Who was America’s first business consultant? A good candidate would be Frederick Winslow Taylor, the “scientific management” guy from 100 years ago. Born in 1856, Taylor’s ideas about how to most efficiently organize factory work tasks were present at the creation of mass production in the early 1900s.
Once popular . . .
At the time, Taylor was quite famous – as were some of his adherents. Take Frank Bunker Gilbreth – known for his studies on time and motion (how long it takes to do stuff).
Gilbreth even had a movie made about him: Cheaper by the Dozen, 1950 (not the 2003 Steve Martin version). This movie is about Gilbreth, his wife Lillian (a pioneering organizational psychologist), and their large family of 12.
In the movie, we see the ideas of factory efficiency brought into the home. Frank blows a whistle to gather the children and records how quickly they respond. Family meetings are brought to order with a gavel, and motions are advanced to quickly move through issues. Lilian even times Frank as he buttons his vest. Which is fastest, top down or bottom up? Turns out bottom up spares you a fraction of a second!
Not so much today
So why don’t we remember Taylor and Gilbreth today?
Christopher Mims provides an answer in his book Arriving Today: From Factory to Front Door – Why Everything Has Changed About How and What We Buy. The main reason, says Mims, is because their ideas are simply the water we swim in.
What exactly were these ideas? They come down to analyzing workers’ tasks, breaking them down to repetitive steps, and sequencing them for maximum efficiency.
Obvious, no? Indeed, the idea of efficiently executing work tasks – something Taylor called the “one best way”– has worked so well that it’s moved beyond the factory. Now, it lies at the heart of our extended global supply chain.
Arriving today (not)
Today, we expect our stuff to be delivered promptly – and when it’s not, to use a technical term, our customer satisfaction levels drop.
For instance, when I heard about the Christopher Mims book on a podcast, I immediately ordered it from Amazon for next-day delivery. I even received an “Arriving Today” text.
But alas, it took two days to arrive. Oh, the irony!
This, of course, is one of the points implied by the book. Today, we have the systems and processes in place to deliver almost anything next-day or even same-day. But what we’re learning is that this global system is fragile. When disruptions happen – and boy haven’t they – the organization that can surf the chaos and react with agility is the organization that will do the best. Resiliency matters.
New spin on an old idea
The point cannot be that efficiency no longer matters. It does. Increasingly, customers expect timely if not next-day delivery.
But this foundational idea of efficiency now needs to be broadened. In a time of increasing uncertainty, companies need to be more resilient to navigating troubled waters.
This requires – at a minimum – more efficient connectivity. Sharing spreadsheets by e-mail won’t do. Finding new partners through the phone book won’t do. Packing your bill of lading with your shipment won’t do.
A network approach is needed that weaves together all facets of the supply chain – including designing the product, making it, shipping it, and even running it (as in the increasingly popular as-a-service model).
Planning across all these phases never stops. Today’s dynamic markets demand an almost micro-planning approach where a plan is set but then continuously revised daily or even hourly. In fact, having resilient processes with the agility to re-plan at a moment’s notice is often more important than the ability to create the original “efficient” plan.
This, in turn, requires comprehensive visibility across all of the phases mentioned. Without feedback from operations, you can’t make improvements in the next design phase. Without insight into production runs, you can’t plan logistics effectively. Without the ability to discover new suppliers quickly, you can’t correct course when things go south.
The idea is broad visibility, constant situational awareness, and the connectivity to collaborate at will. Call it “efficient resiliency” – or maybe you have a better name. But the point is that the old ideas of efficiency are still relevant – they just need to be applied differently.
Efficiency still matters – but where that efficiency is focused is evolving. It’s still important to move quality goods quickly – but more than ever it’s the speed with which you successfully respond to change and disruption that will set you apart. Fortunately, we have the tools and technology to get there.
Discover why logistics and supply chain professionals rate resilience and agility as their top priorities – and what they plan to do about it—right here.
Richard Howells has been working in the supply chain management and manufacturing space for over 25 years, and he’s responsible for driving the market direction and positioning of SAP’s Supply Chain Management and IOT solutions.