Is Johnny Carson to Blame for the 1973 Toilet Paper Shortage? How Could Baldrige Help Manufacturers Prepare for the Next Panic-purchases?

June 3, 2020 by BPIR.com Limited

Originally posted on blogrige by Harry Hertz

My fascination with toilet paper
I will answer the questions posed in the title to this posting, but first a little history. I guess my fascination with toilet paper began in the early 1970’s while living in Europe. I had an occasion to use the toilet while riding British rails and was fascinated by two aspects of the toilet paper. First the paper itself was waxed on one side and coarse on the other. But even more fascinating was that each sheet was imprinted “On Her Majesty’s Service.” Far be it from me to question Her Majesty! The second experience was visiting a little town in Italy and going to a restroom where the toilet paper really was squares of an old newspaper hung up by a piece of string through a hole in the sheets.

Fast forward to the gasoline shortage in the U.S. in the 1970’s. There was a simultaneous shortage of toilet paper. Why? According to CBS News, a Congressman from Wisconsin released a statement saying, “The next thing we’re gonna have to worry about is a potential toilet paper shortage.” Tonight Show writers picked this up and wrote it into Johnny Carson’s monologue for Dec. 19, 1973, omitting the word “potential.” That sent his audience of nearly 20 million people to the supermarkets and the rest is history. About a month later Carson issued a correction, “For all my life in entertainment, I don’t want to be remembered as the man who created a false toilet paper scare. Apparently there is no shortage!”

So, what is the cause of today’s shortage?
As best I can tell from reading numerous reports there are two contributing causes. According to Time and psychologist Baruch Fischhoff, a professor at Carnegie Mellon University, when people experience a shortage of certain foods they can always substitute. But that leads to thinking about things that don’t have substitutes. When it is a primal need, like toilet paper, we run to the stores and guarantee our personal supply. The same reaction occurs in advance of a snowstorm. However, since that is a regional event supplies can be quickly replenished.

The second contributing cause is families staying at home and not going to work or school. According to Georgia-Pacific, a leading U.S. toilet paper manufacturer, 40% of toilet paper use normally occurs outside the home. The problem is that the paper manufacturing industry works on tight margins and commercial toilet paper is different in make-up and packaging than home-use toilet paper. Making a shift in existing assembly lines is difficult.

So, how could Baldrige help?
Today, it’s toilet paper. But could your product face a shortage one day due to circumstances beyond your control? The Baldrige Criteria for Performance Excellence ask a number of relevant questions that can help manufacturers prepare for unexpected runs on their products:

  • Item 3.1 is about listening to customers and determining their product and service needs.
    Specific questions ask how you determine customer and market needs for product offerings. Also, how you adapt product offerings to meet the requirements and exceed customer group and market segment expectations. Before a shortage strikes your product, could you prepare some flexible manufacturing lines or alternative packaging and delivery options?
  • Item 4.2 is about managing information and organizational learning.
    Specific questions address assembling and transferring relevant knowledge for use in innovation and strategic planning. Also, how you embed learning in the way your organization operates. Are you incorporating information and knowledge from other instances of shortages in your planning processes?
  • Item 6.1 is about designing, managing, and improving key products and work processes.
    Specific questions address designing products and work processes to incorporate organizational knowledge, consideration of risk, and the potential need for agility into products and processes.
  • Item 6.2 is about effective management of operations.
    Specific questions address how your organization prepares for disasters or emergencies. It asks how your disaster emergency preparedness system considers prevention, continuity of operations, and recovery. It also asks about how your system takes your reliance on workforce, partners, and your supply network into account.

These are not easy questions to address in low-margin industries. While I may be biased, I believe the Baldrige Criteria questions could help your organization and industry be better prepared for disasters and emergencies in the future and avoid shortages?

Oh, and one final smile for those who haven’t heard it, my neighbors’ yard got TP’d yesterday and their real estate value immediately went up $10,000.

Stay well!