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July 24 2006 05:30 PM

Discussions of efficiency in the workplace often focus on saving time or at least not wasting it. And thats a fine place to start, but simple algebra shows its not enough. Once you recall the basic axiom that time equals money, you dont have to be Pythagoras to see that preventing lost time shouldnt be the only point of workplace efficiency. The goal of business is to generate the green stuff after all not just stem its loss. So a better approach is to work on creating time; true efficiency frees up precious minutes and hours and puts them to profitable use. Once you start thinking in these terms, you find that there are almost as many ways to create extra time as there are to waste it.


A Spectrum of Automation

At their most basic, workplace automation tools look like simple time-saving tricks: Preventing keystrokes, reducing the number of hands paperwork passes through or even eliminating hard copy record keeping altogether can shave seconds or even minutes off the tasks workers perform dozens of times a day. Those slivers of time add up, enabling completion of more tasks every day, week and month. But the real payoff creation of time and opportunity lies in the fact that every chore these systems handle is a chance for human error.


Every time someone handles some piece of paper or retypes anything, you can lose something, says Debby Toso, facilities manager for Purina Mills in St. Louis, Missouri.


Under Tosos leadership, Purina Mills adopted an automated shipment processing and tracking system to help manage the 800 to 1,000 packages issued from company headquarters each month. Under a paper forms-based system in place a few years ago, typos and misread handwriting sometimes sent animal-nutrition information or sales materials into the wrong state.


The Purina Mills system stores customer addresses so ZIP Code digits dont get transposed. It also automatically chooses a shipping carrier for each package, either using a customers preferred service or choosing the lowest-cost option that meets the required delivery deadline. Those capabilities prevent unhappy surprises for customers and the time-consuming cleanups that accompany them.


Those do overs cost a bundle in pure cash as well as time: In terms of carrier fees alone, for instance, reshipping incorrect orders typically costs significantly more than twice what it costs to do it right the first time. Rush shipments and priority handling cost extra. Many contracts also provide for discounts or penalties on late deliveries. And in addition to the time fulfillment staff squanders processing the reorder, dont forget the entertainment costs and lost opportunity your field team may incur smoothing things over with disappointed or angry customers.


At Purina Mills, dispensing with paper forms has a significant fringe benefit for Toso as well. It saves me at least one day a month of tracking down loose ends, she explains. Tracking down stray manifests and airbills is something Toso admits she doesnt miss.


Distributed Expertise

Moving up a notch in sophistication, automation tools start buying your organization time in bulk: Instead of merely improving each individuals productivity, the tools make your operation collectively more efficient. The key to this is easy access to knowledge that used to be available only to or through specialists.


Providing easy access to sales figures, order status, warehouse stock levels, customer order histories and contact records makes everyone smarter. Workers across departments gain big-picture insights that allow them to make better decisions. And self-serve information access buys back time that used to be spent in calling other offices or departments for information and waiting for return calls.


This makes everyone in the operation more helpful and responsive. When anyone who picks up the phone can quickly get relevant information, customers dont have to wait or track down the last person they spoke to in order to get or give order updates. When workers dont have to rely on a computer expert to get reports they need, you dont have to confine report availability to the select few the expert can handle and you can turn the computer expert loose on more strategic things.


The Reach of the Web

The efficiencies of shared expertise are magnified by the reach and flexibility of Web and Internet technology. Intranets and secure Web connections easily tie together far-flung locations, so they eliminate information silos that prevent one hand of your operation from knowing what the other is doing.


Dan Ohms, international and parts traffic manager for Subaru of America Inc., naturally hates to see people spinning their wheels. But before his company adopted an automated parts ordering and shipping system, its five North American distribution centers werent always in sync. They were isolated, and they didnt always know what was going on at another location, he says.


The Subaru system spans all the distribution centers to create a unified parts location and ordering system. It allows desktop access and ordering of any part in any warehouse in the companys network. Service representatives can get parts fast for Subaru dealers anywhere, even when the parts are not available at the regional distribution center.


Customer representatives now spend far less time on the phone with each other, and they can concentrate instead on their real strengths. The customer service team has more time to do what theyre trained to do take care of customer needs, Ohms notes. Ultimately, that means Subaru dealers get the parts they need when they need them, and Subaru owners get their cars back more quickly from maintenance and repair jobs.


Sharing with Partners

Still another degree of knowledge sharing and time creation becomes possible when Web technology is used to share information with business partners. Giving key customers and suppliers Web access to relevant information buys you more time and lets you give some to your partners as well. Instead of calling your office to check order status, product pricing or your availability for a conference call, your trading partner can get that information faster herself so when she does call, the conversation can focus on important business issues.


Ohms customers are Subaru dealers, and the company has begun sharing its parts-ordering tool with its dealer network through a password-protected Web site, It is very popular with dealers, particularly for placing urgent orders outside normal business hours.


Ultimate Efficiency

Use of the Web to give trading partners information access is moving to yet another level of efficiency, with the advent of intelligent automated systems that communicate and interact with each other automatically. A customers automated warehouse communicates over the Web with your smart ordering and shipping system, automatically ordering more of your product when its supply starts to run low.


Systems such as these virtual factories for producing useful time are gaining ground fast, and a new generation of automation software promises still greater gains. Sophisticated systems, designed from scratch to take advantage of the Web and capable of cooperative decision making, allow companies and their customers to collaborate electronically for mutual advantage. For example, a manufacturer and one of its suppliers might use their systems to prearrange conditions for an order so that any time the supplier can get raw material at an agreed-upon discount price, the manufacturer would buy a volume of parts also at a discount.


Automated systems able to provide this kind of strategic collaboration are beginning to appear across a wide range of industries, and their vast potential is just starting to manifest itself. They promise to redefine customer relationships, take service to unheard-of levels, save tremendous amounts of money and enable companies to define and pursue new kinds of business opportunities again by optimizing the use of time. These systems promise to take the notion of just-in-time manufacturing and distribution to new heights, minimizing the amount of time goods spend in warehouses, on loading docks, in transit and even on retail shelves. Detailed knowledge of inventory levels and order status lets intelligent systems route goods to where they need to be in order to sell and minimize the amount of time they sit around incurring storage costs.


Information replaces inventory, explains Adrian Gonzalez, senior analyst of supply chain and logistics for ARC Advisory Group. One of the most exciting things about this revolution, Gonzalez adds, is the fact that its likely to yield its greatest returns among small- and mid-sized companies, which have historically lacked the means to embrace leading-edge automation and technology. Fortunately, the Internet and Web are breaking down cost barriers and making it easier for small- and mid-sized enterprises to exchange information with their partners, and software vendors are beginning to offer cost-effective solutions to this market segment.


Gonzalez predicts this expansion of affordable Web-based collaboration tools will bring small- and mid-sized companies dramatic gains in productive-time creation, and that in turn will help large customers for whom small- and mid-sized vendors often were efficiency bottlenecks. Looking ahead to the next few years, its going to be a boom time for generation of productive time. Thats one gold rush that everyone should try to get in on.


Stephen M. Smith is president of Pitney Bowes Distribution Solutions, a company that provides supply chain and mail management software and services. For more information, e-mail