“The Great American Logistics Machine” Catches the Coronavirus

June 30, 2020
“The Great American Logistics Machine” Catches the Coronavirus

Logistics – the seemingly simple process of moving goods from Point A to Point B – has been an American strength and continually improving science.  Witness the ability of Amazon to deliver in as little as 2 hours in some markets.

The public has taken this capability for granted.

But now, in the Coronavirus era, we are experiencing rationing of meat, shortages of basic goods (paper products) and necessary ones (masks, drugs).  Even for products and ideas not invented here, starting with the industrial revolution and most currently demonstrated by the smartphone, Americans improved and mass marketed better products in smoother supply chains.

How else could Walmart serve 200 million customers a year across 11,000 stores?

Even the remarkable performance of Amazon is enabled by Google mapping of the earth.

The much maligned U.S. postal service delivers more letters per employee than any other country in the Group of 20 (per this 2012 Oxford study).  The historical success of the public-private partnership that landed a man on the moon 51 summers ago is now struggling to deliver testing kits despite a much publicized appearance of industry leaders with the President in the Rose Garden.

The virus has exposed weaknesses in the ability of our supply chains to respond to unexpected events, and yet, the virus itself is the  greatest demonstration of logistics, with proliferation from one infected individual to over ten million people as of the time of this post.

Video Spotlight: What is Logistics Management? Definition & Importance in Supply Chain (Jul 21, 2016, AIMS Education UK)

This post is based on the NY Times article, What Happened to the Great American Logistics Machine?, by David Segal, May 22, 2020, and the YouTube video in the Spotlight. Image source: Anton Balazh/123RF

Discussion Questions:

1.  In what way(s) are we “flunking a test that we wrote”?

Guidance: Logistics, and overall supply chain management, are supposed to be America’s specialty, but the pandemic has “snapped” them. Basic items like meat, paper products, and essentials like masks and drugs are suddenly in short supply and even rationed.

2. Why is logistics described as an “ecosystem”?

Guidance: The field is more than a job or any single element in the supply chain. Rather, it ties together the building blocks needed WITHIN the supply chain between factories and customers.

3. Identify some examples of American companies improving upon the ideas or developments of others.

Guidance: The Industrial Revolution started in England but its impact was not fully demonstrated until Henry Ford’s assembly line. The Blackberry from Canada has now been surpassed by the Apple iPhone. Google’s global mapping enables the efficiency of Amazon deliveries and UPS logistics. Walmart’s supply chain is overseen through the technology of the largest private satellite network in the world.


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