I’m worn out. Exhausted. Lacking enough energy – and time – to accomplish everything that needs to be completed by the end of each day. I’ve been living that day-to-day, moment-to-moment existence for at least the past 18 months.
Hi, I’m Sam, and I work in supply chain.
It seems to me that the term “supply chain” has made it into the average person’s vocabulary only within the past year or two, which is to say that by now everyone has heard about the world’s broken supply chains and, more importantly, understands what that means. 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, though, we realized that wasn’t really the case. Our customers’ demand had actually picked up from April. Unfortunately, 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 October 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 rail car of butyl acrylate from Baytown, Texas to Chicago, Illinois will take an average of about 14 days. A tank truck can make that trip in two days. So, of course, every company desperately 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. 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 pros reading this are likely screaming at the fact that I haven’t even mentioned the ever-growing issues at our ports. I just can’t go there, it’s too painful. The supply chain has been stretched to the point of snapping. As has the morale of just about every supply chain professional I know.
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 have more work on our desks than we have available capacity. The further behind we each get individually contributes to us falling more behind collectively.
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.
Leading a team in the midst of all this has been a wild experience. 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 my wife 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. I imagine most supply chain professionals are in the same place.
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.
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).
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.
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.