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June 4, 2020

Understanding Shortages During a Pandemic: Webinar Takes a Look at Supply Chain Issues During COVID-19

Toilet paper. Just the mention of the necessity has sent people scrambling to stock up during the pandemic. The manufacturers assured us all there was plenty to go around, but the aisles’ shelves remained empty. What happened? Issues in the supply chain happened.

To build community, learn from unique experiences, and enhance understanding of big ideas in a quick, accessible format, University College at the University of Denver hosted a Quick Connections series of webinars in May, including one dedicated to supply chain management during COVID-19.

“COVID-19 was simply a trigger as opposed to a cause,” said webinar speaker, Jack Buffington, professor of the practice and director of University College’s Supply Chain Management program. “It’s like lighting a match. The explosives were already there.”

Buffington’s talk drew a large online crowd to discuss what happened, and is still happening, with the supply chain due to the pandemic.

“This is truly a tipping point of how things are working,” Buffington said. “I’m going to tell you that some of what’s happening today has been building up, so you can’t blame it all on COVID.”

Supply chains today are fluid, which has enabled globalization that accounts for 60% of the world’s economy. For the past 10 years, all signs have shown a healthy world economy, but below the surface were foundational problems.

“There’s some underlying weaknesses that exist beyond the numbers. Some trigger was going to set off, and it just happened that this trigger was COVID. It was bound to happen,” Buffington said.

These large systems have been built on scale and cost, and they operate very efficiently when all is running smoothly. However, the worst thing that can happen to them is variation.

Enter COVID-19.

Disruption in both supply and demand across the world, like we saw with the pandemic, exacerbated by the long-tail nature of the system, caused unprecedented variation in the global supply chain. We are seeing the results of that today and will likely see it for the next year, said Buffington.

Going forward, it’s imperative that the supply chain be built for resiliency and scalability rather than capacity. Critical thinking and relationship-building skills, which the Supply Chain Management program at University College focuses on, will also be key to improving the systems.

“To solve this problem, we need to restore principles in supply chain,” Buffington said. “The focus is on short-term benefits. We’re the problem. We used to have these principles that focused on structured problem solving, engineering, math, things like that, and we don’t have these principles any more in the supply chain. That’s something we need to change.”

Buffington discussed the supply chain issues and solutions going forward in depth in the webinar, which you can access on the University College Vimeo page.

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