Can One Broken Bridge Cripple Your Supply Chain?

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That’s the question I’m asking after one very important, and now very broken, bridge in Northern Ontario failed to stand up to the rigors of a cold Canadian winter earlier this month. The newly built Nipigon River Bridge is a vital part of the Trans-Canada Highway system, the main roadway linking Canada’s east and west coasts. And on Sunday, January 10 it was completely shut down, bottlenecking traffic and forcing commercial shippers to detour several hours out of their way and through the United States since there’s no other way around. According to news reports parts of the bridge buckled, causing a grinding halt to the passing of the approximately 1,330 commercial vehicles, carrying more than $100 million worth of goods, that cross over it every single day. Thankfully, no one was injured when it happened. While one lane of the bridge has since re-opened, allowing at least a trickle of traffic to flow across, larger transport vehicles are still being detoured, and the cost to the businesses impacted by this logistics nightmare is mounting. One federal politician is calling it a “wake-up call” adding this is a serious choke point to the Canadian economy. I’d add it’s yet another reminder to businesses to make sure their supply chains can handle the unexpected. Would your supply chain be able to respond and recover quickly and efficiently if potentially hundreds of large shipments failed to reach their destinations on time? Is an unanticipated delay like this part of your supply chain risk plan? If not, perhaps it should be. I want to reiterate that this is not just a logistics issue. Yes, that’s where many will feel the pain most acutely, with the hassle of 12 hour delays and the paperwork and regulations required to suddenly transport a shipment into a foreign country. But for the unprepared business, this could have a sizable impact on overall supply chain efficiency. Say for example those trucks that are now looking like they’ll be days or weeks late were carrying materials critical to the manufacturing of your product, and they were coming from the single supplier you’ve contracted to provide it. Do you know what steps you need to take in order to remedy the situation and prevent lost productivity, an increase in late or unfulfilled orders, and the potential negative consequences to customer satisfaction ratings? First off, you’d need to actually know there’s a problem. That means ensuring end-to-end visibility of your entire supply chain, and having a system in place that alerts you when a potential issue arises. Then, you’d need to be able to act rapidly in determining the correct course of action. Is that trying to find another supplier? Or diverting a shipment on route to another of your manufacturing plants to this one? Maybe even delaying a larger order of finished goods so you can get the multiple smaller orders out on time. Depending on the nature of your business, the possible options are numerous. Running multiple what-if scenarios and in-depth analytics would help answer the question of what option is your best. From there, you’d need to collaborate with other team members, sharing the results of your findings and working jointly to approve and implement the solution. The faster these steps happen, the smaller the financial impact the company will face. If you have those types of capabilities and a strong risk management plan, your supply chain should really only experience a small hiccup. I’d imagine that for most companies, the delay and hassle this broken bridge have caused, while costly, won’t be crippling. This certainly isn’t a black swan situation, but it is a good reminder that the unexpected does happen, and as the Boy Scouts like to say it’s always best to be prepared.

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