Robert Burns had it right. In our neck of the woods (the Northeast), all the expertise we've developed in efficient and timely distribution came to naught recently. Our best laid plans went "agley," as Burns wrote in "To a Mouse," when heavy snow and ice forced things to a standstill for a couple of days in mid February. Trucks had to pull over, aircraft were grounded and deliveries were pushed back a day or more - not for want of excellent systems, but instead because we will never be able to control all the factors that affect even so routine a task as moving a package from one part of the nation to another.
The poet had something deeper in mind than a day of supply chain disruption when he connected a mouse turned out of its nest by the plow to the idea that humans, too, often find their lives disrupted. But his lines have been repeated so often because they contain a universal truth. In the world of distribution, the hedge against that truth has not been philosophy, but inventory. Safety stocks are the buffer when things go agley (or awry, in the modern vernacular).
The evolution of distribution logistics is such that we no longer take shipments that are late or incomplete as part of the ordinary course of business. We expect (although we don't always get) information to precede shipments, and we expect our supply chain collaborators to let us know when something is amiss.
A few years ago at a conference at MIT, a shipper described the perfect distribution system as being one with "zero inventory and instant availability." That was intended to be ironic at the time and remains so today. Despite all the gains in supply chain execution, despite all the gains in integrating warehousing, transportation, purchasing and other systems, our networks are too complex, too large and all too fallible to ever reach that stage.
But we keep trying. We keep working to meet customer requirements in ways that make sense for our own businesses.
Will things still go awry from time to time? Of course. But we will keep getting better at preventing and parrying those unforeseen supply chain calamities.