The receiving and warehousing operations that I managed were not insignificant. I may have felt insignificant on that Friday, as I drank another round of beer with the buyers, but that was just the beer. On Saturday morning, over my second cup of coffee, I realized that no part of the process was insignificant. The parts were all interrelated, interconnected, and interdependent. Remove one part and the retail process would break down.
That is the definition of a complex system.
Twelve articles ago, I started this series by asking a question: "How much has the receiving process changed since the 1940s? How about the 1970s?"
The actual macro process has not changed. Unload, Check-In, Put-away. How we do the process has changed, however, due to advances in material handling technology and information management systems. The basic reason, the why the process exists, has not changed. However, changes in other systems have affected the importance of the receiving process and how it can influence other systems. The bottom line is that everything in life is a complex system of systems. We may want to make them simple, but life defies simplicity. Man’s involvement ensures complexity.
The story that I shared here is a true account of my early management experience in the mid-1980s. While technology has changed in the 30 years that have passed since then, the underlying challenges of business systems have not. Inventory management was then just as important an issue as it is today. Warehouse managers across the globe face the same labor and productivity challenges today that I did in 1986.
The point of my story is that as much as we like to talk about how much has changed in logistics, we logisticians are facing the same fundamental challenges now that we did 30, 45, or 60 years ago.
We live and work in a complex world that defies the neat, linear thinking of process flow charts, straight-line value stream maps, and simple cost- and expense-reduction projects. Changes we make to operations within the four walls of the warehouse influence the decisions people make outside those four walls. In turn, the decisions and actions of entities outside the warehouse influence and affect what happens inside the warehouse.
The job a person does can limit their view of the world only if they allow their view to be limited. I know pickers who take great care in the way they place product into a tote, making sure the labels are facing up and the product nests into the tote to best use the space. When asked, these pickers talk about imagining what it is like at the store, and how much easier it is for the people in the store to unpack a carefully packed tote. Other pickers working in the same distribution center just dump product into the totes. Management does not train pickers to take extra care in packing; they take the extra care because they have thought about the person who gets their tote and decided to define quality from the perspective of the store employee. Accuracy and productivity still matter; in my observation these pickers operate at higher rates of both accuracy and production than the rest of the team.
We should never underestimate the ability of people to think about and grasp the complex, nor should we underestimate our ability to communicate the complex. Words alone do not convey meaning, since communication is more than just words. Consider the drawings that illustrated the posts in this story. Did they help you to understand the dynamics of the problem? Why? Perhaps for the same reason we think that “a picture is worth a thousand words.” As visual thinkers, we understand images before we understand words. That is why a conference room without a white board, or even a flip chart, is going to be a tough room in which to create ideas. Think of how many ideas have come to life on a bar napkin over a few beers.
Illustrations and words are not enough to convey the complexity of the systems that form our lives. As human beings our emotions are just as important as our thoughts, if not more so. Gifted writers struggle to accurately convey emotional meaning in written words, and competent writers work to ensure that the written word does not convey the wrong emotional meaning to the reader. We can speak on the phone and hear the emotion in someone’s voice, but we still miss the visual component of communication. Even when we are face to face in the same space, it is sometimes extremely difficult to accurately express the complexity of a situation.
Sometimes it is only when we are face to face in the same space that we learn that others are unable to understand the complexity of our thoughts. In those instances we learn that the complexity of their world prevents them from seeing the complexity in our world. It takes effort to break through this wall and build trust through mutual understanding of the needs of the others in the room.
This 12 part story is simply a modest effort to illustrate the difficulty of solving complex problems. This story started with the small issue of receiving too much product into a distribution center, and then pulled back to consider a broader view of how the DC worked in a more complex system of systems.
Does the story resonate with your world? Can you change the names, the products, and perhaps the actions, but still see the underlying systems in place? Replace tools and paint with liquor, wine, and beer; does the story still fit?
If you have made it to this point from the beginning of the series, you have a better understanding of how complex things are. Good — understanding is the first step toward solving complex problems. “Seek first to Understand Before being Understood,” is the fifth of Stephen Covey’s Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. Understanding takes dialogue and conversation. The spoken or written word is sometimes insufficient to achieve understanding. That is why we have developed an alternative use for bar napkins.
Next, I will share ten different archetypes of systematic dysfunction. These ten archetypes come from a number of resources, so I will not claim originality in creation. What will be original is the dialogue we build together in understanding these archetypes, and what can be done to break their cycles.