Logistically Speaking: Hope Still Shines Amidst a Somber Summer

It's more important than ever that we develop talent to replenish the industry with people who can help revive our sputtering economy.

We talk a lot about the “material handling and logistics industry” here, which sometimes makes it seem like there’s one big, all encompassing group identity, but of course that’s nowhere near the case. The industry is made up of individuals, each of whom brings their own special and unique talents to bear, and it is the joint efforts of all these talented people that helps the industry as a whole move forward.

It’s been a rather somber summer for the industry, on a number of fronts. For instance, while delivering her annual State of Logistics Report, the best adjective that Rosalyn Wilson could come up with to describe the past year is “unremarkable.” The long anticipated economic recovery has yet to appear, and while things don’t seem to be getting a whole lot worse, there’s not much to get excited about, either. Transportation costs rose by 6.2% last year, but only because of higher rates, not due to any increase in freight volume.

In a just-issued report by Tom Ridge, former secretary of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), and Robert Stephan, former assistant secretary of the DHS, the authors warn that the United States is “dangerously unprepared” for serious emergencies due to an overreliance on foreign suppliers, as well as an abdication of key manufacturing industries that no longer have much, if any, presence within U.S. borders. “The nation’s worn out infrastructure is the soft underbelly that provides an inviting target for attacks that can have a widespread, devastating impact,” Stephan says. Although there’s an unmistakable whiff of political posturing in this report, released by the Alliance for American Manufacturing, there’s no mistaking the wake-up call for more action, especially from the supply chain community. Both industry and academia need to collaborate on the process of attracting and developing the talent to tackle these issues as we head into the next few years of this young century.

Unfortunately, over the last few months our industry has lost a few of its brightest thinkers and doers faster than we can replace them. Here at MH&L, the fragility of life struck home when we learned that Mary Aichlmayr, former editor of this magazine when it was known as Material Handling Management, had passed away at the much-too-young age of 37. Many of you no doubt remember Mary well, as it would be hard to find a more passionate journalist within our field. She was one of a kind, and we miss her a lot.

We’re also still coming to terms with the loss of another member of the MH&L family, as Bert Moore, a member of our editorial advisory board, passed away last month. Moore’s association with us extends well back into the previous century, and it’s fair to say he knew as much about bar coding and RFID as anybody else in the industry.

And consultant Chuck Taylor, one of the transportation industry’s most prominent gadflies and the 2010 recipient of the Council of Supply Chain Management Professionals’ (CSCMP) Distinguished Service award, also died last month. Taylor was one of the few who correctly anticipated the spike in oil prices years before it happened, and was a reliable source both for detailed analysis and memorable soundbites.

For instance, back in 2006, Taylor was in full Nostradamus mode when he said, “We’re in a deep hole and we don’t even know it. People are living with a false sense of security, but ‘business as usual’ is not in the cards.” Here we are, six years later, and I still wonder if anybody was listening to the suggestions Taylor made back then. A serious proponent of lean thinking, Taylor at the time suggested that every company, whether a shipper or a carrier, needs to ask itself these questions:

➤ Are we spending enough time in the work environment to find out what’s really happening?

➤ How many of these activities are absolutely necessary?

➤ How many of these activities are adding value to the product, rather than costs?

➤ How many of these activities are related to things the customer sees and cares about?

I would suggest that a fitting tribute to all of these fallen supply chain professionals would be to revisit the stories they wrote, the opinion pieces they authored and the best practices they championed. While I’m confident that the material handling and logistics industries are resilient enough to fill the talent gap left by our departed colleagues, we can honor their legacies by paying closer attention to what they accomplished, and pushing on with our own supply chain efforts with renewed vigor.

Follow me on Twitter @supplychaindave.

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