White House unveils supply chain dashboard, but who is it for?

Table of Contents Dashboard user base is not clearDashboard data is not usefulSupply chain disruption

The White House went live Nov. 3 with a supply chain dashboard intended to shed light on the current disruption.

The White House supply chain dashboard includes metrics designed to give visibility into issues such as bottlenecks in unloading container ships at the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach, Calif., which are the two main ports of entry for goods coming into the U.S. from Asia, according to a White House blog post. It will be updated twice a month.

The dashboard is intended to highlight progress in the economic rebound and problems such as bottlenecks in the ports. As the economy recovers from the pandemic, consumers are spending more on goods like furniture, appliances and food, which means supply chains are moving record volumes of goods, according to the blog post.

However, supply chains must also “withstand ongoing disruptions due to the global pandemic, as shipping delays due to the delta variant has demonstrated,” the blog post stated.

Among the data reported in the supply chain dashboard are:

  • An accounting of ships at anchor in the Los Angeles and Long Beach ports;
  • Cumulative import volume, which tracks the total number of containers processed in the port;
  • Retail inventories, which show the cumulative value of goods on store shelves.

The number of container ships waiting to dock at the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach indicates that the demand for goods is “abnormally high,” according to the White House. The ports typically handle about 40% of all containerized imports into the U.S. While there are usually only a few ships at anchor, at the end of October, 75 ships were waiting to dock and unload.

The total volume of containers at the ports has risen dramatically, according to the White House. Almost 380,000 containers unloaded in the California ports in the first half of October, for a cumulative total of 8.1 million containers for the year. The data shows the ports have already surpassed 2018 numbers and are on track to break records by the end of the year.

But getting the goods off the docks is not enough; products also have to get to store shelves, according to the White House. At the end of September, the total value of retail inventory, excluding automobiles, was $455 billion, about 4% over the same period last year.

Dashboard user base is not clear

If the purpose of the White House supply chain dashboard is to have an immediate effect on addressing the crisis, it misses the mark, according to Simon Ellis, practice director at IDC.

Simon Ellis

The main problem is that the supply chain dashboard provides data on what has happened, but it provides no means to orchestrate solutions.

“The old adage that you can’t improve what you don’t measure is true, so shining a light on some of this stuff, publishing the numbers, will certainly help to bring some fresh thinking to the problem,” Ellis said. “What’s coming out of the White House is a perfectly reasonable place to start. It just isn’t clear to me that ultimately it’s going to make much of a difference.”

The dashboard’s update frequency of every two weeks is not adequate, he said, and it’s hard to say at whom the dashboard is aimed.

“It’s not like the companies who run supply chains don’t know what the problems are and what the potential solutions are,” Ellis said. “So it almost seems to me like this is just political theater — that they have to be doing something.”

Dashboard data is not useful

The supply chain dashboard is unlikely to provide any real value in resolving the crisis, and appears to be more of a marketing exercise for the government, agreed Robert Handfield, professor of supply chain management at North Carolina State University.

Most of the data highlighted in the dashboard is not particularly useful, he said.

“Updating every two weeks is a joke. This should be real-time data,” Handfield said. “So this isn’t a useful measure at all, and it doesn’t tell you much of anything. These supply constraints are not going away, they’re going to be here for the next year if not longer.”

This is just publishing data to the masses, and the people who are in a position to help solve the problems probably already know this.
Simon EllisPractice director, IDC

The data on what’s available on store shelves is also not helpful, he said.

“This tells that there’s stuff on the shelf, but in two weeks it’s going to be gone,” Handfield said. “It’s such a high-level measure that it doesn’t really measure what’s going on at a retail level, so it’s a meaningless measure.”

Ellis agreed that the dashboard as constituted contains data that’s of little value to the people who are dealing directly with the supply chain bottleneck.

“This is just publishing data to the masses, and the people who are in a position to help solve the problems probably already know this,” Ellis said. “I don’t think the head of Schneider [National] is going to check the White House dashboard to figure out what his capacity problems are. They just can’t find the drivers, or the people who run the cranes to unload the containers, or there aren’t enough containers.”

Supply chain disruption resolution is long-term

The experts said the causes of the latest supply chain bottlenecks at the Los Angeles and Long Beach ports come from many sources and won’t be resolved in the short term.

Robert Handfield, professor of supply chain management, North Carolina State UniversityRobert Handfield

“We should have been investing in the port infrastructure 10 years ago,” Handfield said. “If you look at other ports around the world — Rotterdam, Hong Kong, Shanghai, Hamburg — these are all highly automated ports, and their productivity rate is double what it is in the Los Angeles-Long Beach port.”

Longer-term solutions like having more self-driving trucks to address the shortage of truck drivers is feasible but won’t be a reality for several years, according to Ellis.

“They’re not solving the problem in time for Santa Claus in December, or the next year either,” he said. “We should be working on this stuff, and eventually technology will allow us to make better use of the limited number of drivers we have, but it’s not going to help tomorrow.”

One of the main problems is that there’s no one taking charge to solve the problems, according to Handfield. For example, the ports and distribution warehouses have no motivation to move the containers because they can charge more to keep them.

“Nothing’s going to change for a while, and the shipping crisis is only going to get worse because nobody wants to address the issue and solve the problem,” he said. “The trucking companies are making money, the ports are making more money, the warehouses are making more money, so it’s dysfunctional system.”

The White House supply chain dashboard may be useful if it helps to push action on the problems, Ellis said.

“It’s not clear how much of a difference it’s really going to make, but it’s a good start and worth doing,” he said. “Maybe it will elevate the level of outrage in the country and put a pressure on the people who can do something about it to do something.”

Jim O’Donnell is a TechTarget news writer who covers ERP and other enterprise applications for SearchSAP and SearchERP.