Every so often, a need to get right with "the infrastructure" rises to the top of the bottle, only it's not necessarily cream. The industry has been railing against infrastructure negligence for decades. After a bare handful of legislative actions at the federal level, even the two major parties' presidential candidates are committing to infrastructure rebuild.
But the most pugnacious fly in the ointment, the estimable and formidable Mitch Mac Donald, has raised a couple of infrastructure issues, namely the physical and enabling technology as priorities. Your 'umble correspondent has waxed eloquent about infrastructure components in the past, but they were different in focus and intensity from Mitch's observations.
The politicians are ready to pounce on yesterday's infrastructure as a sure way to solve tomorrow's challenges, in much the same way that generals study past failures as guides to future victories by learning how to win the last war.
It's not just politicians imagining that Israeli-Palestinian peace is a slam-dunk in an enlightened global community, or generals believing that the Mau-Mau would flee like rabbits when faced with heavy armament, or great minds in control of the exchequer who would invest in rotting bridges (last-mile solutions) or crumbling highways (long-distance movement) when there are constituencies that vote reliably to which they can pander. But candidates and incumbents are determined to spend on yesterday's physical infrastructure, deficits notwithstanding and relevance in question.
Football coaches devise offenses to outsmart the defenses of 30 years ago. Or create defenses to confound offenses abandoned for ineffectiveness 20 years ago. Dude! The Single Wing went out with piston warplanes!
Thus, it makes sense for supply chain management (SCM) professionals to periodically revisit what makes up an SCM infrastructure and what the priorities within infrastructure need to be.TODAY'S INFRASTRUCTURE HOT BUTTONS
There is a handful of imperatives to be addressed, and now. These are a subset of the fuller list of infrastructure components listed in earlier writing, and they expand on Mitch's concerns regarding the physical elements and the role of consistent, visible, and coherent technology support.
The physical/technology hardware must be brought up to the standards and capabilities and capacities of advanced Western nations. Communications, Internet, everything. The traditional bridge/highway network needs to be elevated to a sustainable high level.
The difference between now and earlier is that the new and remedial work has to be accomplished to a comprehensive plan, a sequence of priorities that recognizes relative GDP (gross domestic product) impacts and ties into a whole, as opposed to a random collection of unrelated make-work projects that reward loyal voters or woo desirable battleground states. Significant attention must be paid, in Willy Loman's words, to long-haul and short-haul movement, including exits, ramps, congestion reduction, smooth transfer interchanges, and easy urban movement. Where appropriate, rail, seaport, inland waterway, and pipeline modes need to be included in the plan—as well as integrated with passenger alternatives.
As to technology, there isn't any without skills development, to be addressed below.THE HUMAN INFRASTRUCTURE
Important as the physical component is, our supply chains simply won't work without people—people with the right skills, the right education, the right attitudes, and the right roles and responsibilities.
It begins with raw execution. We simply don't have enough forklift drivers, truckers, and order pickers to meet today's needs and customer commitments, and will need Evel Knievel's motorcycle to leap over tomorrow's looming entry-level worker gap. Compounding the challenge, we don't have programs to build and fill an execution labor pipeline, the landscape being littered with bits and pieces of unrelated and uncoordinated initiatives in various corporations and schools.
We are not remotely close to developing the next level of talent—the analysts, planners, and schedulers; the sourcers (not sorcerers, btw) and procurers; the relationship points of the spear; the collegial internal collaborators; the transport mavens; the project managers and S&OP (sales and operations planning) savants; and the like. And creating supply chain managers is largely a game of chance, the luck of right place/right time experience, coupled with fortuitous on-the-job learning.
And in a universe abuzz with drones, the hum of robots, and the clink/clank of sundry material handling contraptions, we are utterly failing at developing designers, repair people, installers, and the coders who make things stop going bump in the night.
The greatest human infrastructure gap? By far, our collective inability to take ordinary people and teach them to do the extraordinary, to become supply chain leaders—passionate visionaries with powers of persuasion and magnetic attraction for followers.PUTTING THE PIECES TOGETHER
Until and unless we develop people to the extent that we have developed roads and bridges, and technology hardware and software, the other infrastructure imperatives will remain relatively meaningless. So, let's get to it, and figure out how to teach leaders to lead, managers to manage, and technogeeks to make bits and bytes do our bidding.
We cannot afford to cede the output of brainpower to offshore geniuses and let our best and brightest chillax while highly motivated technocrats from other lands learn enough to power their homelands to heights of supply chain excellence.
Time to get real. We can't—and won't in the future—satisfy the consumerist hunger of our home market, nor will we be a commanding player in global competition. Can we afford to become Greece or operate on a par with Portugal? Really? Are those your visions for a supply chain future?THE ROLE(S) OF EVOLVING INFRASTRUCTURE PRIORITIES
We have a plate overflowing with infrastructure challenges, a legacy of neglect, a history of looking into the rear-view mirror, a failure to see the demands of tomorrow, a distorted view of skills needs, an unrealistic hope that tomorrow's blue-collar, well-paying jobs will translate to the STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) knowledge that helps define the 21st century economy in a planetary context. Is it too late? One hopes not, but vision, leadership, and individual initiative will be essential to survival, imho.