How Is the Water?

There are these two young fish swimming along and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says “Morning, boys. How’s the water?” And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes “What the hell is water?” -David Foster Wallace

One summer night as we sat down for dinner I couldn’t help but notice my 5 year old daughters fixation with the salad my wife had prepared. Her eyes were locked on a picture perfect bowl of leafy greens, tomato wedges, and chopped green onions. I smiled as I looked at the same. This was no ordinary salad, this was the bounty of the garden my wife had planted in the backyard. This salad represented the reward of toil in the summer heat. This salad was a celebration of work and accomplishment.

“Hand me your plate”, my wife asked my daughter, and that’s when the meltdown started. Here we go again, I thought, as my blood pressure spiked and I hunkered down for a debate with a 5 year old. I went with my go-to question I’d learned from my parents: Do you want to skip dinner, go straight to bed, or do you want to eat your vegetables? My daughter’s reply stunned both my wife and I. “We can’t eat that, mommy pulled it out of the dirt! It didn’t come from the store!”, my daughter said in her cute 5 year old pouty voice.

I’m not sure if David Foster Wallace came up with that “little parable-ish” water story or if he’d acquired it elsewhere, but it captures both what my daughter struggled with and what our world is confronting as we reconcile the magic of things appearing on a store shelf, and how they got there.

Supply chains are the water all around us. It’s easy to visualize a farmer growing lettuce, plucking it out of the ground, dropping it on a truck, selling it to a wholesaler, who in turn sells it to a grocery store, where it’s pulled from a shelf and consumed by the consumer. It’s a myopic view of a simple supply chain, a view that doesn’t capture all the second order contributions from: accountants, truck drivers, sales, marketing, IT, and so much more. A view that doesn’t capture the cause and effect dynamics within all the moving parts.

Peter Sange recounts, in The Fifth Discipline, a meeting he’d had with an American automobile manufacturing executive who’d been struggling to compete with Toyota. Toyota had graciously invited the executive to come and tour a factory, and Peter sat down to talk with the executive when he returned. “What did you learn?” Peter asked, to which the executive answered: “They didn’t show us a real factory!”. The executive would go on to explain that he’d been managing factories for decades and any real factory is full of inventory, they had none. Toyota didn’t have the inventory this executive expected, they’d evolved to JIT, and it’s why this executive was struggling to compete - but just like water, this executive couldn’t see it, even when he was in it.

Turns out it’s difficult to teach supply chain cause and effect to executives and MIT students. Lucky for us Jay Wright Forrester (an MIT professor in the 50s and also the father of RAM and computer graphics) gamified supply chain management so he could teach “The Forrester Effect”, or what we now call The Bullwhip Effect. Forrester created The Beer Game, a simple game where each player is responsible for one component within a simple beer supply chain.

Go play the beer game, it could help us all better confront this pandemic. At the least, you’ll start to see the water all around you. With that little glimpse into supply chains it should be easy to reason: Most of the world shouldn’t be worried about toilet paper as we all try to navigate through the uncharted territory of an interconnected world that’s racing to slow the spread of a pandemic.

Flatten the curve” - genius! In one little graphic it’s easy to see, with no supply chain knowledge, that we have to protect the bottle neck, we have to protect our health care capacity - our pandemic response supply chain.

Still doesn’t make sense but you’re also bored in a world of distancing? It’s a great time to read The Goal and/or The Phoenix Project, two easily digestible and relatable books on how supply chain management impacts our lives. They both have companions that are possibly even better: Beyond the Goal and Beyond the Phoenix Project.

In God we trust, all others must bring data. -W. Edwards Deming

This is water… This is water.