We may have crested the wave of COVID-19 that has already taken more than 116,000 lives (count yesterday), across the U.S., but we are far from out of the woods. An insidious problem continues to threaten our ability to combat future pandemics.

I’m talking about America’s sluggish and antiquated supply chain.

At the height of the pandemic in March and April, nurses in New York were working without adequate personal protection equipment while California warehouses brimmed with supplies — and mask production lines in Fort Worth sat idle.

The Department of Health and Human Services shipped ventilators to Florida in droves while the Northeast desperately needed them.

The problem wasn’t a lack of equipment.

America had plenty of equipment. But we didn’t know where it was located — or how to get the supplies where they needed to be. As a result, we missed the opportunity to slow the outbreak and protect patients and our first responders. Lives were needlessly lost — because of supply chain inefficiency.

“The lack of information transparency is the single biggest impediment to the global supply chain,” notes Dr. Nick Vyas, Executive Director of the Marshall Center for Global Supply Chain Management at the University of Southern California. “It costs us billions of dollars each year and significantly impacts the environment.”

I’ve been investing in people who move goods throughout the world for nearly 30 years.

Moving goods across the globe is a complex ballet that normally has about as much sex appeal to most people as discussing fertilizer brands. Why is that? The best way I can explain it to you is that, until now, a breakdown in the supply chain meant your plaid shirt arrived a week late. Now, this complex system breakdown could mean, unfortunately, that your Uncle Harry dies.

America’s supply chain is the nervous system of our economy.

At present, the supply chain of our nation is a chaotic mess of competing companies speaking in their own peculiar codes. There are no data standards, common language, or transparency among users. It would be as if we asked a hundred emergency responders to work together at a disaster scene, but no one used the same radiofrequency.

Guess how that would turn out?

We lead the world in the technological capability to track goods and get them into the right hands — a process called Geospatial Intelligence. All we need is congressional willpower to streamline the data.

There are five steps to streamline the data to track goods.

  • First — The United States needs to establish a secure “data highway,” so that users can see where things are, and how they’re moving through the system.
  • Second — Congress needs to adopt data standards so everyone in the supply chain speaks the same language.
  • Third — Our country needs to mandate registration of certain critical assets, so we can reposition them quickly in a crisis.
  • Fourth — We must develop a tracking system to identify where new outbreaks or crises occur.
  • Fifth — We need to utilize technology to measure and track how things are moving within the system so as to minimize impedances and to maximize flow.

Streamlining the supply chain requires a coordinated effort among businesses as well as at the federal level.

Think of the way the airlines operate. There are standards and a common language that enables every carrier to see the entire system in real-time.

Supply chain modernization would be nowhere near as costly or require as much congressional resolve. Yet, the results would provide big dividends to our country, especially in times of disaster. Ambivalence, rather than opposition, has been the key impediment to modernization until now.

We must have enough courage to change our ambivalence.

Without a user-friendly data highway and standard information protocols, we are doomed to a repeat of the chaos and needless suffering we experienced during the COVID-19 crisis.

China knows this is a weakness of ours — as do many other countries.

If you are working in the supply chain industry — you can see that China is working hard, and quickly, to launch their own data highway for the rest of us to use.

Haven’t we learned that information is power? Haven’t we seen that other countries want to control that power — and us?

If Congress doesn’t work to get U.S. companies to adopt a common, universal system, we will lose information transparency, and we will hand over control to those system architects whose motives may be self-serving.

Until now, our supply chain has been taken for granted. The pandemic has shown us the folly of our indifference. Now it’s time for Congress and industry to address this need.

Supply chain modernization may not sound like a sexy topic, but it gets pretty vital pretty fast when lives are at stake. Let’s work together now to innovate the supply chain learning from repeating the tragedy we’ve just witnessed.

Let’s work quickly and efficiently to create a better world with available resources for all.


Image Credit: Korhan Erdol; Pexels

Jonathan Rosenthal

Jonathan Rosenthal is the CEO of Saybrook Management, a private investment firm dedicated to investing in innovative logistics solutions. Having deployed, operated, or managed more than $200 billion in assets across 100+ platform companies, Saybrook is committed to supporting disruptive technologies and infrastructure that reduce systemic friction resulting in increased asset utilization and a reduction in environmental impacts. Rosenthal is a nationally recognized expert in modernization of the U.S. freight system and was appointed by the U.S. Department of Transportation to the Marine Transportation System National Advisory Committee, and The Los Angeles Harbor Sustainable Freight Advisory Committee. In 2018 Rosenthal was appointed by Secretary Ross to the Commerce Department’s Supply Chain Competitiveness Board, and Chairman of its Finance and Infrastructure Sub-committee. He is a regular lecturer about disruption and innovation at Harvard, USC, University of Chicago, and a regular author on the subject.