Why Your Supply Chain Needs Standard Work

Boeing B-17   https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Boeing_B-17_Flying_FortressDr. Atul Gawande’s excellent book, The Checklist Manifesto, includes the story of the infamous first public flight of Boeing’s newest plane, Model 299. I say “infamous” because this first flight, the one that was supposed to show off the plane’s significant size and technological advancements to buyers from the US Army, ended in a crash, caused by pilot error. I’ll let Dr. Gawande explain:

“Substantially more complex than previous aircraft, the new plane required the pilot to attend to the four engines, each with its own oil-fuel mix, the retractable landing gear, the wing flaps, electric trim tabs that needed adjustment to maintain stability at different airspeeds, and constant-speed propellers whose pitch had to be regulated with hydraulic controls, among other features. While doing all this, Hill (the pilot) had forgotten to release a new locking mechanism on the elevator and rudder controls. The Boeing model was deemed, as a newspaper put it, “too much airplane for one man to fly.

The book goes on to explain how the Army Air Corps purchased a few of the planes to continue testing. No longer could the pilots rely on touch and feel, earned through hundreds of hours of flight training, the complexity of this airplane required an additional tool. The tool created by test pilots? A simple pre-flight checklist. Once considered too complex to fly, the Model 299 – also known as the B-17, or “Flying Fortress” – went on to play a significant role in World War II, all made possible by a humble checklist. And today, pilots have added standard work in the form of checklists for every conceivable scenario they may encounter.

What was it about the Model 299 story that made standard work the answer, and (more important for us) what does this have to do with your supply chain? I was able to identify three adjectives that make standard work a requirement for flying planes and supply chains.

1. High-Stress: Those of you who have experience in the supply chain industry know the “excitement” of late parts. Regardless of the root cause of the delay (supplier issue, equipment failure, or quality defect, among others), supply chain teams have to be capable of making logical, data-driven decisions, and not letting the stress of the situation influence their ability to make the right choice given all variables. Checklists allow you to do just that. I can recall several times during my supply chain career when the use of a checklist saved the customer money and/or delivered the parts in the shortest time.

2. Complex: Much like the cockpit of an aircraft, supply chains are highly complex. First of all, supply chains have several “controls,” or decision points. An inbound network with thousands of parts, hundreds of suppliers, multiple cross-docks, and several manufacturing locations has the potential for literally billions of possible scenarios. While it should be a lean supply chain leader’s goal to reduce that complexity over time, the current state requires someone who can handle decision-making responsibilities within this environment. 

Second, just like a plane’s instrument panel, supply chains are increasingly becoming more “aware,” turning the data collected through ERP transactions and Transportation Management Systems into information. The benefit of having checklists in the face of complexity is knowing which controls to adjust based on the feedback of your instrument panel/measurement system.


3. Time-Critical: Highly related to the two reasons above, supply chain decisions often have to be made quickly. There is a certain “analysis paralysis”  that comes from having seemingly unlimited information at your disposal. However, the supply chain is continuing to operate around you, and will not wait for you and your team to make a decision. Having a simple checklist available to help guide you on what things to consider – and what decisions to make – will help you make the right decision in the least amount of time.


One final note: this post focuses on the cost and quality benefits of implementing standard work. Click here to learn more about some additional benefits of standard work.

What about your supply chain? Is it “too much airplane for your team to fly?” If so, consider adding standard work checklists into your processes. And if you have added, please share your experiences in the comments section below!

Randy Siever worked at LeanCor in the Logistics Operations group for seven years before leaving to build a software tool called The Lean Office. You can learn more about it here.

Posted by LeanCor Supply Chain Group

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LeanCor Supply Chain Group is a trusted supply chain partner that specializes in lean principles to deliver operational improvement. LeanCor’s three integrated divisions – LeanCor Training and Education, LeanCor Consulting, and LeanCor Logistics – help organizations eliminate waste, drive down costs, and build a culture of continuous improvement.

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