You’ve heard about toilet paper hoarding ad nauseam but I think the story behind the story serves as a reminder of what happens when we make assumptions.

Yes, there are many empty shelves and toilet paper is still in short supply but not all of it was due to hoarding. This interesting article from Medium points out that two key things are happening: 1) the locations where toilet paper is being used have shifted dramatically and 2) commercial toilet paper and residential rolls come from two entirely different distribution chains. In other words, people are utilizing the restrooms at home and not at the office/airport/school/restaurant and individual rolls come from a different process than the large industrial rolls. We’re short not so much because of hoarding, but because we have dramatically altered the market.

The supply chain is a delicate system by which manufacturers, distributors, wholesalers and retailers try to operate with maximum efficiency and minimal waste. They don’t stock expensive warehouses full of excess product in case demand unexpectedly increases by 40%.

Think about the many other things where utilization has radically shifted during COVID. Electricity no longer has heavy use in the central city skyscrapers, rather is disbursed throughout residential neighborhoods. Food demand is now for family-size portions of soup, pasta and staples, not the restaurant or institution-sized containers, and people are drinking beer from cans, not on tap. Office workers now require individual terminals or all-in-one copiers rather than large networks or paper purchased in bulk.

So, the next time you hear a story, don’t automatically jump to the negative assumption that people are behaving badly. Pull back and think about other options that could have caused the result and see the actions from a system-wide view. The shelves may still be empty, but you may have more of an understanding as to why.

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