Just in time (JIT) business systems of supply for everything from supermarket stocks to manufacturing components and raw materials have been the dominant model for some years.
While it offers huge benefits, including less storage space needed and less capital tied up in stocks, the disruption caused by measures to contain the coronavirus pandemic has revealed some major flaws in the model.
When such an integrated global supply chain breaks down as has happened recently the impact on business is considerable where shortages of stock have arisen due to road, sea and air freight grinding to a near-halt.
Indeed, JIT relies on many different components arriving on time often from myriad sources such that any one item can bring all production to a halt. The current situation has magnified the vulnerability since all the different supply chains will need to be fixed before production can resume..
Systems resilience describes a system’s ability to operate during a major disruption or crisis, with minimal impact on critical business and operational processes and the pandemic has revealed that in many cases it has been sadly lacking.
While many businesses have ceased to operate as a result of the pandemic, thus reducing demand for some categories of stock, there will come a time when those that survive will need to resume, and where different business systems may need to be developed to make the production more resilient and perhaps protect it from future similar shocks.
So now is the perfect opportunity for businesses to consider how to make their business systems and models less vulnerable in the future.
Firstly, this will take a change of mindset away from profit at all costs towards sustainable profits that factor in risks and resilience rather than simply focusing on cost reduction. The profit at all costs mindset has many short comings, not just vulnerability but safety also and was a causal factor behind the Piper Alpha Disaster that led to 167 oil rig workers dying.
It is also interesting that the US investor Warren Buffet, of Berkshire Hathaway, has sold his firm’s entire holdings in the four major US airlines in the belief that the post-pandemic world is likely to be very different, saying “We will not fund a company … where we think that it is going to chew up money in the future.”
Buffet is widely respected for his investment skill over the decades, so it is worth paying heed to his decisions.
As part of the longer-term thinking about business systems, companies will also need to improve their balance sheets to help withstand future shocks like the banks have been forced to do since the Global Financial Crisis of over ten years ago.
However, business should also, in my view, consider the benefits to be gained from nurturing relationships with reserve suppliers as well as perhaps maintaining larger reserve stocks of those materials or parts they need to sustain productivity during interruptions to supplies.
It may be that this will mean larger onshore storage facilities than they have been used to, but while this might mean lower profits and lower dividends for investors in the shorter term, it will provide greater security for the business and its owners in the medium and longer term.
The so-called “new normal” is likely to be very different for businesses and economies as the restrictions on movement are gradually lifted and it is likely to be a considerable time before we get there, but arguably this is an ideal time for businesses to rethink their business systems and prepare for a more sustainable future on many levels.