So there is no Operations department at Kellogg. Instead the OM faculty are part of a large department usually referred to as MEDS. We are the minority in the department and are greatly outnumbered by economists. The arrangement works and the relationship between the groups is invariably cordial. The economists are even occasionally curious as when a colleague of the economist persuasion asked me at lunch last week “What do you guys mean by a process?” I gave the textbook answer about inputs and outputs and transformations and resources. And my colleague finally got around to asking how do you know when you have it right. Which, I must admit, is a good question. The answer really is that you never have it right. You may have it good enough for now but the challenge is to be open to doing things a better way.
Along those lines, NPR had a piece about a professional efficiency effort, an employee for a global shipping company who gets thrown into various settings and told to make things better (Do You Waste Time Walking To The Printer?, Feb 18. If you have time, there is a longer podcast interview with the guy that is really fun.) As discussed in the article, efficiency often starts with just watching what is happening:
Mr. MATT LEBLANC (Efficiency Expert): So, you know, I’m standing in the warehouse and I have to spend a lot of time just standing in warehouses looking weird, staring at people moving boxes. And I see the truck back up, and they open the door, and they have to take all these boxes out, and then they move them, pick them up and they put the box in one part.
KESTENBAUM: So Matt times everything, makes some diagrams, plugs some numbers into equations and he finds a much quicker way to do things. The workers, it turns out, are moving the boxes way more than they need to. Matt finds a way to cut the labor in half – in half.
It also is noted that actually implementing changes — getting people on board with what you’re suggesting — can be trying:
Mr. LEBLANC: Really bad. Yeah. I’ve been physically threatened in a meeting once by someone because I moved their desk from one side of the room to the other. The sad thing is that I empathized with the guy. I’m, like, imagine if someone came in – and I look like the Gerber baby, like, imagine if the Gerber baby came in and told you to move your desk. And, you know, who didn’t really explain it to you well enough or didn’t sell it to you well enough and just made you do it.
KESTENBAUM: How did he physically threaten you?
Mr. LEBLANC: He came after me and his fellow employees had to stop him from killing me.
There are two things that I like about this story. First, as is said in the story, this is a job that shouldn’t exist. This is where my economist colleagues get hung up. If there were a better way of doing things and it involved little or no investment, shouldn’t a firm just do it? Firms don’t and it takes someone like LeBlanc to come in, identify the issue, and risk a fist fight to make it happen. I think that there are several reasons for this. One is that many processes are good enough or at least once were good enough. The work is getting done, so why question it? Second, in many organizations, those doing the work don’t have the authority to change it. If you cannot change it, why bother questioning how things are set up? Of course, those that could change it, are either too far removed from the process or too busy with other things to make how guys are schlepping boxes in a warehouse a priority.
The second thing I like about this story is that it drives home that ops is ubiquitous — in ways that most people don’t ever think about. As LeBanc notes:
We also move a lot of printers. Like, if you, I mean, I’m sure you guys have printers in your office, right? Have you ever thought about why that printer is there and if it makes sense for it to be there?
That’s the thing I like about operations. There are so many things around us that just beg the question “Is that the right way to do that?”