In a soon-to-be-published paper a multinational academic team that was in Japan at the time of the earthquake-and-tsunami credits “a handful of trucking/distribution companies” for saving thousands of lives. “Without their timely intervention, the situation in Tohoku would have taken the path of Haiti, where the lack of help from the local business class contributed to a crisis of huge proportions.”
Pause over this finding for just a moment: Without action by five or six key players in the supply chain, a major swath of the third largest economy in the world would have “taken the path of Haiti.”
The academic specialists in transportation, urban management, and civil engineering conclude the Japanese firms took the initiative because they “were in a position to know that the private sector supply chains had been severely disrupted, and that that the public sector was not ready to fill the gap.” (my italics)
Based on my own observations, in the first week after the earthquake-and-tsunami the Japanese government was not fully aware of its incapacity to fill the gap. During the first five to six days, the government’s perimeter control was actually suppressing supply chain resilience. A first step in restoring essential services to survivors was persuading the government they were incapable of doing so and to get out of the way.
This week Tesco, the British — but international — grocery opened a new distribution center in Bangkok supplementing two existing DCs that have been impacted by the massive and ongoing floods. This new site will focus on necessities such as water, instant noodles, and canned fish, importing these and other commodities from Malaysia, Vietnam, China, and elsewhere. Since the flooding began Tesco has increased its distribution capacity in Thailand by about 40 percent.
Friends in Thailand complain the government’s response to the epic flooding has been totally incompetent. A Bangkok expat who happened to be Japan during the earthquake-and-tsunami adds, “But the incompetence is so complete the government at least does not get in the way.”
Last week I was in a meeting with a senior officer of a major US food distribution company. He shared one story after another from the Northridge earthquake, to wildfires in Southern California, to Katrina and more where grocery wholesalers and retailers were ready with product and transport, but were kept away… just as in Japan.
A factoid: the tonnage of food shipped into the typical US metropolitan census area each week exceeds what the US military shipped into Afghanistan during the first year of the war. The US military’s effort is considered a marvel of modern logistics. But even the US military does not have the logistics capability to fill the food, pharma, and other essential needs of a major urban area in case of a catastrophe.
Recognizing the challenge there are increasing efforts to facilitate private-public collaboration in advance of a catastrophe. The FEMA Private Sector Office is hosting meetings, brokering relationships and pushing each state to establish effective public-private partnerships. So far twenty-two states are in the process of doing so.
Over the last few years several cities (such as Los Angeles) regions (such as the Bay Area) or states (such as New Jersey) have established Business Operations Centers (BOCs) or Business Emergency Operations Centers (BEOCs) or even Virtual Business Operations Center (VBOCs) to facilitate collaboration during emergencies, disasters, and catastrophes.
In some places a BOC is little more than some business seats in the government’s Emergency Operations Center. Several BOCs involve exchanging information and facilitating resource management. Only a few seem to include common risk assessments, joint training and private-public exercises.
Yesterday (and continuing today) I am at a national conference focusing on the private-public interface in emergencies and establishing BOCs. Some fly-on-the-wall impressions:
- Lots of good will all around, reflecting a very practical sense of private-public mutual dependence.
- Everyone recognizes that personal trust-building is essential and — given American mobility — not entirely sufficient.
- The common value proposition seems to be information sharing for situational awareness and, if possible, situational analysis.
- Lots of different technological approaches to achieving information sharing, situational awareness, and more. Reminds me of the online learning market before BlackBoard emerged as the dominant player. At some point there will be — needs to be — convergence.
- Most innovative, forward-leaning solutions seem to involve some sort of mediator between public and private sectors, such as an educational institution or a not-for-profit operating as host, active party, or actual entity. This seems to defuse a variety of legal, political, and perhaps command-and-control issues.
- There is an implicit expectation by the public sector involved that when push comes to shove they are in charge. This is unchallenged by private sector because they know when push comes to shove they will do (or not do) what seems best to them at the time.
In many respects it is amazing this kind of explicit and sustained private-public collaboration is such a recent phenomenon.
A leader of one the BOC’s reported that in his major city the private sector has welcomed the invitation to be involved and quickly taken the initiative to be more involved.
“They seem to think disasters are recurring faster and faster and getting bigger and bad-er. They are trying to get ahead of the wave,” he explained.