COVID-19 is perhaps the biggest crisis the world has seen, certainly the biggest pandemic since the Spanish Flu of 1918. It has shaped not just our healthcare systems but also our economy, politics and culture. Doorstep delivery of commodities is now not just a convenience but an essential service helping keep the world safe and yet, empowering people to lead their lives without having to make hard choices.
Their experience is not only defined by the delivery associates who deliver their parcels at home, but also by an often-hidden, complex network that ensures the right products are shipped and transported in the most efficient way possible and they reach the customers on time. The transportation network (colloquially called the ‘middle-mile’) is multi-modal i.e. it is a combination of trucks, planes, trains and even ships that carry freight from suppliers and storage hubs to distribution nodes from where delivery associates take them to customer’s homes.
The resilience of this network has a direct impact on the functioning of any supply chain, more so during times of constraint. The networked nature of the middle mile results in the need for every stakeholder in the network to be flexible and adaptable. Failure at a single point can have a cascading effect up and down the chain. Like in any complex system, the biggest determinant of operational delivery remains leadership, an outcome of singularity of decision making, guided by utmost empathy for people. It’s therefore heartening to note that the past four months have seen an abundance of process and technology innovation, people-centric thinking and leadership across the industry in India.
Roadblocks along the way The unprecedented increase in the reliance on ecommerce by consumers to access essentials called for quick revaluations and operational changes in the transportation network. With storage hubs and distribution centres scattered across the country, regular flow of freight across states was critical to business as well as in ensuring essential deliveries to consumers.
The industry had to steer through several challenges, such as trucking supply constraints and reduced manpower, amid the evolving lockdown landscape. The reduction in passenger flights dramatically reduced air cargo capacity too. With the changing restrictions in movement, it was critical to gauge timelines for transportation of shipment and eventually ensure timely deliveries to the consumers. Thousands of the small and medium businesses and drivers within the network were faced with business uncertainties, limited cash flow and a very real fear for their safety and their family’s well-being.
Innovation, collaboration and technology intervention
While solving the myriad of operational challenges, it’s important to leverage innovation-led strategies and collaborations with multiple stakeholders, including government bodies and other industry players who have trimmed work requirement for their workforce and ancillary businesses. A significant innovation, for instance, to combat trucking supply constraints in this time of crisis has been the regularisation of freight movement by leveraging the reach and scale of the Indian Railways through special parcel train services, as well as DGCA-approved Cargo On Seats (CoS) that served as a competitive alternative. From CoS, where goods were strapped to passenger seats, to attaching goods wagons to Covid special superfast trains, the authorities and industry came together to co-create innovative solutions. Agile innovation was complemented by rapid technology adoption to ensure operational continuity.
For instance, elevating digital capabilities to track freight in transit through dynamic routing helps in calculating delivery timelines. This also provide visibility and help in speedy resolutions for the on-the-road challenges. Improved estimation of timelines help set realistic delivery promises to the customers and minimise disruptions in customer relationships.
Lead with empathy | Safety first During difficult times, you don’t sit at home/office and tell your team what to do, you roll up your sleeves and be on ground with them. Health and safety of the drivers, partners and other stakeholders sustaining the network is non-negotiable and nothing else can comfort them but empathetic leadership. Ensuring preventive measures such as regular temperature checks, provision of personal protective equipment, easy access to e-platforms for safety awareness guidelines and enabling of digital transactions, are quintessential in safeguarding that their safety is never compromised.
Technology was used in this area as well: To optimise assets such as truck runtime, enhance productivity through automation, and to enable next-day clearing of invoices so people can manage their cash-flow better. Physical Security Information Management (PSIM) system, which is a surveilling solution, helps in real-time monitoring of safety protocols in place. Provision of paperless and electronic invoicing for fuelling and loading/unloading ensure social distancing and reduce physical handling
While ensuring their safety, it is critical to ensure their financial well-being, while battling contingencies through insurance covers and access to support funds. Transportation and logistics are stressful businesses across levels; taking a step back from KPIs defined pre-COVID and developing new methods of assessment in line with the changing times also go a long way in ensuring mental well-being.
The road ahead At a time of uncertainty, leadership is tasked with the responsibility of transforming operational challenges in the supply chain into opportunities. An effective leadership in the present time must be armed with increased on-ground awareness, an open line of feedback with the stakeholders, a knack to solve problems with agility and a will to take conscious decisions to safeguard the well-being of the people in the network. It’s very important for businesses and government to collaborate and bring our most effective solutions for the larger good.
Ultimately, it is people that form the backbone of any businesses; progressive steps to optimise the network today could help build stronger partnerships that will lay the pillars of sustainable businesses for the future.
The writer is Director of Amazon Transportation, Amazon India
The thoughts and opinions shared here are of the author.
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