped us out — like movie monsters, or even self-made under-the-bed monsters. As we enter adulthood, those fears with faces are replaced by a bigger and hairier creature called uncertainty, and it's waiting to jump out at us when the calendar changes to 2011. Scared yet?

On page 12 our Editorial Advisory Board weighs in on what 2011 and beyond may bring. Their takes are categorized into three buckets: education, industry and government. These categories alone are pretty scary in their own ways, and that's the point of this article. These things shouldn't be allowed to grow in their own vacuums. They need each other, and the guiding force of corporate citizenry, if any realistic good is to come out of them.

For example, Joe Andrsaki says that a major flaw in our education system is that industry standards aren't taught in business school. Young people who happen to stumble into a ground-floor logistics position have no idea what an ASN is or how information flows from those funny lines and spots on shipping labels. Neither do they know what the customer does with that information — or even who that customer is.

They may learn those things on the job — eventually — but by the time their knowledge can do their company or their customer any good, they're ready to move up in the organization or out of it. Then this cycle of ignorance starts all over again and the supply chain suffers for it; especially the customer at the end of it.

Meanwhile, our uncertainty monster has another food source — a crumbly confection called the transportation infrastructure. Uncertainty particularly enjoys the spice of our not knowing what our representatives in government are planning to do about it. Higher taxes! That's an uncertainty feast. Industry groups prove their value as uncertainty's opponents by informing and rallying their members against unfettered government spending.

But higher costs, whether from taxes or health care or just plain living, will keep uncertainty coming at us. As companies with customers, you can either be a conduit between schools, industry groups and government agencies to slow or even shrink that monster, or you can hide and hope it doesn't slow or shrink you. But hiding won't help your customers, and ultimately, they are key to your survival. If they're not sure they're getting any value from working with you, that uncertainty will do you in.

A customer's perception of their suppliers' efforts to help them fight uncertainty determines every supplier's value. If you want an example, look no further than MH&L's own advisory board. Although an executive for a major industrial supplier, Thom MacLean is also a customer to transportation suppliers. His perception is that transportation is waste. For him, anything that doesn't add value to his product is waste. His perception is the transportation provider's reality.

Some carriers, facing the uncertainty of that reality, are fighting it with everything they have. Here's a quote from David Congdon, president and CEO of Old Dominion, taken from an open letter that appears on this LTL carrier's web site:

“When the economic crisis smoke clears and it will, the freight carriers should have a strong lock on their valued customers they have gone to the mat for during this time of economic hardship. Keep in mind that we are not just talking about reducing your customers' rates; we are talking about working closely to determine how the carrier and the shipper can reduce costs jointly to keep both parties working together for the long haul.”

He sounds pretty certain about his strategy's effectiveness. There's strength in certainty — and in numbers. Join forces with your local schools, industry associations and government representatives. Such corporate citizenship is uncertainty's worst enemy.

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