Don't look here for the standard issue procurement and supply chain trends for 2021. You can read about the digitization of procurement, artificial intelligence, machine learning, cloud-based software solutions, autonomous vehicles, robotic process automation, evolving enterprise systems and dashboards driving supplier analytics in other areas of this publication.
We are fundamentally professionally and personally transformed because of our COVID-19 pandemic experiences. In an era of increasing technology in our profession, we have actually become more thoughtful and understanding in our supplier relationships. Perhaps we have regained a portion of our humanity.
And it is humanity that colors my procurement trends for 2021.
A human resources manager once told me that in his view, everyone came to work carrying a bag of rocks. Those rocks were metaphors for financial pressures, sickness and health problems, parent or childcare issues, car repairs or just everyday mundane aches and pains. He felt it was his responsibility to lighten the load as much as possible. His empathy for employees was almost as important as his problem-solving skills.
While we might have empathy for our colleagues holding their share of rocks, empathy for suppliers was often in short supply. Accepting supplier excuses was a sign of weakness and a buyer's alleged naiveté was often questioned and even mocked. If a supplier's performance wasn't up to snuff, fix the problems or move on to a new supplier was the standard and unemotional mantra.
But now we have a fresh level of empathy for suppliers who experience the same virus-related issues that we do. Many employees and their families are sick, in quarantine, or worse. Local regulations and lockdowns impact operations. Carriers are overwhelmed, slowing deliveries. One inadvertent virus exposure can shut down a product line or a company, immediately disrupting supply. And the same can happen to our companies … in an instant.
"You're on mute" is now met with a smile and not an embarrassed grimace. Video calls are here to stay. At this point we've overcome the connection issues, optimized our cameras to look younger, thinner and smarter, found our unique backgrounds and figured out how to properly dress for our virtual meetings. In fact, calls without video are increasingly unfulfilling and infrequent.
Video calls with suppliers and colleagues improve communication, enhance relationships and create a human presence that was in danger of being fully digitized. Using this ubiquitous technology for our important daily interactions makes us that much more personable and approachable. And notice how we no longer apologize for a child or pet suddenly appearing on a video call? "Tell me about your dog" is an interesting opening gambit in a tense negotiation.
During this pandemic, small business, including HUB suppliers, have taken it on the chin. Decreased demand, operational and supply chain problems and lack of access to pandemic related financial assistance have forced many small businesses to barely hang on or close their doors for good.
Many of us are supporting local restaurants with regular take-out orders. Use that same compassion to support the small business in your community. A decent sized order for maintenance, repair and operation supplies might not mean much to a mega supplier, but it may just be the lifeline a local company needs to stay in business. Strongly suggest that your major tier 1 suppliers do the same, as upstream small business supply chain disruptions will roll down to your company at some point.
But what of the "low cost at all costs" mentality that resides in the C-suite at far too many companies? The protection of the local and regional economy, and the reduction of supply chain risk, more than makes up for any potential increase in price. "How can I support your business?" is music to the ears of a local small business owner.
Many consumers received an education about constraints and shortages in the supply chain when they tried to buy toilet paper, flour and disinfectant wipes last spring. Supply chain management became the cause célèbre and brought our profession into the daylight during the early days of the pandemic.
A basic understanding of the supply chain transfers easily from the supermarket aisle to the workplace, creating a deeper understanding of the strengths and challenges of our profession.
This newfound exposure is a great opportunity to take a permanent leadership role within our companies. Managing and providing workarounds for product shortages, supply chain constraints and supplier challenges, validate and reinforce contributions to the success of our companies. Become the voice and the conscious of the supply chain as our companies work through the next stage of the pandemic.
There is no doubt technology will continue its inexorable transformation of procurement and supply chain management during 2021. But it will be tempered with a large dose of kindness, compassion, patience and understanding, important traits that will hopefully stick around for a while.
This story was first published in our weekly newsletter, Supply Chain Dive: Procurement. Sign up here.