December 17, 2020 was the last time I posted here – I wrote a love letter to Gospel music. Since then, I haven’t taken more than an hour here or there to write in months. About a year ago I decided to finally take the time to pursue a professional certification that I’ve been considering for a couple years. I thought the timing was finally right – the baby wasn’t much of a baby anymore, I was working from home and theoretically had more time, and frankly, the next couple rungs in my career ladder sort of made it necessary.
I figured it would take three or four months, tops. It took 11. But that’s all over now and I’m finally able to do the things I actually enjoy doing in my free time.
I sat down to write recently but nothing specific came to mind, so I just let my mind wander. I reflected on the past 18 months. It quickly became obvious that I haven’t spent nearly enough time digesting the chaos. So many changes, so many routines destroyed and replaced by new ones, so many adjustments to daily life. But no time to really think and consider what all those things meant in the grand scheme of life. Living moment by moment, day by day, because who the hell knows what tomorrow is going to bring? It’s almost depressing. Well, drop the “almost”. It’s depressing.
I’ve been living that day-to-day, moment-to-moment existence for at least the past 18 months. I’m worn out. Tired. Lacking enough energy – and time – to accomplish everything that needs to be completed by the end of each day. And this is in nearly every aspect of my life. Work. Home. Health. Faith. You name it, I’m behind.
For this post, I’m going to focus on work. For those readers who don’t know, I work for a chemical company in the supply chain department. This may or not be accurate, but it would seem to me that “supply chain” has become a household term only within the past year or two. Allow me to peel back the curtain to show you how our country does and does not operate. I hope you find this at least somewhat interesting. But if you don’t, just understand that this is therapeutic for me.
I transitioned into a new position on March 30, 2020. I had been working in a role within our supply chain group where data analysis and forecast management were my primary functions. However the new role moved me into leading our supply chain operations team. This is more of a day-to-day, minute-to-minute fire-fighting type role that only intensified as an unprecedented year unraveled around us. January, February, and March 2020 were fairly normal, save for the last two weeks of March where we were all forced to work from home. No big deal, we’ll be back to the office in a few weeks, they said. They didn’t have a clue. None of us did.
Our customers freaked out. Our suppliers freaked out. We freaked out. Customers cut their inventory as quickly as they could so they didn’t get stuck with a ton of cash tied up in inventory. So did we. We canceled orders, but our suppliers still shipped them. Oopsie. They, too, wanted to reduce their inventory. It was a race to cut costs. It was chaos. That was April.
April was rough, but May was forecasted to be rougher. Some estimates had our typical monthly sales volume being cut by up to 40%. That’s immense. As the month wore on, we realized that wasn’t actually the case. Our customers’ demand had picked up from April. Buuuuut, we had already cut our projections for the month and found ourselves playing catch up. But hey, a good problem to have. At first.
June. July. August. September. Unbelievably strong sales months. Our major customers are paint companies. Guess what happened when people all over the world were stuck in their homes month after month after month. They stared at their walls. Month after month after month. And you know what they decided? “That wall needs a fresh coat of paint.”
The ensuing chaos in our supply chain never full relented. By time the “slow season” rolled around – usually starting in November and lasting through January – we were so far behind, we had no time to rest. To make matters worse, our manufacturing sites typically plan their annual maintenance activities during the slow season. This means they shut down the production lines for at least five days in November or December to perform preventative maintenance, clean the facility, upgrade outdated equipment, so on and so forth. We never caught up.
February 2021. Winter Storm Uri hit Texas over the head with a lead pipe and then kicked it while it was down. The entire state froze. Tornadoes ripped through the state, adding insult to injury. A majority of the state was without power for over a week. All told, more than 175 people lost their lives, and an estimated $195 billion worth of damage was done. BILLION. With a B!
A large number of this country’s chemical producers have facilities in Texas and Louisiana. Those facilities, with hundreds of thousands of miles of metal pipes, froze. Those pipes burst. Pumps, control systems, and myriad other equipment were destroyed. Manufacturing facilities shut down for weeks and months in order to assess the damage, then rebuild. Our suppliers declared Force Majeure, a legal maneuver to suspend liability and contractual obligations during such an event like Winter Storm Uri, an Act of God.
Nearly every single one of my company’s raw material suppliers were affected in some way by Uri, ranging from minor delays to months-long shutdowns. And those suppliers who weren’t affected directly felt the effects later once these large facilities started coming back online and everyone needed material at the same time. Demand was already greater than supply prior to Uri. The storm exponentially increased the disparity.
A fair amount of these chemicals that were in such desperately high demand are shipped via our continent’s rail system. I could go on for another few thousand words about our rail providers in this country, but I’ll spare you. One downside to shipping via rail is that the transit time is multiple factors longer than shipping by tank truck. For instance, shipping a railcar of butyl acrylate from Baytown, Texas to Chicago, Illinois will take on average about 14 days. A tank truck can make that trip in two days. So of course, every company in need of this one raw material wanted to convert their purchase orders to ship in trucks instead of rail cars.
Something else to consider here is that you can fit ~180,000 pounds of this chemical into a rail car. You can only get a quarter of that (45,000 pounds) into a tank truck. So, to convert a rail car purchase order to ship in tank trucks means that four tank trucks are needed. Four trailers. Four trucks. Four drivers. And when every customer in America wants to convert to trucks, well, you see where this is going.
Carrier capacity has been on a steady downward trajectory for awhile now. This is due, in large part, to an aging driver base. As drivers hit retirement age, the number of new drivers in the market isn’t keeping pace. Freight companies struggle with driver recruitment and retention. It’s not a sexy job, and while it can pay a decent wage, over-the-road life is a hard life to live. The wages and benefits aren’t attractive enough to a younger generation coming into the work force.
So, here we are with a shrinking carrier base colliding with a staggeringly high demand for truckload freight. The supply chain has been stretched to the point of snapping. As has the morale of just about every supply chain professional I know.
Maybe the toughest part to reconcile, for me personally, is that all of these issues tend to lag. From where I sit, I watched Uri ravage the southwest and while most of the country focused on the days immediately following the events of February 13-17, I knew our lives were going to become a living hell about three weeks later once all the spare inventory in the country was used to keep up with consumer demand. Because that’s the thing – demand never changed, but supply was kneecapped by Uri. I can’t help but laugh at the mental image of a 6’4″, 320-pound brute (Uri) taking a baseball bat to the knees of scrawny paint store associate.
Needless to say, the past year and a half has been unprecedented. The world’s supply chain wasn’t ready for it, and probably never could have been. Starting in this role right at the beginning of it seems, well, a little unfair. I’ve never seen our supply chain in a normal state. It’s been nothing but chaos. And the effect it’s had on our people has been immense. We’re all tired. So many adjustments, new plans, constant changes. It’s beyond overwhelming at this point – it’s simply not fair.
I keep thinking it’ll settle down at some point. That point hasn’t come yet. Although, just like we could see the train wreck coming weeks before it actually happened when Uri hit, I am starting to see the slightest improvements that could eventually lead back to a normal situation. But, we’re months away. The good news lags too.
So I’ve spent far too long explaining what happened the past 18 months without really mentioning a key component in all of this – the personnel component. The teams are stretched thin. Each of us has more work on our desks than we have available capacity. The further behind we each get individually contributes to us falling more behind collectively. The past few weeks, I’ve made it a goal to end the day with no more than 30 unread emails. Each day though, at some point after the lunch hour, I have found myself staring at no less than 175 unread emails. My average sent-emails-per-day rate the past two weeks is just under 325. That’s an email sent every 90 seconds. Factor in the 3-4 hours of meetings each day, the constant phone calls, and the hundreds of emails to read and act on, there’s simply not enough time in the day to accomplish everything. Oh, and I didn’t even mention the hundreds of instant messages I send on Microsoft Teams.
One of my colleagues snapped the other day. She took on a new role at the beginning of this year – one of the most demanding jobs you can have in a manufacturing environment, the production planner role. She’s doing a great job, but with everything going on, “great” simply isn’t enough. Hell, “perfect” wouldn’t be enough. And that’s why she lost it momentarily. She told me later that she can handle pressure (and I agree), but what we’re under is something far weightier than just “pressure”. We’re in impossible positions, and we’re doing the best we can.
Another difficult aspect of this: now that the pandemic adrenaline has sort of worn off, and now that the plants in Texas are operational again, most of our customers’ expectations have ramped back up. But the supply situation is still far from normal. The pressure from consumers flows through the retailers, back to the distributors, back to the manufacturers, and finally all the way back to us, the supplier. Our inability to meet demand is causing tension, real friction with our customers who are trying to make as much money as possible, just like we are. As that tension builds, the internal pressure mounts leading to angry co-workers, or worse, apathetic ones.
Leading a team in the midst of that is wild. Maintaining a positive, can-do attitude while dealing with incredible amounts of my own stress is one of the hardest things I’ve had to do in my career. Eighteen months into this job, I’m getting numb to it. But then again, I’m not. I still feel the effects of the stress, physically and mentally. I’ve had more migraines in the past year than ever before. More stomachaches. More sleepless nights, and more nightmares. More lightheadedness and dizziness, likely due to high blood pressure than ever before. I’ve gained weight, I’ve lost stamina. My workouts are harder to get through, and my body doesn’t recover as quickly as it used to. I feel like I’ve aged five years in the past 18 months. And that’s just the physical toll.
The mental toll has been just as hard. The first few months were fine – I had enough adrenaline to make it through the majority of the big changes relatively unscathed. But starting around the time that Uri hit, I’ve been struggling with mild to moderate depression. It comes and goes depending on the week (or day), and I’ve struggled enough with depression in the past that I recognized it almost from the start. I knew I needed to keep an eye on things, but it recently got to the point that Allison started to notice it. Far off stares at the dinner table. Fewer laughs and jokes with the kids. Worsening sleep habits. Lack of attention and forgetting to do the simplest of tasks within seconds of saying I’d do something. This prompted a number of long talks both with her and some of my closest friends.
As I sat down to write this, I knew I hadn’t processed the events of the past year and a half. There hasn’t been time. And when there has been time, I’ve filled it with to-do lists, studying, house projects, sleep, or spending time with family. All good things, but none of them were helping alleviate any of the mounting pressure. To do that, I needed to write this all out. Reading back through it, yeah, I can see how difficult it’s been. I can see that super-human effort has been put in, and not enough has gone into refilling my tank. I’ve been trying to bull-rush my way through this. It worked for a good long while, but I’m getting the sense that I’m losing steam and need to change my approach.
Part of that change in approach includes opening up about the ramifications this past year has had on my physical and mental health. Part of it is how I approach my workload. No longer can I expect myself to be all things for all people. There’s not enough time in the day. So, I have to focus on the most important things, the mission critical things, and then be honest about what I cannot possibly get to. There’s humility in that, and I’m going to struggle with that. I hate asking for help. Hate it. I’m usually a pretty humble guy (that claim not withstanding), but I’m proud as hell when it comes to work. I don’t want to be the “weak link”, and I fear that admitting I’m overwhelmed will look bad on me. But I suppose it could be perceived that I’m smarter/wiser for understanding my limits and being honest about them versus accepting every last bit of work thrown my direction and ultimately failing to produce impossible results. So, I’ll be giving that a shot over the coming weeks.
For as difficult as this span of time has been, I can look back and recognize some incredible growth. Whether it’s professional growth – skills, talents, industry knowledge, wisdom – or personal, there’s been growth. I have to take time to recognize that, to celebrate that, to feel good about that. I tend to focus on what I’m NOT doing and gloss over the wins I’ve had. I can’t afford to do that much longer.
One of the wins (that I’m hesitant to claim): I’ve been a helluva leader in my group. Writing that makes me feel gross because I hate taking credit for things like that, but even I have to admit it’s true. And in a number of ways it’s true. Attitude, for instance. Despite what I might be thinking internally, I’ve led our group by having a positive outlook and attitude. Have I been faking it at times? Abso-f******-lutely. But more often than not, I’ve been a cheerleader of sorts to keep morale as high as it can be. Note: I’ve struggled with this recently, so I need to recommit to that, but on the whole I’ve done well since March 2020.
I mentioned morale. That’s another thing I’ve done well. When I’ve noticed morale dipping dangerously low, I’ve advocated for my peers and my team with management. It’s been uncomfortable and awkward at times, but someone had to do it and I stepped into that.
For the first time in my career, I finally get the sense that our generation has been through the type of event I used to read about in history books. Prior generations went through crazy times, whether World Wars or Great Depressions. Social unrest and political scandals. But now it’s our turn. We’ve seen some shit, and how we come out of this will determine how the story is told in history books written 60 years from now (I mean, assuming books are still written 60 years from now).
I’ll just speak to my experience for now. This has been – by far and without too much competition – the hardest stretch of my career. That includes driving forklifts in 105-degree heat with a college degree because I couldn’t find work elsewhere, being unemployed for a stretch of time, and working in a cubicle hellscape for 18 months. It’s been a grind every single day with not so much as a glimmer of hope that the storm will relent. And that’s for just a lowly supply chain grunt. I can’t imagine what our medical professionals have been through.
At the end of this, I wonder how I’ll be changed. How our generation will be changed. I remember reading the history books and feeling a sense of respect for the Americans who built our country, then the ones who protected it, and finally the ones who innovated it. What will our generation be known for? Maybe the ones who simply followed the script of past generations. The ones who just kept fighting. The ones who, like the generations before, never relented. Never gave in. Never folded.
Or, maybe not. Maybe we’ll be remembered for the endless back-biting, the petty name-calling, the political posturing and creating a toxic us-vs-them mentality around every single issue great and small. I certainly hope not. We’ve been through far too much together to let the petty nonsense ruin an otherwise herculean effort.
I had a realization that my kids probably won’t remember this time of their lives in great detail. My son, the five-year-old, will probably remember having to wear masks and may even remember playing “Anyone have Covid?” with his younger sister, a game in which he aims a fake temporal thermometer made of tinker toys at everyone’s forehead before writing down fake temperatures on his fake clipboard. But he’ll never remember the details of what his parents did to keep going. Maybe he’ll see this someday and be thankful to see his father’s perspective. Which is to say, it wasn’t perfect, and we lost sometimes more than we won, but we got through it in the end.
I have to hope that last part will hold true. ♦
Last thing – If you’re the praying type, lift up our friends down in Louisiana if you don’t mind. My company has a plant southwest of New Orleans, right where Hurricane Ida hit. Thousands of people are still without power, running water, etc. weeks after the storm, including many of my coworkers. It’s easy to forget about these sorts of things when we’re not in the middle of it, but there are so many people struggling right now.