Why Don’t Supply Chains Give the Gift of Efficiency This Year?

December 8, 2015


With the holiday season in full effect, companies are looking for ways to give back to their communities. For companies, charitable activities aren’t just about positive press or optics – they help give employees a sense of purpose, in addition to being the right thing to do.

We wanted to share a great charitable giving story that’s highly relevant to Supply Chain Management, the area Argentus recruits for, and then we want to issue an unconventional appeal. The story comes from several years back, but only came to our attention recently as a novel way that companies with exceedingly strong Supply Chains can help charitable organizations in ways other than giving cash donations: by giving them efficiency.

Several years ago, the New York Times covered an unconventional way that Toyota chose to support the Food Bank for New York City: by offering Kaizen, or lean process improvements, to the charity’s operations instead of cash donations. The Times discusses how Toyota had offered cash donations for a number of years, but decided, one year, to send some of its best engineers to help improve the food bank’s operations instead. Here are a few of the more interesting small process improvements that Toyota offered the Food Bank which led to huge efficiency gains:

  • One of the Food Bank’s soup kitchens seated 50 people, and had wait times as high as 90 minutes. After the kitchen opened at 4pm and fill to capacity, a line would form outside, and once space opened up inside for 10 people, the staff would let the next 10 people in. Toyota’s engineers changed the policy so that diners came in one by one, whenever a chair was free. They established a waiting area, and they suggested the food bank assign an employee to spot free seats and point them out to each diner as they came in. Average wait time dropped to 18 minutes.
  • At one of the Food Bank’s pantry facilities, the engineers improved pick-up times by mapping trouble spots on the floor, reorganizing the shelves’ layout, and colour-coding each food group to make the shelves more recognizable, cutting the time clients spent in the pantry in half.
  • One of the Food Bank’s charity facilities was falling behind in terms of its fulfilment, scrambling to fill boxes of food for donation to Hurricane Sandy victims. Toyota’s engineers created an assembly line with a conveyor belt, lowering the average time to pack each box from 11 to 3 seconds. They also changed the size of boxes to eliminate empty space and save on freight costs.

In other words, Toyota offered immense benefits to an organization by leveraging core principles into huge gains in efficiency. Sound familiar, Supply Chain professionals?

Ever since reading about this story, this interesting approach of charitable giving has stayed on our minds as something that all kinds of Supply Chain organizations could do. (And we certainly recommend you read the article).

Typically, large companies will give cash donations to charities during holidays. Of course, companies have been donating to charities during the holidays for decades. But the Supply Chain function as we know it today is creative, tenacious, and above all-else, efficient. So why not, instead of offering a cash donation, offer the expertise of working to help charities improve their Supply Chains this holiday season (and throughout the year)?

The Times piece quotes some food bank officials who were initially skeptical about Toyota’s offer, reasoning that making cars and serving soup were two very different endeavours. But those officials were then blown away by how applicable Toyota’s lean improvements were to their charity. Which echoes what Supply Chain professionals have known for quite a while – how relevant certain baseline principles for efficiency can be across a wide array of industries.

More and more North American organizations are picking up on the vast possibilities of continuous improvement (a topic we’ll be covering in greater depth in the new year), even companies that aren’t in the manufacturing industry, which is continuous improvement’s traditional bailiwick. So why don’t more companies leverage this strengthened capability to increase efficiency to help charities’ Supply Chains become more timely and efficient? It’s a kind of “teach a man to fish” idea.

Is this something that could be replicated in Canada? Any companies with strong Supply Chains willing to lend their expertise to charities instead of donations this holiday season? favicon

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