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What can a major company learn from the sports world? I am not thinking here about inspirational speeches from a coach or anything like that. Rather, can people with a background in sports competition actually offer ways of improving business processes?

It turns out the answer to that question is yes as the Financial Times reports in discussing McClaren Applied Technologies relationship with GlaxoSmithKline (McLaren speeds up GSK with racetrack expertise, Dec 10). That’s McClaren as in Formula 1 racing and they have turned their expertise in organizing pit crews and monitoring racing cars into a side consulting business. In the case of GSK, they have produced some interesting results.

Perhaps the clearest dividend of the partnership so far has come not in drug development but in GSK’s consumer healthcare business. McLaren was asked to scrutinise a toothpaste manufacturing facility in Maidenhead and work out how to boost efficiency.

“We noticed that they were making lots of small batches of different products with a lot of down time in between,” says Mr McGrath. “They said: ‘If you can change four tyres on a racing car in two seconds why does it take us two hours to do a changeover?’”

Within a year, lost time had been cut by 60 per cent, using principles similar to those that govern the pit-stops for Mr Button’s racing car. “It’s about everyone knowing their job and doing it well,” says Mr McGrath. “Afterwards, we analyse every detail — what went well, what didn’t and how we can improve.”

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I cut my academic teeth doing work on supply chain contracting. I consequently found a BBC report on pay-to-stay payments interesting (Premier Foods accused over ‘pay and stay’ practice, Dec 5). The subject of the report is Premier Foods, a large UK manufacturer with several food brands. Premier had the chutzpah to effectively ask its suppliers for bags of cash. Here is what the firm’s CEO wrote.

[Chief Executive Gavin Darby] wrote: “We are aiming to work with a smaller number of strategic suppliers in the future that can better support and invest in our growth ideas.”

He added: “We will now require you to make an investment payment to support our growth.

“I understand that this approach may lead to some questions.

“However, it is important that we take the right steps now to support our future growth.”

But when a supplier raised questions in an email about the annual payments, another member of Premier’s staff replied.

“We are looking to obtain an investment payment from our entire supply base and unfortunately those who do not participate will be nominated for de-list.”

You can contemplate the lovely Britishness of “nominated for de-list” while watching this video on the subject.

I should note that Premier Foods has since backed off its demand after the negative press following this report (see here).

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So what should be more profitable for a retailer, selling from physical stores or selling over the web? That’s the question that a recent Wall Street Journal article considers (How the Web Drags on Some Retailers, Dec 1). At first glance, the answer seems straightforward. Web sellers don’t need to rent stores or have staff cooling their heels waiting for customers. However, the reality isn’t necessarily so clear,

While conventional wisdom holds that online sales should be more profitable, because websites don’t need the pricey real estate and labor necessary to maintain a store network, many retailers actually earn less or even lose money online after factoring in the cost of shipping, handling and higher rates of returns.

For retailers that outsource their Web and fulfillment operations, costs can run as high as 25% of sales, industry analysts said.

Kohl’s Corp. says its profitability online is less than half what it reaps in its store. Wal-Mart Stores Inc. says it expects to lose money online at least through early 2016 as it invests to build its technology, infrastructure and fulfillment networks. Target Corp. says its margins will shrink as its online sales grow. Best Buy Co. said faster growth on its website will weigh on its profitability at the end of the year.

Click here for a video of the reporter discussing her findings.

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Automation at Amazon

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We have posted a few times about how miserable it can be to work in an Amazon fulfillment center. (See for example here.) We have also had a few posts on Kiva robots — both before and after Amazon bought the company in 2012. Kiva produces automation systems for fulfillment centers. These are essentially robots that bring shelves to pickers who select what is needed to complete customer orders. At the time Amazon bought them, Kiva’s clients were firms like Crate & Barrel that while significant catalog/web retailers had far less variety than Amazon. Indeed, one of our posts on Kiva was basically asking when the robot hordes were coming to a fulfillment center near you.

According to the Wall Street Journal, those hordes have now arrived (Amazon Robots Get Ready for Christmas, Nov 19). Back in May, CEO Jeff Bezos claimed that they would increase their number of robots from 1,400 to 10,000 over the year. What difference does this change make?

At a 1.2-million-square-foot warehouse in Tracy, Calif., about 60 miles east of San Francisco, Amazon this summer replaced four floors of fixed shelving with the robots, the people said.

Now, “pickers” at the facility stand in one place and wait for robots to bring four-foot-by-six-foot shelving units to them, sparing them what amounted to as much as 20 miles a day of walking through the warehouse. Employees at some robot-equipped warehouses are expected to pick and scan at least 300 items an hour, compared with 100 under the old system, current and former workers said.

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What would you expect to be the most popular post on this blog? Something on lean operations? One of those posts on managing queues? Nope. The most popular post by a wide margin (more than 13,000 page views than the next most popular post) is something Gad wrote in 2011 on how airline ticket prices vary by day of week. The conclusion of that analysis was that Tuesdays are the best day to buy. The story behind this rests on how airlines manage their pricing. While airline revenue management systems are largely automated closing out fare classes on flights as fill up, they do require some human intervention. That intervention tends to happen early in the week as managers evaluate how well leisure fares sold over the weekend.

But is that still true? According to the Wall Street Journal, no (The Best Day to Buy Airline Tickets, Oct 22).

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A new deep dive into airline fares suggests Sunday is the best day to find low fares. This is a departure from the conventional wisdom of recent years, when Tuesday was considered the best bet.

Airlines Reporting Corp., which processes tickets for travel agencies and handles about half of all tickets sold, tallied up ticket sales. Over a 19-month period ending in July, 130 million domestic and international round-trip tickets worth $94 billion showed the lowest average price, of $432, was on Sunday. At $439, Saturday’s average is also lower than Tuesday, which averages $497.

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Is the express lane in the grocery store always the fastest lane?

That’s a great question and its the subject of a “Dear Mona” column over on FiveThirtyEight (Dear Mona, Which Is The Fastest Check-Out Lane At The Grocery Store?, Oct 16). Mona attacks this question by heading into the queuing theory weeds.

I couldn’t find much research on express lanes specifically, but one paper from Amsterdam found the reduction in wait times for express-lane customers didn’t offset the overall increase in wait times for everyone. Maybe life would be easier if the supermarket didn’t have an express lane — or, better yet, if it got rid of multiple lines altogether and had all customers join a single infinitely sprawling line where there were no winners and losers. That might sound nightmarish, but the math actually suggests it would be anything but.

That math comes from queuing theory, a subject of study that’s been around ever since Danish mathematician Agner Krarup Erlang discovered a method for managing telephone traffic in 1909. To answer your question, I’ve had to take a crash course in (more modern) queuing theory, including examining formulae that calculate how average wait times at the grocery store vary depending on the type of line you join.

I should state upfront Mona on the whole acquits herself quite well on this. But there are a couple of points worth mentioning. First, there in fact supermarkets that run with a single queue, like this Hannaford’s in West Lebanon, NH.

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As you can see, that singe serpentine queue ends up chewing up a lot of space at the front of the store. That’s a lot of real estate to give up when you only have two people in line. As we have written about before, that is only one of the complications of having a single queue in a grocery setting.

But let’s suppose for the moment that we can get a single queue to work. Is that in fact the best way to run a supermarket’s checkout? Continue Reading »

It doesn’t seem that there should be that much innovation in shipping. Man has plied the sea for ages, so can there be anything new under the sun? The answer is, yes, there can. And it is really, really big. The New York Times had an interesting article on the new Triple-E class of ships that A. P. Moeller-Maersk of Denmark has been bringing into service (Aboard a Cargo Colossus, Oct 3). These things are immensely huge — longer than the Eiffel Tower is tall. This video gives an idea of just how large these ships are.

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