Chain of Thought

Government Should Learn from ProMat Vendors and Attendees

After a full day of face-to-face interviews and press conferences at ProMat, a clear theme is emerging: We need to find ways to stay lean and agile while building contingency plans to deal with uncertainty. It's almost like everyone is saying “store up on strategies to reduce storage—but never run out of what your customer wants.” Sure. That's easy to say, but in a global supply chain, how do you make sure everyone in your network is on the same page?

Even Tom Ridge, former secretary of Homeland Security and ProMat's keynote speaker, said that while globalization exposes us to greater vulnerability, we have to manage disruptions before they manage us. That means managing partners as well as inventory, making sure they're complying with regulations so once their shipments cross the border there is no disruption. When you're talking about Just In Time, that can be a real problem. Ridge touted the Bush Administration's “Smart Border Agreement” and the “25% Challenge,” reducing the automotive industry's wait time at the Ontario/Detroit border by reengineering the clearance process . Ridge said this was a great example of government cooperation with the private sector to dramatically cut wait times by as much as 80%.

But if you rely on government to be efficient, that's like asking for diet advice from an 800 pound gorilla. That's me talking, not Ridge. Walking the floor at ProMat, it's clear material handling and logistics solution providers are helping their customers be more self sufficient. After all, as Sapient Technologies' Ed Romaine told me that morning, if you can't achieve supply chain reliability, you need redundancy—and that's waste. And for Romaine, the epitome of waste is a technology “solution” touted to be for everyone. Nevertheless, vendors like him are talking less about one-size fits all technology fixes and more about scalability, modularity.

Even Ridge admitted that government has a lot to learn from the private sector about lean thinking. And although the Federal government has invited corporate executives to take part in advisory boards, it not only doesn't compensate them for their time, it makes them fill out forms to participate. Doesn't sound like a communication facilitator to me.

Having Ridge as ProMat's keynoter was a great idea. Although he gave examples of how public/private sector relationships can work under the right conditions, my takeaway was that you better get your own house in order and make sure you can get through tough economic times under your own power—and that of your supply chain partners.

The show floor offered plenty of ideas to inspire such survive-and-prosper strategies. In fact, that strength-in-numbers supply chain approach was evident on the vendor side as well. During my booth visits and press conferences there was tons of news about cooperative relationships among technology providers to help their customers find the right formula for staying lean while being productive about it. I'll share some of those announcements with you in my next post.

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