Distribution 101

Courses on the basics of distribution are rarely found in colleges these days — and that’s a pity, according to John M. Hill, a world-renowned material handling expert and principal of ESYNC, a Toledo, OH-based supply chain consulting firm. Distribution has become supremely complex, he says, and it is futile to throw technology at it without a thorough grounding in the basics of the discipline.

Complicating matters, CEOs have realized the contribution that an efficient supply chain can make to the bottom line. Most of America’s large corporations are rapidly restructuring and upgrading their distribution operations, implementing equipment, systems, and personnel changes all at once. The process can get almost unimaginably chaotic. Hill compares it to an air traffic control center: “How can anyone manage that without going absolutely crazy?”

Part of the problem, in Hill’s view, is that few recent entrants into supply chain management have had adequate training in all aspects of operations. “We need people who understand facility layout, transport, data collection and subsystems, and supply chain execution,” Hill says. “Academics used to focus on all of those groups. Now they’re either focusing on facility layout and design or on the tools available. Very few institutions are doing both, certainly not at the level that I would like to see. They’re just trying to get the kids through in four years.”

The only exceptions, Hill points out, are institutions where logistics programs are driven by a strong educator with a personal interest in the area. “It takes a person with a lot of passion,” he says. He notes that industry groups also provide valuable instruction, but that even so, “if someone said, ‘I want to get into supply chain management, so what should I know?’ the answer would be a single-spaced, two-page list!”

Hill believes that the result of a narrow academic approach is often an inability on the part of new logistics graduates to view the big picture and a tendency to focus on technology at the expense of judgment. “In spite of all the tools available, there’s no substitute for experience and intelligence in figuring out a better way to do things,” he says. Hill finds it usually more effective to give clients ideas but not answers. For instance, to design the facility of a small marketer with a highly seasonal product mix, he provided a set of tools that showed the company various ways to lay out the warehouse but that gave no specific recommendation. To decide on a solution, Hill says, you still have to use your “gray matter.”

In an ideal distribution center, he says, all the required applications and systems would be housed in a single location that a small team could manage. But even the best software won’t deliver the desired results if applied to a poorly configured facility. “Even though there is science involved, it is not precise,” says Hill. “The ‘people’ component will make that impossible.”

This fall, Hill and logistics expert H. Lee Hales will conduct the Distribution Center Operations Forum, an O+F-sponsored two-day workshop on facility layout, processes, and technology. For more information, visit http://multichannelmerchant.com/opsandfulfillment/distributionforum/.

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