Saturday, November 27, 2021
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Supply Chain Lessons from Squid Game

If you haven’t seen Squid Game yet, fair warning—this column contains spoilers.

 

If you have, well, you might wonder why I am writing about Squid Game in a column about supply chain. Well, considering I wrote about BTS a few months ago, this seems pretty inevitable. But I must give credit to a conversation in our Viber chat group, particularly to past presidents Arnel Gamboa and Christine Pardiñas, for connecting the dots and making this fortnight’s installment possible.

 

So, Squid Game and supply chain. Not necessarily something you’d think of together. It’s a TV show about down-on-their-luck folks playing (fatal versions of) children’s games for a huge windfall, after all. Sure, there’s the “red light, green light” game at the beginning, and how you’ll be dead if you don’t cross the finish line on time. A supply chain issue, definitely, especially considering the current circumstances.

 

There’s also that scene when the guards deliberately limit the supply of food to the players, leading to a deadly riot at lights out. Yes, shortages can lead to dire consequences—and murder is not necessarily out of the picture, unfortunately.

 

But there are two things in particular one might take away from certain episodes of the biggest series in Netflix history.

 

The first comes around the end of the fourth episode, during the (similarly deadly) tug-of-war. One would think the game is about brute force—about winning by overwhelming the other team with your strength. But with some quick thinking and an unconventional strategy, the protagonists’ team won to live for another day.

 

We know that in supply chain—at least on the logistics side of it—achieving economies of scale is important. It’s how the biggest logistics providers are able to provide consistent service for an arguably reasonable cost, especially in a setting like the Philippines, where inter-island transport can be challenging. But we also know that scale can present difficulties of its own. It can be difficult to pivot to a different strategy when disruptions occur. We definitely saw this in recent months, when large companies found themselves initially paralyzed by the shocks of restrictions on movement and activities. While these companies also had the resources to bounce forward, smaller companies were better able to assess the situation and respond more immediately.

 

This isn’t to say that being big is wrong, or being small is—just that there are advantages to being one or the other. It’s really a matter of mindset. Big companies must be more agile and open to different ideas—and maybe break down some of the bureaucracy that hinders speedy response. Small companies must also invest in expanding capacity and capability, rather than lean heavily on the goodwill of its team for prolonged periods of time, to target burnout and ensure consistent service levels when business picks up.

 

That brings us to the second takeaway from Squid Game, one that’s evident throughout the episodes, especially as alliances are formed and the players go through the games. It is evident in the tug-of-war game; it is very much evident in the glass bridge game in the seventh episode. Supply chain works best when enough trust is forged for people of different backgrounds and interests to come together to work on approaches and solutions—and the best way to get there is to pay attention to your relationships with your partners and your customers.

 

The series started off with 456 players looking to win the 45.6 billion won prize no matter what it takes, but as the episodes went on and they started to understand each other’s motivations, they began to trust each other, and work together to get, well, at least as far as they could. (I mean, there’s always a betrayal in shows like these.) In good times and bad, we can always turn to the relationships we’ve forged to get us through. It is these relationships—with our colleagues, suppliers, partners and customers—that allow our supply chains to work.

 

The importance of working together can never be stressed enough in these past few months, now that we’re facing what is widely termed as a “supply chain crisis”, one that can last well into the next year, or perhaps the year after that. We all know the end is far away, but how can we get there if we’re only by ourselves?

 

A feel-good, but ultimately challenging, ending for a column about supply chain—but then again, this is also about Squid Game.

 

Henrik Batallones is the marketing and communications director of SCMAP, and editor-in-chief of its official publication, Supply Chain Philippines. More information about SCMAP is available at scmap.org.

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