Below the equator, a classic process problem

The next time you think your organization’s process problems are so singular they couldn’t be happening anywhere else, ask Joe Langlitz and his colleagues how they spent the first month of their summer this year.

botswana students
From left: Bi, Langlitz, Goetter

Langlitz and fellow Fisher College of Business MBA students James Goetter and Wenzhao Bi closed out their first year in the program with an 8,000-mile trip below the equator to Gaborone, Botswana. They were one of eight groups of students sent overseas through Fisher’s Global Applied Projects (GAP) program to work up-close with a corporation to solve a business challenge. Sponsoring the students’ gap team was the Botswana arm of British banking giant Barclays, where Fisher alumnus Jeff Davis serves as Chief Risk Officer.

Looking back at the work Langlitz and his team completed, Davis says they’ve helped lay the groundwork for some major improvements in Barclays’ business loan approval process. Getting there, however, entailed a frenzied three-week mission to hunt down process waste that put to work what each team member brought from the classroom and enlisted the help of a few Center for Operational Excellence members, too.

‘I wanted a revolution’

Davis cut his teeth in the birthplace of lean manufacturing, working with automakers and suppliers as they applied lean/Six Sigma principles. Today he’s a top officer at Barclays Botswana, which employs 1,200 at its corporate office and 42 branches and ranks as the second-largest bank in the market.

“When I got into financial services later in life, I would see our processes through the lens of the learnings I had in the automotive industry and would get frustrated at our inability to do true lessons and root-cause analysis in our pursuit of simple, repeatable processes.”

A particular target of Davis’ frustration was the corporate loan approval process at Barclays Botswana, which could – and often did – take as few as two days but also could stretch past six months in some instances, putting average turnaround just shy of four months.

“I wanted a revolution,” Davis said. “I wanted 500 percent better.”

Project Firefly

Davis took his first steps toward a solution by connecting with the GAP program at his alma mater, eventually bringing the trio from Fisher to Gaborone and pairing them with two MBA students from the University of Botswana. The project team had zero formal corporate banking experience – and that’s exactly what Davis wanted.

“We wanted an injection of new ideas,” he said.

(From left) Langlitz, Bi and Goetter taking a break from the office at Botswana's Mokolidi Nature Reserve
(From left) Langlitz, Bi and Goetter taking a break from the office at Botswana’s Mokolidi Nature Reserve

Langlitz admits to a dose of culture shock upon arrival. Gaborone is the governmental and economic capital of a country with a fast-growing economy, but one that also still relies heavily upon mining and the cattle trade. It’s the latter – particularly their penchant for wandering onto busy roads in Gaborone – that struck the team in their early days.

“The first week we were there, it really sunk in: ‘We’re on the opposite side of the equator,’” he said.

The more time the team spent in country, however, the more familiar it became – and the more Langlitz and others saw how universal challenges such as those at Barclays are.

“They’re just like any institution,” he said. “They’re trying to figure out better ways to serve the customer.”

The GAP team and their University of Botswana colleagues took on what Barclays dubbed “Project Firefly,” an extensive effort to visualize the loan approval process flow in the form of a value stream map and, importantly, flag non-value-added elements therein. The long-term goal is to slash average loan-processing time a staggering 90 percent to only 10 days.

Mapping the process required interviewing numerous stakeholders across different offices and navigating at-times fraught situations.

“With the overall process so fragmented, teams tend to be myopic when dissecting which processes are adding to uncompetitive turnaround times,” Davis said. “We asked the team to hold a mirror up and tell our people what’s going on without placing blame, and they did a nice job of lowering defenses.”

Enlisting help

In addition to receiving regular coaching from COE Executive Director Peg Pennington, the Project Firefly team also sought insights on the challenge at hand from two member companies: Huntington National Bank and KeyCorp.

“A lot of the pain points they had,” Langlitz said, “were pain points Barclays has been dealing with.”

Jeremy Winstel, a senior manager of enterprise lean/Six Sigma for Key, said reducing customer hassle has been a regular focus for the bank in its process improvement efforts. His insights served as a key early benchmarking opportunity for the project team before and during their stint in Gaborone.

“Providing this knowledge transfer assistance has been a great way to get plugged in to Fisher and try to help out,” Winstel said. “That’s what the COE’s about, holistically.”

Kevin Plaugher, senior vice president and business banking credit manager at Huntington, also spent time walking the team through the credit approval process and imparting a key bit of wisdom:

“It’s like physics,” Plaugher said. “If you want to extend credit to the customer, there are certain things you have to do, and you can’t pretend steps in the process can be skipped or eliminated. Still, even with the most manual processes, there are tools to make it faster, simpler, and clearer.”

Langlitz said benchmarking with Huntington and Key “sent us down the right path” to ultimately making this key discovery: More than half of the time Barclays Botswana spent processing loans was non-value-added. This opened the door to substantial improvements.

Just the beginning

The Project Firefly team capped their nearly three-week stint with Barclays Botswana by reporting out their findings and recommendations to the bank’s executive leadership team and its Managing Director, the region’s top-ranking official. Langlitz said the team took particular pride in the fact that none of its recommendations came strictly from qualitative information.

“All our recommendations were data-driven,” Langlitz said. “These weren’t just because we heard someone say it was a good idea.”

The results and recommendations provided major clarity for Barclays going forward, even if Davis and his colleagues already knew process waste was a problem.

“We knew there was a lot of waste in the system, but we’d never been able to measure it,” he said. “They did a great job of taking a complicated set of data from a lot of locations and distilling it down to a very clear story to tell.”

Through the summer, Barclays Botswana began hiring additional associates and making its first strides in implementing some of the Project Firefly recommendations. Improvement efforts are set to ramp up through the fall, Davis said, for what is expected to be an ongoing process.

As for the students, Langlitz said he and his colleagues gained invaluable process improvement skills, through an unforgettable experience, no less.

“Being able to say I’ve been there, done business in a different culture, I’m a lot more comfortable now.”

For more behind-the-scenes details on Project Firefly, check out the blog the students maintained for the trip. For more details on the GAP Program, click here or play the video below:

Fisher collaboration brings op-ex tools to realm of education

An unconventional effort to reform Ohio’s K-12 education system is sending a new pack of leaders out with more than an MBA from Fisher College of Business and a certification to serve as a principal.

They can wield some foundational operational excellence tools, as well.

bright student fisher mba
BRIGHT fellow Shaun Mitchell, right, shares the results of his A3 problem-solving project.

Fisher this summer graduated 30 students as part of the BRIGHT New Leaders for Ohio Schools program after they spent nearly a year working as administrators in high-poverty schools around the state and completed an accelerated MBA program at Fisher. The program, launched in 2015 with $3.5 million in state funding and help from Fisher and the Ohio Business Roundtable, takes business professionals from a variety of backgrounds – largely non-education – and deploys them throughout the state as principals. BRIGHT fellows, as they’re called, must serve as a school administrator for at least three years after graduation.

At a presentation prior to graduation, a number of BRIGHT fellows showed the results of their work tackling the A3 problem-solving methodology, one of a few tools Center for Operational Excellence Executive Director and BRIGHT educator Peg Pennington introduced to the curriculum.

“The BRIGHT program itself is an experiment, so I thought to myself, ‘Why not do an experiment of our own here?’” Pennington said. “These problem-solving skills – A3s, root-cause analysis – are powerful tools anywhere, and I think they can really help cut to the heart of some of issues that plague our education system.”

For the BRIGHT fellows, those issues included lagging math and reading scores, a lack of collaboration between upper- and lower-grade students and educators, truancy, and discipline referrals, among others. Pennington in her classes with the BRIGHT fellows showed how the A3 and root-cause analysis can properly define the problem and, medically speaking, move past managing symptoms to truly treat the underlying ailment.

David Maile, a longtime plant farm owner who transitioned out of the business two years ago, signed onto the BRIGHT program and found himself as an administrator at Highview 6th Grade Center in the Cincinnati suburb of Middletown, where the poverty rate has jumped from 9 percent to nearly 14 percent in about 15 years. Maile leveraged root-cause analysis and A3 problem-solving to improve math scores in the school, where he said much of the challenge was in bringing a level of consistency and precision to data collection.

Other process-improvement projects were of a more qualitative nature. Jeff Greenley, a lawyer by training, worked in the Switzerland of Ohio School District in Appalachian Ohio, the highest-poverty region in the Buckeye State. Greenley’s school housed a wide age range of students that rarely interacted, in large part because they didn’t see the value in it. Greenley did.

After defining the problem via an A3 and enacting countermeasures, Greenley finished the school year with more than four in five upper-grade students helping out and interacting with elementary-age students. The A3 process, he said, was eye-opening.

“There are not a lot of tools at our disposal in education to think about operational problems,” he said. “This is a hammer we can use to hit the nail.”

Regardless of the challenge, the BRIGHT fellows discovered very quickly that data was a crucial asset in their problem-solving journey – even if it wasn’t used as such in their schools. Astrid Arca, an economist for the state of Ohio, served in the same Appalachian school district as Greenley and took on the challenge of improving reading and math schools in a student population with a high percentage on so-called individual education plans. The data needed to cut to the heart of the problem, Arca found, existed – but weren’t being analyzed to inform instructional practices.

“There was almost a fear of the data,” she said, “and most of my job was removing those barriers.”

BRIGHT leaders are hoping that spirit has a transformative effect in the schools where its graduates are heading this fall and beyond, even if the difference in background for many fellows hasn’t gone unnoticed. Deborah Copeland, a BRIGHT principal coach with a nearly 30-year background as an elementary school principal, acknowledged a level of skepticism around “outside” people taking a leadership role in education. Often, she said, it just takes spending time alongside the fellows to see that they have the skills and capability to drive change.

“It’s been a joy watching these fellows coming in with a different perspective, full of hope and promise and not weighted down by the barriers that those of us who’ve been in the trenches often get blinded by,” Copeland said.

The BRIGHT fellows themselves are the source of a telling data point: About 90 percent had K-12 principal or assistant principal jobs locked in at the start of the school year.

Fisher students in 1st wave of new professional certification

A group of undergraduate operations students at the Fisher College Business bear the distinction of being the first in the world to earn a new professional certification seen as a stepping stone another key resume-booster.

A total of 15 Fisher students recently passed a version of a new exam through the American Production and Inventory Control Society (APICS) to earn the “Global Supply Chain Associate” (GSCA) designation. This brand-new designation is the culmination of a year’s work among faculty at several universities nationwide, including Andrea Prud’homme, a clinical faculty member at Fisher who also serves as an associate director for the Center for Operational Excellence. The Fisher students took part in a test launch of the program, which is set to roll out internationally this fall .

Prud’homme said a key motivation in creating the GSCA designation was the fact that undergraduates often don’t have the time or money to pursue the well-known Certified Production and Inventory Management (CPIM) designation.

“This gets them started should they wish to pursue CPIM certification,” Prud’homme said. “Additionally, many of the companies that hire our undergraduates provide incentives and support for new hires to become CPIM-certified.”

COE summit highlighted on ‘Manufacturing Tomorrow’ podcast

manufacturing tomorrow
Have five minutes to spare?

The Ohio Manufacturing Institute just released the latest edition of its semi-monthly Manufacturing Tomorrow podcast, which they recorded at the Center for Operational Excellence’s Leading Through Excellence summit just last month.

Podcast Executive Producer Kathryn Kelley in this edition interviews a trio of COE members – Agrana Fruit’s John Labrador, Crown Equipment’s Craig Wreede and WillowWood’s John Matera – on what operational excellence means for them. Listen here, and check out the podcast’s website here.

COE regularly partners with OMI to bring speakers to Manufacturing Tomorrow. Past COE collaborations have resulted in podcasts interviewing Goodyear’s Norbert Majerus, COE Executive Director Peg Pennington, Snap-On Inc. CEO Nick Pinchuk and more. They’re all on the podcast archive.

Special thanks to Kathryn Kelley and the OMI team for visiting the summit and featuring our members.


Lean IT, innovation, women’s leadership sessions on COE summer slate

Following a record-breaking Leading Through Excellence summit in April, the Center for Operational Excellence is gearing up for a busy slate of summer events.

Spotlight on MassMutual at IT Leadership Network forum

Dalton Li
Dalton Li

After a visit from Menlo Innovations CEO and Joy Inc. author Rich Sheridan May 13, COE’s popular IT Leadership Network forum series returns June 3 with a presentation from Dalton Li, a vice president who leads the continuous improvement practice for $29 billion-a-year MassMutual Financial Group.

In this session, which kicks off with a networking breakfast, Li will provide an inside look at MassMutual’s approach to lean deployment, its coaching strategy, and its support system for sustaining gains. Li began his career as a nuclear submarine officer based in Annapolis and later served as an assistant professor for the U.S. Navy before working at consultancy McKinsey & Co. for six years. He joined MassMutual in his current role in 2012.

Formal invites for this session are set to go out early the week of May 2.

Innovation Summer series

B. Carpenter, A. Schlegel
B. Carpenter, A. Schlegel

Just a few weeks later, COE kicks off a three-part “Innovation Summer” series led by Associate Director Aravind Chandrasekaran. This series, set for June 16, July 14 and Aug. 18, tackles questions including: How can companies leverage lean/Six Sigma practices to build more agility for innovation teams inside their organization? How can they carry those across the supply chain? And how can these best practices cultivate an idea from its earliest stages?

Across this trio of sessions, you’ll hear from innovation icon 3M, Buckeye/NFL greats and business owners Bobby Carpenter and Anthony Schlegel (pictured, left), and more.

Registration for the first of the three sessions will open the week of May 9.

‘Build Your Brand’ workshop

Krista Neher

COE’s semi-annual Women’s Leadership Forum series returns June 24 for a workshop with Krista Neher, CEO of Boot Camp Digital. This “Launch Yourself” session will help attendees define, design and deliver a powerful personal brand online.

Registration for this limited-capacity session will open the week of May 16.

Check out COE’s events page for save-the-dates on additional events into the fall and through 2017.

‘Joy Inc.’ author, former summit keynote Sheridan returning in May

Miss last year’s Leading Through Excellence summit? Looking to revisit one of our most popular keynotes?

Rich Sheridan during his keynote at Leading Through Excellence 2015
Rich Sheridan during his keynote at Leading Through Excellence 2015

The Center for Operational Excellence is partnering with Fisher College of Business’ Master of Business Operational Excellence program to bring to campus Rich Sheridan, CEO of award-winning software developer Menlo Innovations LLC and author of Joy Inc. Employees of COE member companies are invited to join MBOE program alumni the morning of Friday, May 13, for a keynote by Sheridan, who kicked off the 2015 Leading Through Excellence summit and led a half-day workshop.

A programmer by trade, Sheridan entered the corporate world and found at the midpoint of his career that he no longer experienced the joy that had drawn him to the industry. After losing his job as a software development executive when the dot-com bubble burst, he founded Menlo Innovations in 2001, saying the company’s purpose was to “bring joy to the world through software.” Menlo has gone on to win the Alfred P. Sloan award for Business Excellence in Workplace Flexibility for eight straight years and has earned five revenue awards from Inc. magazine.

In his keynote, based on Joy Inc., Sheridan will offer an inside look at the culture that’s flourished at Menlo over the last 15 years that leverages visual management, an open and collaborative workspace, and a “fail fast” ethos that has garnered attention nationwide. All attendees will receive a complimentary copy of Sheridan’s book, Joy Inc.

Click here to register for this limited-capacity event.

Management Sciences Prof. Benton receives ‘Best Paper’ award

Furthering Fisher College of Business’ reputation as a top operations research powerhouse, a Management Sciences professor recently received honors from a major engineering journal.

W.C. Benton Jr.
W.C. Benton Jr.

IIE Transactions, the flagship journal of the Institute of Industrial Engineers, honored Fisher Prof. W.C. Benton Jr. with the ‘Best Paper’ award. He’ll be formally acknowledged at the publication’s research conference in May.

Benton’s award came for his “Determining Core Acquisition Quantities When Products Have Long Return Lags.” This research tackles a common problem for closed-loop supply chains: Having a sufficient supply of reusable products, a tricky balancing act between accidental shortages or inventory overloads. Benton in his research culled live data from original equipment manufacturers and remanufacturers to develop a new forecasting approach that better balances product returns with demand volume.

At Fisher, Benton is the Edwin D. Dodd Professor of Management and a professor of operations and supply chain management. He’s a prolific researcher whose more than 120 articles have appeared have appeared in publications including the New England Journal of Medicine, Journal of Operations Management, and many others. He has consulted for a wide variety of public- and private-sector entities throughout North America.

Team building, problem solving take center stage at 2016 COE summit

The Center for Operational Excellence’s flagship annual event has more than a few things in common with the fast-paced racing world featured in the kickoff to the fourth-annual Leading Through Excellence summit.

In the span of three years, COE’s April Leading Through Excellence summit has grown to a gathering of nearly 400 process excellence leaders from around the world: 50 companies, a dozen workshops and tours, 20 breakout sessions, four dynamic keynote addresses, and countless insights across three days aimed at helping organizations harness the power of process improvement.

Here’s a look back at the event:

PIT action

Leading Through Excellence began with a bang as nearly 100 attendees plunged into the high-paced world of pit crew racing, guided by Mooresville, N.C.-based training ground Performance Instruction & Training (PIT). The session’s focus on handoffs, coordination and standard work drove home the importance of having a high-functioning team for Cheryl Cole of KeyBank, which sent 17 employees to the conference. “We can all benefit from what we experienced from PIT,” she said. “Teams tend not to be aware of the significance of being in sync.”

PIT team
Team-building emerged as the heart of Leading Through Excellence, where a number of companies brought upwards of 15 employees. “Getting a team together, you start bouncing ideas off each other,” said attendee Linda Schaefer of COE member Clopay. “You get more people involved, the excitement builds, and great things always come of that.”


Operational excellence isn’t bound by the Japanese words that make the foundations of lean. Author Dan Markovitz (A Factory of One, Building the Fit Organization) in his workshop offered a jargon-free look at continuous improvement that’s at the heart of his own passion to break down barriers to understanding. “If we could speak to them using analogies and metaphors that make sense to them, all the sudden we don’t have to go uphill,” Markovitz told COE in a pre-summit interview.


Longtime COE member Cardinal Health Inc. hosted a “train the trainer” workshop hosted by Luis Loya (pictured, middle) that modeled the health-care company’s own best practices in teaching lean practices.

Off-site tours during Leading Through Excellence ranged from a trip to Anheuser-Busch InBev’s massive Columbus brewing facility to a trip through the production line at COE member Abbott Nutrition. Here, Ohio State’s own Spine Research Institute demonstrates its trailblazing work in studying back problems, a hugely costly yet widely misunderstood workplace ailment.

Ben Cook
After hosting two high-paced rounds of pit crew training simulations on the first day of Leading Through Excellence, Performance Instruction & Training’s Ben Cook took to the stage to kick off a full day of breakout sessions. Before a crowd of nearly 400 people from 50 companies, Cook illustrated PIT’s “think inside the box” philosophy, that’s hinged on driving precision from a highly functioning team and reducing human error as much as possible. “The problem is the human element – that’s what happened with us as pit crew members. If we break down, then we lose the race; the car’s not gonna lose the race for us anymore.”

True leaders don’t bark answers – they ask questions that help dig to the root of the problem. Attendees practiced asking effective questions in a packed session hosted by lean expert Margie Hagene.

More than half of all breakout sessions at Leading Through Excellence are hosted by industry leaders, sharing stories of what worked, what didn’t – and how we can all learn from it. Pictured is Guru Vasudeva, SVP and Enterprise CTO at COE member and summit sponsor Nationwide, who shared his own “day in the life of a lean leader.”

The balance of the breakout sessions at Leading Through Excellence are hosted by Fisher College of Business faculty members sharing their own research. Pictured is Prof. Aravind Chandrasekaran, who offered insights he gleaned from working with high-tech manufacturers facing sudden – and potentially cataclysmic – shifts in project scope.

Matt Dumas (pictured, above) of COE member Honda R&D said the summit is “a great event for a team. To have more of the organization thinking about lean and understanding these principles makes it that much easier to take it back and work together to apply it.”

Lead summit sponsor gave attendees a hands-on taste of process design principles with a catapult workshop that had participants taking a “MacGuyver” approach and facing off in friendly competition.

Longtime lean leader Joe Murli in his keynote address offered his decades-in-the-making perspective on the lean management system. Of the summit, he said “this isn’t just leading-edge thought, but edge of the envelope thinking here. It’s little things that we can pluck off the tree and bring back to put into what we’re already doing. That makes it much more powerful.”

Connecting an organization’s purpose and mission down to day-to-day work can be a formidable challenge for any company. David Kalman of Root Inc. in his popular breakout session showed attendees how visuals can help close that gap.

Harvard Business School researcher and professor Francesca Gino, author of the book Sidetracked, guided attendees through the wild world of decision making, where our hard-wired instincts often stand in the way of the right calls. “We are human beings,” Gino said. “Often we start with a plan, a clear goal, and we take the time to come up with a clear action plan. When we look at the outcome, we’re often a little bit off target.” Knowing how to counteract the unconscious biases and instincts we possess, Gino said, can lead us to better decision making, she said.

The behind-the-scenes action at Leading Through Excellence was fueled by more than three-dozen Fisher College of Business undergraduate students, graduate students and staff members, who served as volunteers and introduced speakers throughout the event.

Accidental Creative founder and acclaimed author Todd Henry closed out Leading Through Excellence, urging the audience to ask: “How are you bringing yourself to the table every day as a leader? A brilliant idea is not enough – in order to succeed, you have to develop your voice as a leader and you have to help your team develop its voice.”

Want to see more? Check out the full album of summit photos on our Flickr site. And mark your calendar for Leading Through Excellence 2017, April 11-13.

Do we really understand lean deployment in health care?

by guest author Aravind Chandrasekaran, associate professor of management sciences, Fisher College of Business

Anyone who has taught lean principles grounded in the famous Toyota Production System (TPS) to organizations outside the manufacturing industry has – at least once – heard this common refrain: “(Insert industry here) isn’t cars on an assembly line. This doesn’t apply to my work.”

A. Chandrasekaran
A. Chandrasekaran

Leading lean thinkers, of course, have learned how to work with individuals and teams to move past this roadblock and garner buy-in – that’s why the practices and tools intrinsic to TPS have made their way into countless industries. Lean still can be a target for criticism, though, and one need look no further for proof than an article published earlier this year in the New England Journal of Medicine – and the debate it ignited.

The January issue of NEJM featured an article called “Medical Taylorism” where authors and physicians Pamela Hartzband and Jerome Groopman assert that lean principles “cannot be applied to many vital aspects of medicine. If patients were cars, we would all be used cars of different years and models …” This tipped off a flurry of rebuttals, including one from Lean Enterprise Institute CEO John Shook boldly titled “Malpractice in the New England Journal of Medicine.” In his piece, which itself attracted widespread attention, Shook writes that the foundational lean principles of continuous improvement and respect for people are critically important in the health-care system.

Shook is right, but I’d like to approach this discussion from a different angle, namely that this line of criticism has emerged elsewhere – and it’s rooted in a lack of understanding of lean deployment.

One of my initial research areas sought to understand how standardization and “smart application” of Six Sigma principles can aid R&D and innovation efforts. I pursued this as a number of business press publications and industry practitioner blogs lamented the damage Six Sigma does to creativity and praised the need for variation for innovation. Several years of research with my colleagues in Fortune 500 companies made us realize such sentiments don’t hold much water. We found, in fact, that principles of Six Sigma – when applied to the innovation process correctly (hence the “smart” in “smart application’) – can help reduce unnecessary variation and stop worthless innovation activities that consume R&D funding.


I’ve more recently collaborated with researchers and physicians to tackle similar questions in health care. Once again, the findings – published in several academic and practitioner outlets – are very similar: The smart application of lean and continuous improvement principles can help develop a safe and patient-centered health-care system.

In arguing that patients aren’t cars, the NEJM’s authors are absolutely right – but they’re dead-wrong in concluding there’s no place for lean in “many vital aspects of medicine.” As with our R&D research, we’ve found that lean deployment in hospital settings minimizes unnecessary variation that comes from care providers, not patients. In fact, it frees up time and effort to cater to the necessary variability in a population diverse in its illnesses, economic backgrounds, languages and more.

As an example, I spent years with other researchers – including some physicians – looking at Ohio State University’s Wexner Medical Center, specifically a lean deployment effort in its kidney transplant discharge process. Medical research has found that transplant recipients after discharge must drink at least three liters of fluid a day – failure to do so can spike creatine levels, elevating blood pressure and increasing the likelihood of readmission. In our study, we found variations in how nurses delivered these instructions to patients: One nurse, for example, recommended drinking “a lot of fluids” while another suggested 100 ounces. Interestingly, nurses varied their wording across patients, while one patient would receive different instructions from more than one nurse. This wasn’t a matter of intentional deception, but the inconsistencies confused patients as they took in a tremendous overload of instructions.

Overhauled through the lean deployment via standard work design, nurses in our medical center now clearly explain the specific volume of fluid, use a jug to visually illustrate, and discuss the consequences of not following the instructions. Preliminary findings show this approach soothes patients’ anxiety levels and has reduced the chances of readmissions in the first month after transplant.

This isn’t just a lean approach to a problem – it’s a smart lean approach. And in an environment that, yes, isn’t cars on an assembly line, that matters more than ever.

Research spotlight: The hidden price tag of supplier reliability

nate craig
N. Craig

by special contributor Nathan Craig, asst. prof. management sciences, Fisher College of Business

The retail shopping experience today is one of incredible convenience for customers and extraordinary complexity behind the scenes.

Customers have grown accustomed to the seemingly sleight-of-hand ease with which many retailers stock shelves and fill online orders, while their supply chains are under increasing pressure to keep up. For suppliers and retailers alike, a blip that keeps a shelf empty or stalls a shipping date is an invitation for competitors to creep in—or for customers to take aim on social media.

Retail, in short, has never been better positioned to deliver the multi-channel experience customers crave. But the stakes have never been higher. One slip in the journey from factory floor to customers’ hands costs time, money and brand loyalty.

Major supply chain disruptions—natural disasters and strikes, to name a few—might catch headlines, but they’re rarely the culprit behind empty shelves. The kinds of problems that wreak the most havoc, we’ve found, might surprise you.

Correctable and costly


Our research, published in the Journal of Operations Management, comes after years of examining how retailers can better leverage their vast supplier networks to improve the end consumer experience. These opportunities are exciting and lucrative. An earlier collaboration that examined supplier management practices at Hugo Boss found that increased supplier reliability can increase both demand for a brand and the supplier’s profit, even in the face of expense-adding measures that strengthen the supply chain.

Modern retail techniques such as online ordering, in-store pick-up, and pack-by-store distribution pay dividends in a fast-paced industry with razor-thin margins. But executing these practices is challenging, creating chances for suppliers to miss the mark. Even if the retailer properly forecasts demand, products can get stuck in supply chains.

We spent months scouring data on supplier errors at a major distribution center (DC) for a 700-store retailer—for anonymity’s sake, we’ll call this big-box chain Omega. Examining a full year of Omega’s orders from its suppliers, we found about 7 percent of all orders suppliers delivered deviated from Omega’s specifications. Less than half of these, however, were “classical” errors such as late delivery and short quantities. The majority of the errors involved the complex labeling, packaging, and information exchange requirements that support modern retail supply chains.

These errors are correctable, but doing so costs time and money. If a supplier doesn’t properly document an inbound shipment, it can’t run through the retailer’s automated receiving system. Instead, the retailer’s employees must manually inspect and identify the shipment. Products with incorrect price tags, packaging, or display elements (like hangers) must be adjusted by the retailer’s employees before hitting the selling floor.

Research in the retail arena has paid little attention to these correctable errors, which we’ve found are more frequent than others and come with substantial costs. Rework time and labor hours for correctable errors alone, we calculated, could cost around 5 percent of the Omega DC’s annual operating budget. That’s close to $25 per product per year on average across hundreds of thousands of items. Extrapolating from Omega to the retail industry suggests that these errors cost retail supply chains billions of dollars annually.

Chargeback, move forward

If retailers have had difficulty determining the financial impact of these frequent, correctable errors, they’ve had even more when it comes to properly recouping costs from errant suppliers.

Retailers’ chief weapon in reducing the immediate cost of supplier errors is the so-called chargeback, which docks supplier revenue after errors and can shave up to 10 percent off the supplier’s top line. Our research found the Omega DC’s supplier chargebacks often under- or overestimated the cost of rework, even when doling out millions of dollars in penalties per year.

Hitting the mark on chargebacks not only could stabilize retailer revenue but avoid the contract disputes endemic in these arrangements. To help retailers get there, we’ve analyzed the kinds of products most harmed by fulfillment errors and found a way forward for retailers working to balance fluctuations in supplier performance with their own inventory holding policies.

Margin matters

The answer for each product is far from clear-cut and entails a number of factors, all of which have a complex interplay. How much does it cost to hold the product? How tight is the margin? How damaging to the retailer is it to have pent-up, unsatisfied demand?

Understanding how all these factors interact lets the retailer maximize its improvement efforts and helps prevent knee-jerk reactions to improving supplier performance. Depending on the product and supplier, a retailer might benefit more from simply padding inventory than burning time and money on boosting reliability.

With a global network of hundreds of thousands of suppliers making the modern retail machine run, it pays dividends for retailers to be efficient and effective as they keep apace with customer demand. Especially when one wrong bar code can do so much damage.