by Don Benson, P.E.
A while back in this column, I described two approaches to change. The first was that for every problem to solve, there is always more than one option, and that we all have a tendency (some would say a fixation) to treat all problems with the solution type we are most familiar with. For example, all operations problems can be fixed with a new WMS. The second approach was that after identifying a problem to solve, we typically consider and select one option, and then we forget about the others, when probably implementing several of the options would yield even greater benefits. I hope you have taken the opportunity to experiment with these approaches.
In this column I want to describe another wonderful approach to the process of change. Several years ago I visited a distribution center to talk about their needs and how my consulting services could be of value. After driving several hours from the nearest airport, I found it located in a field, surrounded by pasture land for as far as I could see. The facility is located quite a long way from the normal dense location of most distribution centers. I met the manager and we agreed to begin with a tour of his operation. The distribution center served a chain of retail stores. I was there to develop the information for a consulting proposal.
The facility had all the functions and equipment in the most modern, efficient operation I had seen in a while (except for some that I had helped design and implement). The manager, with some pride, described the processes, the conveyor and sortation system, and the warehouse management, labor scheduling and productivity measurement systems. The quality, the returns processing, the safety and turnover performance were all of what every operations manger would want. I really enjoyed seeing what he had to show and appreciated the result.
As we toured the facility I began to wonder about two things. How did this facility, located so far from the rest of the distribution industry, become so modern and efficient? And, from their current level of performance, what could I possibly do to help him improve his operation?
The answer to the first question was remarkable. This manager reported that they had never hired a consultant and had never received functional design help from any equipment vendor. His process was to attend conferences, learn what others had done, and then come home and implement what he had learned. And while I know that industry conferences are well attended and perhaps others follow that path, the results in this operation seemed significantly more advanced than most larger, more mature companies. So I asked what he thought made the difference for him.
His response is the point I want you to think about. He attended the conferences and workshops and the tours like everyone else, but then he took the time to meet with the tour guides, typically the operations manager or project engineer off-site to get a better understanding of their needs, their process, their intent, their logic, etc. He then came home, thought about what he had heard, began to understand it, and applied the learning to his own operation.
From then on, I began to notice the character of the tours I attended and conducted. How seldom we ask why and how this operation exists, and how we usually focus only on the visual experience. I know now what can be done. He provided a great lesson for me.
<p><I>Don Benson, P.E., has been consulting to retail, wholesale and manufacturing organizations for more than 25 years. His practice focuses on improving the effectiveness of warehouse and distribution operations. His office is in Oakland, California. He can be reached at email@example.com or 510-482-3436.
Other articles in this series:
Improving Distribution Operations
Evaluating Vendor Shipping Performance
Improving Labor Productivity
Picking Document Design
Implement Cycle Counting
Affordable Distribution Management
Planning Daily Operations