Are You a Supply Chain Boiled Frog? There are a Lot of Them Out There!

Supply Chain Boiled Frog

Have you heard the story of the frog and the pot of boiling water? It is a metaphor entitled the “Boiled Frog Syndrome” and describes reactivity, or the lack thereof, in the face of dangerous situations.

Supply Chain is at a moment of truth, an inflection point at which we will either progress into the future or be stuck in the past. Unfortunately this is entirely analogous to the Boiled Frog syndrome.

There are far too many Supply Chain Boiled Frogs out there. Are you a Supply Chain boiled frog?

The Boiled Frog Syndrome Explained

The boiled frog story is pretty simply explained.

If you put a frog into a pot of cold water on a stove, and then slowly turned up the heat, the frog would stay in the water. Eventually the water would reach the boiling point but the frog would remain in the water and would itself be boiled and die.

Alternatively, if you already had a pot of boiling water on a stove and then dropped a frog into the boiling pot, the frog would immediately jump out and save itself.

The frog would stayed in the pot as it progressively got hotter and boiled, ignored the signs of danger and remained in its current situation until it was too late. The frog dropped into an already boiling pot immediately recognized the danger and acted to remove itself from the dangerous and life threatening situation.

This metaphor applies to Supply Chain. And the recent global Coronavirus pandemic is the proof. Most disasters and catastrophes prior to pandemic would have been localized based on specific companies, specific geographies, or specific industries. But the pandemic was global in every sense of the word, disrespectful of boundaries of any kind. Everyone was affected.

The pandemic was like the boiling pot of water. Every Supply Chain up to that point experienced disasters of some kind. They may have been small or large, but they were indicators that problems had occurred and would recur.

Smart Supply Chain leaders had taken steps over time to improve the robustness and resiliency of their operations, making them less vulnerable to future problems. In short, these steps made Supply Chain leaders more aware, and more able to quickly respond, to boiling water if and when it occurred.

Complacent Supply Chain leaders did not take steps to improve their operations. They trudged along, fighting fires day to day, but never taking the proactive steps necessary to improve their responsiveness when the next disaster would inevitably strike. These organizations were the frogs continuing to sit in ever hotter water, inevitably succumbing to their death.

In many cases the pandemic resulted in either irreparable harm to many businesses, if not the outright failure and demise of these organizations. Given that Supply Chain performance was a determining factor, it is fair to consider those failed companies as boiled frogs.

Our current concern is that far too many companies did not learn the lessons of the pandemic and as such they remain in those pots of water as they are oblivious to the fact that the water is still getting hotter and hotter and hotter and hotter.

Recent Supply Chain Signs

I was asked earlier this year to give a presentation on the future of Supply Chain. The period we are now in is what I call the Supply Chain Renaissance, with its backbone and foundation being the Digital Supply Chain.

Also on the agenda were a speaker from a Supply Chain consultancy and another speaker from a Logistics company. The consultant talked about a lot of the project they were working on for various companies. All of the projects and all of the consultancy provided was very tactical; small to mid sized projects designed to fix immediate issues, reduce costs, or increase productivity. But it was all tactical.

The Logistics expert talked more about their company, and what they were doing to help customers. Similarly the message seemed to be focussed on short-mid term improvements. Nothing really strategic.

I was last on the agenda, talking about Supply Chain’s Moment of Truth, the Digital Supply Chain, and the distant future which constitutes the Supply Chain Renaissance. My talk was more far reaching, and I like to think more visionary. For those in the audience who were more comfortable with the present, tactical and tangible activities, the consultant probably gave them more of what they could understand.

But therein lies the problem. And this is what shocked me about the consultant specifically. The consultant was perpetuating their clients tactical focus on the day to day issues, with virtually no focus on long term strategic planning to create a new future reality. In effect the consultant was the one slowly turning up the heat on the stove while their client slowly and blindly were boiling away.

Other activities and interactions have reinforced this concern in my mind. Far too many people and companies have quickly forgotten the experiences of the pandemic and have just gone back to their old way of doing things, making incremental improvements at best. And they have convinced themselves that this is ok.

Everyone taking this approach will continue to boil. Are you a Supply Chain boiled frog?

The Dangers for Supply Chain

There is nothing wrong with making tactical improvements to improve your operations. The problem is that when these are done in isolation, with no focus on more game changing strategic activities, the water continues to heat up to boiling.

Truly robust and resilient Supply Chains require significant investment, a digital investment. The Digital Supply Chain is the future. It is inevitable. The world is, and will continue to go, digital. Supply Chain is no exception.

But creating a Digital Supply Chain starts with the vision and leadership. If you don’t have this vision or strong, courageous leadership, your boiling days have already begun.

Being boiled manifests itself in many forms. Your company can not meet customer demands, you run out of cash, you fail to secure continuity of supply, you cannot attract or retain talent, you spend all of your time fighting fires, your competition beats you to and in the market, and in the extreme your company goes bankrupt and shuts down.

Unfortunately this is the path that far too many continue to go along.

It’s Time to Get Out of the Boiling Water

Intelligence, informed, and spatially aware professionals recognize this scenario. Similarly people new to Supply Chain, inclusive of many students and other new entrants, recognize this problem. These are the people who are dropped into the already boiling pot and immediately jump out, recognizing that the current situation is problematic and that there must be a different way of getting things done.

Students are full of energy and knowledge and do not have any of the baggage or jaded paradigms that more seasoned professionals may have. They recognize that there must be a better way of doing things.

Entrepreneurs and brave, ambitious leaders also see the possibilities of a new and improved future. They are the one who realize that the old ways of doing things will not suffice, and they must reinvent the future.


My concern for the future is real. Far too many people have reverted to their old way of doing things, just as it was before the pandemic. Minor, tactical improvements prevail. Change is stalled due to this complacency and inertia. These people are boiling whether they know it or not.

My excitement about the possibilities for the future is also very real. Never in the history of Supply Chain have the conditions and catalysts for long term change been so tangible. We are at the beginning of a Supply Chain Renaissance that will last for decades to come.

An unprecedented suite of advanced technologies, general societal knowledge of and interest in the need to improve Supply Chains, greater education and awareness than ever before, and leadership and organizational resolve to create more robustness and resilience all combine to set the stage to create the Digital Supply Chain of the future.

These are the people dropped into the boiling water who recognize the danger, jump out, and understand the need to create a new future outcome. These are the survivors and the thrivers.

So where are you and your organization? Are you a Supply Chain boiled frog or are you a Supply Chain Game Changer?

Supply Chain Boiled Frog article originally published on July 4, 2023.

Cover image by Three-shots from Pixabay