How to Manage Disruptions in the Supply Chain

Dr. Cheryl McCloud | September 1, 2021 | Import Basics, Export Basics
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Chaos in the Supply Chain | Shipping SolutionsThe word chaos is a metaphor describing how individuals and groups in a system, through lack of knowledge and understanding, make decisions that create chaos. Chaos Theory explains how a change in one variable can affect systems, deliveries, destinations, product structures, origins and packing requirements, resulting in delays, increased costs, loss of goods, loss of customers and loss of quality.

Continuous major market disruptions since 2020 have evolved from linear to complex, and constant change has created chaos in decision making and management strategies. Managers of small- and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) are learning to lead in times of unpredictability, macrotrends, chaos, unstable and volatile markets, and destabilization.

The Chaos Theory Explained

While running weather simulations in 1961, Edward Lorenz stumbled upon the idea that a small disturbance can have enormous consequences, or “deterministic chaos,” giving rise to what was later named the Chaos Theory by James Yorke in 1975.

The Chaos Theory applied to supply chain management (SCM) helps explain how decision-making affects the supply chain and impacts strategy, costs and profitability. Supply chain managers at SMEs can use the Chaos Theory to identify disruptive conditions and understand why strategies that avoid chaos are critical for success.

The supply chain is a competitive weapon in the global arena. Through collaboration and partnerships, companies can achieve competitive gains and profitability.

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Avoid Overreaction

The Chaos Theory helps explain why strategic planning throughout the supply chain is critical. Unstable events in logistics systems and incorrect decisions based on wrong data lead to chaos. Companies that don’t control overreaction typically observe lower profitability. Supply chains are dynamic. They change, move and evolve. Leaders need strategies that are agile and allow for proportional reactions that minimize disruptions.

On a behavioral level, management overreaction, at times due to wrong information, creates mistrust, competitive leadership responses and unnecessary interventions, all leading to further chaos and elevated distrust in leadership. Trust is critical to avoid chaos and create efficiencies.

Value Collaboration

Supply chain managers who use collaboration expand knowledge, trust, communication, cooperation and the sharing of resources, which are all vital to SCM success. Managers who work in real partnership share skills and knowledge to improve their competitive advantage. Partners willing to learn, trust and communicate create collaborative cultures that are robust and vital to the supply chain. When communication fails, problems are created giving control over to competitors. While communication is critical, it is also integral for managers to know what to share, to whom, when, and how to ensure market control for competitive advantage.

Many supply chain managers of SMEs are forced to make decisions knowing they might have to modify direction at any point but that a strategy for an end destination is still absolute. Flexibility is absolute. Changing elements are creating a state of chaos at every level of operations, with more changes coming in the future. By 2030, it’s predicted that current business platforms will be completely different, developing technologies will be mainstream and the Internet of Things (IoT) will be at play.

How to Correct Chaos

These are a few ways organizational leaders can work to correct supply chain chaos:

  • Create short-term forecasts that allow for short-term decision making and focus on the customer.
  • Re-engineer models that are more flexible and adjust to changing environments. When changes within the complex supply chains occur, leaders should enforce controlled reactions. Proper forecasting should allow for system changes and use system efficiencies that add to profitability.
  • Organizational leaders who apply lean approaches with strong communication channels interchangeable with technological systems that provide high visibility increase performance and avoid issues that increase disruption and chaotic spikes in operations. Therefore, changing business models and the impact of digitalization require balanced decision making critical to managing chaos.

Other Challenges Facing SMEs

Leaders of SMEs face many difficult challenges globally to compete and remain in business, beyond chaos in the supply chain.

  • Access to finance: A lack of funding hinders growth and makes it difficult to expand operations.
  • Regional and state labor laws: Regulations can make it too expensive to hire.
  • Infrastructure: Poor geographic infrastructure, including roads and the ability to connect to technology, stifle development and performance.
  • Other challenges: Lack of management skills, technology, crime and competition make it harder for SMEs to survive.

Despite these challenges, SMEs around the world are finding innovative ways to do business. Family-owned businesses boost local economies, contribute to the reduction of unemployment, promote entrepreneurship and reduce poverty. By learning to make quicker decisions in changing market conditions, SMEs will have significant advantages. Leaders of SMEs must be open to innovation and continually work to stay ahead of change.


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