In the recent winter disruption, the message from the government was that only essential travel should be made. How do people and businesses know whether their travel is essential to society?
Logisticians plan resilience in supply chains so that their systems can adapt during times of disruption. This includes identifying who is travelling and what travel is essential during severe winter weather.
People often think of doctors and nurses who need to get to work to support critical emergency services. These services often come under pressure first during disruption. However, the health care workers cannot do their jobs if other parts of the system fail. A worker at a warehouse might be needed to supply essential parts to repair a boiler or electricity supplies. The worker might need child care to be able to do their job.
Resilience planning is for all organisations. For many workers the best solution in the resilience plan will be to stay at home, but they need to know from their employers, as part of their employment conditions, the terms under which they will and will not be paid.
For some companies, a few days of lost production can wipe out annual profits and lead to the collapse of the business, whilst for others activities can be rescheduled more easily.
Professor Alan McKinnon, former president of the Chartered Institute of Logistics and Transport (CILT), has found that over the last decade fuel supply, postal services and banking systems have become less sensitive to disruption.
Improved fuel efficiency of lorries and the growth of online services help the economy to keep going longer without supplies. However, even these big social changes only buy a few more hours or days before production shuts down and supermarket shelves run dry.
His work has shown that if lorries cannot get through by the second day of disruption, supermarket shelves will be empty of perishable goods like bread, milk and eggs and there needs to be milk disposal on farms. However, alternative supply chains for food can emerge quickly, such as the rapid growth of farmer’s markets.
If the costs of occasional disruption are factored into business plans, government and businesses often find that paying more attention to their links with local suppliers and customers reaps wider benefits.Food, energy, and products sourced locally some of the time helps to build resilience into the economy to be able to cope during disruption. When everything is running smoothly it is easy to forget to plan for resilience, but the recent disruption is a wake-up call to check that all staff, supplies and customers understand what they can expect.
During the recent winter disruption First Minister Nicola Sturgeon explained to parliament that she was concerned that not everyone understood what was essential. An important response to that concern must be to develop the required level of understanding.
Even key public sector staff such as some NHS workers did not know whether they should try to travel during the red weather warning. This was only the second red weather warning since the current system was introduced in 2011, revealing some gaps in the planned response that need to be addressed.
Decisions about appropriate action cannot all be made top down or set out in detail within general policies. By its nature, disruption is uncertain and unpredictable. A resilience plan recognises the need for distributed management decisions and clear accountability covering all activities that could be regarded as essential.
CILT and other organisations will seek to work more closely with its members and the government to ensure that everyone in the industry understands their role. Even publicly controlled bus and rail operators were unclear about what was expected of them during the red warning and faced criticism when passengers were left stranded.
Supply chains demand delivery within hours to keep the country working so some lorries need to be on the road, even in the severest of weather.
Companies also work closely together to share loads so the branding on the side of the lorry does not necessarily imply that it is not carrying essential parts and supplies.
By sharing knowledge more openly about how supplies are organised to enable collaborative planning for resilience, all organisations should become better able to keep going during disruption.
Resilience takes time to build in. For example, to ensure that a minimum proportion of the workforce lives within walking distance of work requires a recruitment and retention strategy to support employees with housing and financial incentives when they join the workforce or move home.
Local sources of food, water, power and goods may not always be the cheapest but policies for diversity have unintended benefits in supporting innovation and equity.
Now is time to use the recent heavy snow as a reminder to plan for the next ‘weather event’.
Derek Halden, Chartered Institute of Logistics and Transport, Scottish Region.