It was late in the day when I got the call. Our products had been air-freighted to O'Hare International Airport three weeks ago, but our truckers couldn't pick them up. The airport was so backed up that the line was longer than a trucker's eight-hour shift. With ports congested, and now air shipments severely delayed, there seemed to be no way to get our products to market. Oh, and just to add a little drama: Christmas shopping season was  just a few weeks away, and we were counting on a holiday surge to make our year.

As a freelance COO with over 15 years experience in supply chain management, I work with teams across the country to overcome  supply chain challenges. Because I work with several companies simultaneously, I see patterns across supply chains in a myriad of industries. While many of the past year's historic disruptions are outside of the control of individual firms, don't assume you are helpless. A few smart companies are actually succeeding despite one of the worst supply chain logjams in memory. Here are the mantras that are getting them through.

Expect the unexpected. 

As supply chain professionals, we need to be prepared for the unexpected. After all, the best time to fix a problem is before it happens. I constantly work with my teams on scenario planning (What if our demand increases three-fold? Where will our bottlenecks be? What if our lead times double? How quickly could we recover, and what would we do?).  

In conducting a scenario plan at a consumer products company where I was the interim COO, our supply chain manager discovered a component that would be very short if our demand were to increase exponentially (which we hoped would happen, but had no proof that it would). We explored our options to reduce the potential shortage, the best one being to increase our purchases of components with long lead times. We then analyzed the cost of implementing the component buys, and because many of the components were relatively inexpensive, we decided that the total increase in cost was worth it. It was insurance--and it paid off.

Scenario planning reduces the risks of being caught off guard. And while it might seem strange to think about potential problems when very real ones are looming, scenario planning can mitigate problems before they arise, thus reducing the number of battles your team has to fight at once.

Talk to your suppliers. And their suppliers. And their suppliers. 

Suppliers don't like to share who their suppliers are, for fear that information will be used against them. But companies who push for total supply chain collaboration have a much better chance of beating the Great Gridlock.

Working with a supply chain manager at the same consumer products company, we learned that a certain consumer chip used in one of our products was going to be obsolete because the OEM (original equipment manufacturer) was switching to automobile chips. In the next year they would stop producing our chip altogether. We discovered this only because we pushed to have a call with our supplier, their supplier, and their supplier, the OEM (three levels down). All parties were on the call at the same time and we were able to gain information in that one hour call that would have taken months to trickle up to us.  

It's no longer enough to work directly with your suppliers; communication with sub-tier suppliers is paramount. Better information leads to better decision making, and better information comes from collaboration all the way down the chain. But having information is useless unless it's acted upon. In the case of the chip shortage mentioned above, the organization quickly moved to promote products that didn't contain this chip to buy us time to devise a solution. Organizations that adapt to feedback from their supply chain teams, and adjust business plans accordingly, have a better chance of succeeding in today's Great Gridlock. Which brings me to my next mantra.

Tear down those silos. 

Supply chain is no longer an "oops" problem. It's a company's problem. If a product can't get to the consumer, revenue will fall. Everyone suffers. That's why companies that take a cross-functional approach to supply chain management are more successful. In the case of the product facing a chip shortage, it wasn't just enough to know about it and act on it in operations. We had to mobilize other departments. We had to ensure that marketing wasn't actively promoting a product that was about to be out of stock. We needed engineering to redesign the board so it no longer needed the chip that was going to be obsolete. Cross-functional teamwork allowed us to mitigate the problem before it crippled production.  

At another firm in which I was the COO, we held weekly cross-functional meetings to review inventory shortages and excesses, and to enlist other departments' help when needed. (Marketing, can we run a campaign on this product? Sales, do you think you can get Walmart to buy that product?) By working across departments, you increase the number of troops to fight supply chain snags. Instead of going to battle with just one battalion, you enlist an army.

Forget everything you were taught about inventory management. 

I think it's safe to assume that I am more passionate about inventory efficiency (high inventory turns, negative cash-to-cash cycles, etc.) than 99 percent of the population. Early in my career I implemented just-in-time (JIT) and demand flow technology (DFT) systems of replenishment. I even utilized a first-in-first-out system in my kitchen pantry. (And I recognize you need to be pretty into inventory optimization to even know what half those things mean.)  But today it's important to recognize that the rules have changed. Inventory is your friend.

At the consumer products company, thanks to some additional scenario planning and trend analysis, we took a risk and decided to increase our lead times and buffer stock--thus building up our inventories. These tactics are sacrilege for any self-respecting supply chain professional, yet by taking such an unconventional approach, during the height of Covid we maintained a 97 percent fill rate and could get products into large box retailers better than our competition. Strategic inventory proved to be a competitive advantage.

Which brings me back to the air-freight crisis at O'Hare. That could have been a disaster, but the steps outlined above got us through. Thanks to scenario planning and some unconventional thinking, we had increased our lead times, so a three-week shipping delay left us short for only a few days. We partnered with several layers in the supply chain to coordinate a pick-up schedule for the trucks. We kept our marketing and sales teams abreast of the situation, and they stopped actively promoting the product that was stuck at O'Hare. In the end, we got the product to our customers in time for the holidays and made our revenue for the year. Conventional thinking would not have gotten us there. These four mantras did.