I went to China about 10 years ago, just to explore what this huge country was up to -- from a business perspective. It turned out to be a real cultural eye opener -- on many levels. I was on a tour of a small village with a group of Americans, when we came upon an open air market. Lots of fish, fruits, vegetables, and a small amount of beef. I remember that the side of beef was hanging in the open air, on a large metal hook. On that 70 degree day, some flies were buzzing around it. You simply told the owner how much beef you wanted and he would shave it off with a knife, wrap it in paper, and you were on your way. The Americans in the tour group were appalled with the "unsanitary" conditions, and said they would never eat that beef!
In today's news is the story about the 380 million eggs that are being recalled for possible Salmonella contamination. 32 million cartons of eggs being recalled from only ONE company--Wright County Egg of Galt, Iowa. I am waiting for someone to do the math an tell me how big a pile of 32 million cartons eggs is: I will guess that it would fill up a football stadium--but that's only a wild guess. These eggs were packaged under at least 10 different brand names, and distributed to multiple states. There are multiple suspect illness cases related to these eggs, and fortunately so far there have been no deaths.
Back to China. I recall responding to the Americans that were so upset with the open air beef--"I feel safer eating beef in this market than I would eating hamburger in the States". This one side of beef was slaughtered in the morning, and will be completely sold within a matter of hours. No cross contamination of thousands of other beef parts. The beef could be easily traced back to the ranch it came from. Most importantly, even if the beef in China had been contaminated, it would only impact less that a hundred people, all of whom probably have been dealing with the same butcher for years.
In the States we have a limited number of beef, pork, chicken and egg producers. As this egg example demonstrates, these contamination events now impact MILLIONS of Americans at a time, compared to the "unsafe" China market, that could only contaminate less than a hundred people at a time.
What does this have to do with your business?
Complexity Creates Vulnerability
Whether it is a down computer system at your bank, a malfunctioning satellite that shuts down Blackberry phones for part of a day, our electric grid, just in time inventory, or a computer virus--we have created a system where our complexity makes us more vulnerable to interruptions and malfunctions than we have ever been in the past. Will the "efficiencies" of our food producers start creating more problems than they solve? Will the vulnerabilities created by our technologies reach a tipping point where the risks are outweighed by the benefits. What streamlining efficiencies have you initiated in your business? Is there a risk associated with these new shortcuts?
What vulnerabilities have you created for your business model? Would you be able to operate without computers, the internet, the power grid, and just in time delivery?
This unprecedented egg recall is a great example of how our businesses should routinely re-evaluate our models for new vulnerabilities that we are creating daily by our ever growing complex systems.