Lessons from the Recession

What the Boulder Taught Me

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A few years ago I was fortunate to be able to climb Mount Rainier in Washington with a group led by Rainier Mountaineering, Inc. (RMI, www.rmiguides.com), a guide service that takes flatlanders like myself up the 14,411-feet peak. After summiting on a clear July day, our group descended back down Disappointment Cleaver, a steep section that at the time was a sketchy mix of mostly loose dirt and rock.

As we reached the foot of the Cleaver, our group froze in place as a boulder came rolling quickly and erratically down the hill towards our climbers. We were completely exposed, with no place to run and nowhere to hide, and we watched the rock bounce and ricochet down the mountain, holding our breath as it rolled within five or ten yards past our lead climber. After an instant, we all started breathing again and continued without incident down the mountain. Summit bagged. Everyone lived to tell the tale.

I bring this up because last year around this time, watching the financial crisis unfold, I was reminded of that same sense of exposure. Back in Q4 of 2008, as the Dow plummeted and financial markets tottered, the feeling of having no place to run and nowhere to hide was palpable for anyone watching the economic boulder bearing down on us. Would the recession rock hit my company? My family? We all held our breath...

Now, as the economy regains upward momentum, many of us have likely started breathing again, counting our blessings that we've lived to tell the tale of how we "survived" the Great Recession of 2007-2009. But as this year winds to a close, I still find myself reflecting on boulders, economic and otherwise, on the lessons that the big rock taught me on the side of Rainier that July afternoon, and how those lessons apply to the supply chain moving into 2010. Here's a few thoughts on what I learned from the boulder:

  • The summit is the halfway point. Or, as top U.S. mountaineer Ed Viesturs says, "Getting to the top doesn't count if you don't get down." Similarly, in the supply chain, implementing a strategy built on rosy scenarios and oriented on good times won't necessarily do you much good when bad times roll around (as they inevitably do). In short, plan for the downs as well as the ups.
  • You can't plan for everything. Bad things are going to happen unexpectedly on mountains and in supply chains. When they do, what matters is all the prep work that you've done before that moment and how you leverage the resources you have in place the moment after to deal with those challenges. In short, plan for the unplannnable. And,
  • Boulders don't roll up hill. Or, put another way, plenty of foreseeable and unknowable obstacles stand in the way of your success, but getting to the top — in mountaineering as in business — will always depend on your own willingness to undertake the slog. In short, plan on lots of hard work, or plan on not getting into the game in the first place.

What lessons are you taking with you out of the latest downturn? How will you shape your supply chain strategy to prepare for the next downturn? Climbed any mountains recently? Drop me a line at [email protected] and share your stories. I'll look forward to hearing from you. And in the meantime, best wishes for a peaceful holiday season and a joyous New Year! ¦

— Andrew K. Reese
Editor, Supply & Demand Chain Executive