November 2008 | Commentary | Supply Chain Perspectives

Curve Appeal

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The efficient delivery of goods requires a thoughtful way to negotiate curves and arcs to find the optimal route.

All motion is curved. The Earth turns on an asymmetrical axis while it revolves around our sun in an orbit that moves within the Milky Way galaxy, and the galaxy moves within the universe. Smaller arcs of motion in rail, truck, air, and containership travel govern the efficiency of a specific trip. When truck drivers navigate along a graded highway, for instance, speed and acceleration are critical to fuel use. The same applies for train engineers. The track is set, acceleration and deceleration are variable, and the proper speed around a curve is measurable.

Or we might consider a popular pastime: auto racing. Drivers find the optimal line along an oval track and reach the greatest lap speed by riding high along the straightaways, then angling in and down to the inner radius of the track through the end curves. This approach reduces the tightness of the end curvature; any deviation cuts lap time and speed.

In ocean transportation, a containership's voyage from China to Los Angeles travels a course set along a great circle arc. The arc along the Earth is a geodesic—the shortest possible path along a sphere. The variance of speed along this arc determines efficient use of ship fuel, as does idling time and proper handling at the port.

We can even compare this paradigm to a quality control chart—an abstraction of actual work done well or poorly. The intended level in a quality control system can be measured as a deviation against a center line established as highest quality. Actions that fall in the upper or lower control limit are of less quality. Even if a user achieves 99.99-percent quality, the line of quality becomes a recording arc of the actions slightly above and below the center line.

A CASE FOR ARC SUPPORT

Attention to supply chain arcs is particularly important today as shippers and carriers explore better processes and more efficient routes for managing fuel usage.

For example, the American Trucking Associations aims to reduce fuel demand by holding truck speeds to 65 mph and using electronic devices to prevent drivers from exceeding 68 mph.

It is hard to argue with the intent of this goal. However, someone can stay below 68 mph and still be a lousy driver in relation to hitting the right groove uphill and down, around the curve, and along the straightaway.

In fact, holding to 65 mph may be the wrong action. If a big hill lies ahead, a driver may have to exceed 65 mph to get a surge—burning more fuel going down to burn less going up.

A similar theory applies to tightening and slackening transportation performance to drive consistency. The goal should be to travel the best possible arc for all trips, regardless of mode. This requires a process of continuous planning and action—a cause-and-effect relationship between shippers and carriers.

The key is executing with as little variance as possible. Constant and unregulated spikes, too much or too little, do not sustain business. In this view, the enterprise becomes a compendium of all the little things added up over time. But isn't there value in risk-taking within transportation?

Risk in process may be fine for an individual making intelligent decisions at the right time and place. But it may not be fine for those affected but not consulted—partners, customers, suppliers, and shareholders.

Moving too fast or too slow, arriving too early or too late, can negatively impact a customer straddling a just-in-time curve. Avoid the zig zag and stick to the arc.

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