Adolescence, The Middle Class and Your On-Time Delivery

Nothing lasts. Not adolescence, the middle class and your on-time delivery

Supply Chain Youth
••• Supply Chain Youth. Getty Images

It's misguided to think that just because a thing is a thing and has been a thing for some period of time, that this thing is meant to last.  Even Johnny Rzeznik of the Goo-Goo Dolls knows that "…everything's meant to be broken…" So while you might be a parent and might be lamenting that your kid's adolescence seems excruciatingly painful (for everyone involved) and interminable, it will inevitably end.

And, even for the things that have been around and that you want to last, you can't take for granted that those things will be around forever.

For instance, let's say that your company has been nailing your customers' on-time delivery. And that you've been running 100% on-time delivery for weeks or months or years. Well, unless you're committed not just to maintaining the 100% on-time delivery but taking the specific actions required to make sure that your unblemished record continues to happen, your on-time delivery could vanish as quickly as your kid's acne. One day, your customers are giving you a plaque commemorating your spotless delivery record and the next, your daughter's buying you a beer and telling you that she's moving to the other side of the country to take a job with a tech startup.

That's how fast it can change. 

If you're not committed to keeping a thing around - it will drift toward its natural state of entropy.

Families break apart, supply chains sub-optimize and the middle-class fractures.

There's no hard and fast date as to when the American middle class was born.  It can be argued that the American middle class arose during the Roaring 1920's.  Prior to the Roaring 1920's, the majority of America's working class were poor.

Then, with the Treaty of Versailles and the close of World War One, America transitioned to a robust, consumer economy.  The 1920's saw the introduction of the mass-produced motor car and the explosion of jazz music and kick off of a professional sports league that would one day become the National Football League (but in 1920 was founded as the American Professional Football Association and included 14 teams like the Akron Pros, Canton Bulldogs, Dayton Triangles and Decatur Staleys).  And then - voila! - welcome to the American middle class.

The Crash of 1929 and the resulting Great Depression caused a setback for the middle class.  But with the GI Bill and the return of our troops from Europe and Asia after World War Two, the middle class became - what many felt was permanent - woven into the fabric of Americana.  The middle-class bargain - that if you work hard, you have a chance to get ahead - never felt more achievable.

But now, less than a hundred years on - there are whispers that the middle class is in danger of disappearing. The possibility that the American middle class might vanish has elicited screams of anguish from those who thought its existence was as indelible as the venerable granite face of New Hampshire's Old Man of the Mountain - a series of jagged cliff faces in the White Mountains that looked like a human face in profile and which was carved by glaciers sometime between 6,000 years and 17,000 years B.C.

The Old Man of the Mountain was so highly regarded that New Hampshire put its image on the official New Hampshire statehood twenty-five cent piece. Daniel Webster and Nathaniel Hawthorne both wrote about the Old Man of the Mountain. And then, with no one watching in the middle of the night, the Old Man of the Mountain collapsed into rubble in 2003. Turns out it wasn't an old man after all, but more like the adolescence of a mountain face that was destined to end, to transition into something different.

If the American middle class disappears within the next decade or so, it will have lasted about a hundred years.  Not only would that barely register in the annals of history - but it wouldn't have lasted as long as the Chinese Liao Dynasty (10th Century to 12th Century) or the pointed-toe shoes fad of the European Middle Ages (12th Century to 14th Century).

And while the Liao family probably mourned the passing of their dynasty and European noblemen lamented they could no longer wear extended phallic symbols on their feet - we barely remember them today.

Is that's what's destined to become of the American middle class? Is it destined to become an unread footnote in a future history text?

That depends on whether you view the American middle class as you would your kid's adolescence - something with a finite lifespan. Or do you view the American middle class as you would your company's on-time delivery performance?

With on-time delivery, you have control over whether your performance continues or has a finite lifespan.  Chances are you achieved your 100% on-time delivery by communicating with your customers and understanding their demand, oftentimes better than even they understood it. Robust demand management is a key element of customer satisfaction.

But even more than that, you understood that your company doesn't have just one lead time to contend with. You have many lead times. You have the time it takes you to deliver an order to a customer. You have the time it takes for you to receive products from your own suppliers - and then inspect them, do any value added manufacturing to those products and then put them to stock. You have the time it takes your own suppliers to ship those products to you (whether that's across an ocean or through the skies or over land). And you have the time it takes for your suppliers to make your products, including the lead times it takes them to acquire their components and raw materials.

That's a lot of lead times to manage. And, yes, because you've achieved 100% on-time delivery, you have managed them all.

And on top of that, you've figured out how to maintain 100% inventory accuracy. That's right. How can you ship a customer what it wants, if you don't know if you have it on hand?  100% inventory accuracy means that you've got a viable inventory system - whether that's a multi-million dollar ERP system, an Excel spreadsheet or a yellow legal pad tacked to your stock room's door.  As long as the information in your inventory control system matches the actual inventory you have on hand, you're rocking 100% inventory accuracy.

Now that you've got all the pieces in place and you've achieved 100% on-time delivery, it's time to kick back and let the process run itself, right? I mean, to have the processes in place to keep your performance moving along - that's the goal.

But beware.  Just like the American middle class, your on-time delivery can be besieged by threats.

A massive recession can send millions of middle-class Americans to the unemployment lines. And a key supplier who goes out of business can jeopardize your ability to supply your customers. I don't know enough to advise on how to avoid recessions (and I presume nobody really does or we wouldn't have them) but with your suppliers, it's important to do regular supplier relationship management checkups.  When was the last time you checked the credit rating, financial statement of DUNs reports of your existing suppliers?  It's common to vet those things when first onboarding a supplier, but it's equally as important to do it again very couple years or so.

A widening wealth gap can drive more middle-class families into poverty. And the loss of inventory control can cause you to miss deliveries to your customers. Once again, I have no solutions regarding how to close the wealth gap in the United States. But the solution might be easier to find if not for all the shouting, name-calling and lack of detailed nuance by those whose jobs it is - is to find that solution.  Solving inventory control concerns is easier.  Conducting physical inventories and regular cycle counts are all you really need to do - and all that takes is hard work and cooperation across people who may not want to get along, but realize that for the greater good they need to roll up their sleeves and count what they have, what matters most.

And maybe that's all it will really take to save the American middle class.