Welcome to my first column for PARCEL! While I’ve written a few articles over the last couple of years, this is the first installment of a recurring column.

While I hope to cover a variety of topics, I decided to start my first column with the adage to not ‘pave the cow path.’

For those of you not familiar with this term, it is a popular saying (at least here in Boston where the streets used to be meandering, well-worn cow paths). The saying is a reminder that what has evolved into a process may not be the most efficient process. The term’s origins date back to a poem by a New Englander, Sam Walter Foss (1858 -1911). Here’s a snippet from the poem: 

…For men are prone to go it blind, 
Along the calf-paths of the mind; 
And work away from sun to sun, 
To do what other men have done….

Dr. Michael Hammer popularized the saying in this century with his writings on reengineering business processes.

So How Does that Relate to Parcels?
I have been called in to help with stalled parcel software implementations to consult, and all too often I find a stalemate is due to a team that is trying to accommodate what was done with their old technology by force fitting newer software to the old way. They are paving the cow path.

Once an investment in a shipping solution is made, it is handed off to the IT department for implementation. Often this is part of a larger roll-out of an ERP or WMS deployment. While a lot of thought may go into achieving efficiencies with the ERP or WMS system, the shipping software can often be an afterthought; I’ve witnessed a number of IT departments try to duplicate the exact shipping operation that has been in place for years. They see the investment in the shipping system in terms of ensuring a common operating system, common databases, standard integration framework and other IT perspectives. All too frequently, no one questions the actual process and asks “Why?”

Here’s a great example of this: A group of field engineers and IT professionals were stalled in an implementation as the IT department was asking the field engineers to provide custom screens. The old screens had been created by the IT department and had evolved over 10 years. The screens allowed their employee, Beth, the ability to select a job that was scheduled for completion in the manufacturing area. The job resulted in any number of parcel labels that Beth would then bundle up with an elastic band, write the name of the job on the top of and bring out to the shipping area. If it was a rather large job, Beth could split it up amongst printers so she didn’t have to wait. The user interface had a variety of features like this.

Now the irony of this is that the shop floor knew what jobs it was going to do a full six hours before Beth came into work. I asked, “Why do you wait until 8:00am to start processing?” The answer? “Because that’s when Beth comes in.” Every other question I asked had an answer that specifically related to Beth. Beth picked the jobs so we color coded them for her, Beth shouldn’t’ have to wait on one printer; Beth needed to be able to handle exceptions, etc.

From a software perspective, there was absolutely no reason that you couldn’t eliminate most, if not all, of Beth’s activity. And, the new software could do almost all of what this company needed, out of the box.

Anyway, with a few fairly simple questions we went down an easy to implement solution that basically changed the work of one full time employee. 

Questions we asked: 
• “What are you doing?” 
• “Why are you doing it that way?”
• “Would you consider an alternate approach so Beth can be free to do other activities?”

The key is often moving past the IT department (that too often has its own agenda) and talking to the owner of the operation. I think you’ll be surprised in how eager they are in wanting to eliminate steps that are the parcel equivalent of cow paths.

I hope to make readers aware of other cow paths in our industry, and challenge us all to discover areas we can improve.