Not that long ago, I tweeted to ask whether the UK fenestration sector would learn the lessons from this ongoing crisis, or whether it would bury it’s head in the sand and hope the same problems in the supply chain never come back again.

It got a bigger response than I thought, so I determined that it was right to explore this topic more.

Fenestration and lessons to be learned

Perhaps one of the most telling replies was in this tweet:

Points four and five in that reply stick out to me the most. Giving your suppliers the most time possible to get your order ready is the best thing the company one level down in the supply chain can do. Last-minute orders are a nightmare for anyone to have to deal with right now, and will likely end up producing a very stressful experience for both parties. So if you have orders to place with your suppliers, whether that is installers to fabricators or fabricators to systems companies get them in as soon as possible!

Point five is also pertinent. I am genuinely worried about the mental health of many of the people who work in this sector. I am lucky enough to speak to many different people in this industry on a weekly and monthly basis, and it is clear that this continued run of high pressure and demand is very much taking their toll on us all. Some more than others, and plenty who could perhaps need a helping hand. I saw a worrying tweet last week from an account who themselves was worried about someone they had spoken to. Remember, this is fenestration, not life or death. Let’s do what we can to reduce the pressure.

We’re all in this together. The whole supply chain is interconnected in more ways than you can imagine. Everyone is doing as much as they can as quickly as they can to service everyone’s needs. But there are only so many people and only so many hours in a day, which means things we want instant results on are going to take longer than normal. Remember that on the other end of an email or phone call is a person, not a machine. The more shit we fling at the other person, the more that stress and pressure piles up which then creates further problems. We have to learn to not only be kind but be more helpful to others where we can.

Supply chain and planning

This is a crisis that is ongoing. The health crisis, although not raging as it was at the start of this year, is still with us. But perhaps the most pressing crisis is the economic one. Raw material shortages in fenestration are beginning to really bite now, and the labour gap that we have all long known has been a problem, has been made worse due to the strength of the bounce-back.

For me, one of the lessons to learn from this crisis is how dependent we are on imported goods and how vulnerable we are to external shocks, which is what is taking place right now. You have to wonder, had we invested more in recycled products a decade ago, putting more into circulation now, and had we remained a stronger manufacturing nation, would we be in such a vulnerable position as we are?

Composite door slabs, window and door hardware, glass and glass components like bevels and more are all imported into this country. All have been disrupted in the past 18 months due to the pandemic. The shortages of glass are due to get worse before they get better. The argument for producing abroad is that the price-per-unit was considerable cheaper than it was to make in the UK. Surely now, with shipping costs more than twelve times what they were, and raw material prices surging continuously, that argument is now nullified?

If we are to learn anything from this, it is to be able to support our own domestic fenestration sector in a more self-sufficient manner. What we are going through is rare, and won’t happen every year. But when it does happen, it can have huge consequences for the industry. So if we ever hit a period like this again, we need to be in a better position to ensure that our sector can access the raw materials it needs to be able to continue functioning as best it can. It would create jobs, divert investment into the UK economy, build better British businesses and protect ourselves from external shocks out of our control.

We also have to learn to plan better and conduct business in a much more organised and professional manner. In some areas, our sector is indeed professional, but there are large parts that lurch from day to day with very little planning and foresight. We cannot run a business in a hectic sector like this, even if you’re an SME in this industry. For too long we have lacked that polished approach in areas. This crisis is showing us that the better prepared you can be, the more organised, the more efficient and indeed the more passionate about your business you are, the better you will perform.

Communication is an area that has to be improved going forwards. Both internal communication within the sector, and how we communicate better with the general public. You only need to go on social media to see the number of complaints rising, specifically about lack of communication, no replies to emails, phone calls and so on. That needs to improve going forwards. Companies need to hire more staff for those roles. The sector is making good money at the moment, there is no excuse for anyone to have staff still on furlough and there needs to be major recruitment in this area. But we also need to improve how we get our message out to the public. This has been a long-neglected area in my eyes and something that we need to address in the years to come.

When we exit this particular chapter, I hope that we look back at what we went through. Learn our lessons. Drastically boost the domestic supply chain. Genuinely commit to attracting new people to the industry. Learn to grow better and more sustainably. This is a very tough period we’re all going through, and we’re going to need some time to decompress. Let’s make sure that the next time fenestration gets hit with huge demand, that we can facilitate the growth and opportunity better.

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