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Wednesday, May 29, 2024

The unlikely opportunity for logistics

Never before has there been so much focus on the logistics sector and the unsung role it performs in people’s everyday lives, writes Helen Gallimore

Helen Gallimore is an Associate Lecturer at the University of Derby where she teaches Retail Logistics, Supply Chain Management, International Purchasing and Sustainable Supply Chains. She’s a Fellow of the Chartered Institute of Logistics and Transport (UK)

Brexit; possibly the only six-letter four-letter word? As I write this article, we are entering yet another week of Brexit uncertainty, and supply chain professionals across the country are trying their best to prepare for all eventualities using scant data to predict what feels like a thousand possible scenarios and outcomes. What if we leave with No Deal? If we do get a deal, what will it look like? What if we revoke Article 50 and remain in the EU? What if we wake up and this has all been a terrible Dallas-esque dream? What if we’ve made all these plans for nothing? My view is that – in the case of our logistics operations at least – the actual outcome just might not matter at all, because the value is in the journey.

What really strikes me is this has created focus on supply chains, something that has always been woefully lacking outside the profession. There’s been an increased focus from the general public. Never in my 30-year career have I seen so many mainstream news items focussed on the complex nature of logistics; where does stuff come from, how does it get to the shops, how does e-commerce work, why does Amazon employ so many people, what if the fuel runs out, will stockpiling actually create product shortages..? There’s been an improved focus from business too, with supply chains increasingly being represented as a specific C-suite role. The supply chain is now widely recognised as a unique point of competitive advantage, the over-arching function that is the central nervous system of the business, and last mile logistics being the vital (and often only) physical touchpoint with customers. And those customers are changing rapidly; fickle, disloyal, bargain hunters, searching for speed, low prices, visibility, traceability and all with free delivery and returns; it’s not just Brexit that is anathema!

As the Brexit light shines brightly on our logistics operations, there’s nowhere to hide. Even if we haven’t got the solutions, we probably now know better than ever before where the risks and the opportunities lie, where we are strong and where we perhaps need some strength. We’ve now seen the rogue processes, the staff development needs, the poor relationships, the changing nature of customers, the obsolete stock, the scope for improvement. And, maybe more importantly, we’ve seen them from a totally new perspective – one where the status quo is challenged, where tomorrow may look very different from today, where we can’t keep doing what we’ve always done and rely on supply chains to be resilient to the potential shocks. Most supply chains and logistics operations have evolved over time; invariably most companies, if starting with a blank sheet, would not design the operations they currently have, in the places they have them. Perhaps the culture of continuous improvement is to blame (generally making incremental improvements over time,) rather than making wholesale change; or to quote management guru Peter Drucker, “making the wrong thing righter.”

Brexit has given us permission to be radical in our thinking; not cavalier but rather more resourceful than we otherwise might have been, and to think of our businesses as a system rather than a standalone function. Whatever it is you need to do to prepare for Brexit, or if you’re just hoping to survive tomorrow, it’s vital you focus on changing the right things, the things that matter: to your customers (have you ever actually asked them?), to your staff (will you need more, less, different skills?), to the planet (did someone say sustainability?), and ultimately to your bottom line.
I’m certain we haven’t heard the last of Brexit but treating it as an opportunity for improvement might just help you keep your sanity for a little while longer.

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