Our big gathering of family and friends, isn’t. And looking outward from our household, more than 258,000 people are dead, almost 7 percent of the workforce is unemployed, my country is still bitterly divided over the recent election, and everything is shaping up to get worse thanks to a resurgent virus. What, exactly. am I supposed to be grateful for again? The nice weather we’re having in Washington this week?
But slow that roll toward grumpytown and stop comparing what we have now to what we had last year, an admittedly depressing contrast. Instead, why not compare our present to a more distant past when pandemics were a recurrent fact of life — or, better yet, to what this year might have been like, if so many people hadn’t worked to make it otherwise?
Some of those folks are pretty obvious. Health-care workers. Nursing home staff. Delivery drivers. Warehouse stockers. Clerks and cashiers. Line workers at food processing plants. Biomedical researchers who identified the virus, found us better treatments and, eventually, delivered us three potential vaccines with unprecedented speed. Without those folks giving their all for Team Humanity, we’d be in pretty bad shape right now.
People like me, who have been able to work from home, should count the blessings those people have bestowed on us every day — multiple times. More than that, we should be asking what we can do to make life better for them.
But you know all that, so how about a less obvious hero, like — did anyone have “supply-chain managers and operations chiefs” on their list? No? Well I did! Because these individuals have, without much praise and completely invisibly, been making sure that the rest of us had what we needed.
Remember last spring, when toilet paper disappeared from the shelves and flour was suddenly worth almost its weight in gold? That’s because supply chains had been optimized for people leaving their homes a lot — using public restrooms, eating in restaurants, working in large offices. The people who made and distributed that stuff found that suddenly half their customers didn’t need any supplies, and the other half needed twice as much, but not in pallet-sized lots.
As John Church, chief supply chain officer of General Mills, put it, “You don’t build supply chains to spin that way in the food business—it’s not like 30% more people will suddenly join the population.” Yet somehow they coped. We had shortages of various things throughout the spring, but there was still plenty to eat and drink.
That’s because essential distribution companies such as Walmart and Target and Amazon rejiggered systems to prioritize basic products over “nice but not necessary”; because logistics companies such as UPS and Fedex reorganized their operations to cope with an unprecedented surge in demand for deliveries; and because General Mills and other manufacturers figured out how to fill those trucks and warehouses by squeezing more production out of their existing lines while ramping up new capacity.
Does that not sound like a lot to you? In a steady-but-poky business like food processing, it’s a bloody miracle. But if that doesn’t impress you, consider that everyone managed to get this done at the same time as border closures were disrupting global supply chains they depended on, as key suppliers were shuttered by covid-19 outbreaks, and as they themselves were trying to virus-proof their production lines — spacing out work stations, spraying down surfaces, checking temperatures and staggering shifts.
That feat is somewhat akin to learning to play the trombone while also performing knee surgery. Their incredible versatility is the reason that you and I can sit down on Thursday to a table that is full of food, even if it’s not as full of our loved ones as we’d like.
So if you can’t think of anything more to be thankful for this year, try thanking John Church and all his corporate brethren. And then be thankful that you live in a time when you didn’t even have to think about it. The silent, unseen labor of people you never met, from shelf-stocker to c-suite, and a system that proved far more resilient than anyone could have dreamed, is the reason that you never even had to seriously worry that the holiday table would be bare. We shouldn’t just offer thanks in gratitude for all they’ve given us; we should bow our heads with a little bit of awe.