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Back up the bus

by Malcolm Mills

OK, so let's just back up that bus a few feet.

Your sense of humor may be in traction still, having dragged it kicking and screaming through 2010; but maybe it will appreciate the pithy pun pinned to this subtitle as you weigh it against this first pass from our 2010 "Would-a, Should-a, Could-a" list.

But to business first. You're reading this because you hope it has value, right? You've got tons to do but take this minute to stop and seriously ponder the value of information previously provided within the pages of Industrial Supply magazine. No, it's not a test, it's an invitation. Somehow you've missed some pretty important stuff.

And before your conniving and nefarious intellect convinces you that the author of this has some kind of vested interest or something to gain in speaking this way, keep in mind that I'm a lowly contributor only. I don't get paid to tick you off. Other people do that. What I'm extracting today is the obvious. I leave it to the intellectuals among you to implement any ideas flowing from it. And yes, I'm OK with that.

If you are reading this, you've got a tool in your possession I'm pretty certain you don't utilize properly. It's a tool actually so useful in my book, that it rates somewhere up there with the cordless drill. I sleep with mine under my pillow, I like it that much (but that's another story.) But to many, because that drill is prevalent, inexpensive and widely available nowadays, we tend to forget its inherent value. We gloss over how easy it is to use because now we can afford to hire someone to do it for us. It's there but we don't use it.

Here's what I mean in relation to our industry.

The tool I'm talking about is the caliber of content provided to the readers of Industrial Supply magazine in 2010. I mean it, this isn't fluff. Content has been increasingly powerful, accurate and applicable since its recent birth into the mainstream industrial supplier information channel. And when I say this, I discount my own meager contributions in that statement. Admit it yourself. Readers of this magazine over the past year have been wined and dined with a sage and professional smorgasbord of advice and counsel presented on a platter to meet every taste. It continues this year as an endless buffet at a reasonable cost. And who doesn't like a buffet? Some of us could stand to gain a pound or two.

But my question quite frankly to you, my friends, is this. "Exactly what inspiration did you glean from it and what exactly have you done with that edification?" Your own waistband has expanded, I see, but has your employer grown chubby under your direction?

I'm old enough to say this. I think I can forecast fairly accurately in deducing that most of you did nothing with 90% of the information even if you could have. You were moved at heart, perhaps, but not motivated enough to act on what you learned. As devout a reader as you may be, as much as you love the content, as often as you nod your head, smack your lips and mutter how great it is, you did nothing or very little in taking even a variation of what you have learned and applied it within your company on even the basest of levels. That's not a criticism or an accusation; it's a reality through which I'm hoping to prompt something dynamic out of you this year.

And that's the point of this article. The year 2011 has presented you, the reader, with many a brand new opportunity or platform to assist you from your down turned mentality, out of your comfort zone and into producing something beneficial for yourself, your company and the economy, however so local. Whereas previously you hesitated, stalled and faltered, now you will see, learn and apply. Why? Because it's your job and this tool at your disposal works. You care about the industry, you want to do your job and do it well.

That said, if you're offended in any way by this opinion, you should probably stop reading right here because it can only get worse for you. Keep in mind, though, that sitting through what we often don't want to hear is probably more beneficial to you than listening to someone tell you how wonderful you are when you're not.

At least stay for the pun in the first of the Opportunities You May Have Missed in 2010. The first one comes from the cover story that appeared in the July/August issue of this magazine (Invisible Borders). It's about how Replenex and 3M earned the American Eagle Award from the Industrial Supply Association for their work at New Flyer Industries, a bus manufacturer out of Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada. The article enlightens us perfectly on a universal issue, one that has been kicking around mostly unaddressed for decades by the majority of distributors and manufacturers. It's classic. The company faced issues when it came to "cross border product, pricing and processes."

You may have been fooled by the "cross border" aspect. Well, don't be. If you're manufacturing anything for or within this, or any, continent, you've got duplicate SKUs for the same product somewhere in yours or a related system. And the reality is that either the customer knows about it and can't seem to get anything done about it, or doesn't know about it and is paying a different price for the same product.

This problem is as old as dirt and all but omnipresent in the manufacturing and distribution game as we know it. And you can bet your next bonus check that it exists where you are in some form or other, whether you know it or not or admit it or not. But the question is, "Did you read the article and glean any value from it or did it go in one eye and out the other?"

3M is a classic example but there are dozens of others. Corporate giants are in corporate turmoil. The "C" usually stands for confusion. When you get to a certain size, the left hand literally stops knowing what the right hand is doing because it's so far away it can't even see it any more. I've known giant electrical products manufacturers, heavy equipment manufacturers and PVF manufacturers that face the same issue. It's a major problem and, as the article points out, it costs customers big money in time, administration, quality issues, confusion, invoicing. Shall I go on? And not just the customer, it costs the supplier also, sometimes in lost customers.

It's a simple story of "standardization" really. But after reading of the success and the benefits of the example, did you stop and ask yourself how you could bring standardization to your company? If you thought it was bigger than you, did you take it to your friend or manager or bring it up in a meeting for discussion or consideration? What did you do about it?

What exactly did you do with the revelations brought to light in the article: 1) the problem, 2) the
analysis findings, 3) the process and methods used to achieve success, 4) the benefits and cost savings resulting from the exercise? Do you believe that standardization isn't an issue with your company? Give it some more thought. It probably is in some way.

The reason I'm flapping my gums so directly about this, is because it's one simple way for North American manufacturers and distributors to begin to get back in the game. It's a practical, beneficial and inexpensive way to at least in part:

  1. reduce costs
  2. improve efficiencies
  3. reduce confusion
  4. enhance business relationships
  5. draw buyer and seller into sharing/discussing mutual goals
  6. reduce friction in vender/customer relationships
  7. streamline your own data
  8. reduce inventory and
  9. prove to existing customers that they really are important to you.

I'm not trying to impress you or badger you. In plain English, we need to openly discuss not only our accomplishments but also our shortfalls. If it takes anger to inspire you to action, then get off your butt and get angry. Take one for the team.

This is how simple it is. How many times has a buyer or purchasing manager called you in, looked at you with those serious, hound dog eyes and told you how imperative it is that they reduce their costs across the board by, let's say, 15%? Hey, it's the new year and the recession lives on, so count on someone saying it to you somewhere and soon! It's almost a joke except it isn't funny to the buyer held under the gun by the board. And you aren't rolling in the aisles either I noticed.

So, back to the "Invisible Borders" article. New Flyer ended up saving 15% less per labor hour due to working more closely with the customer, but how did Replenex and 3M get their feet further in the door? By moving forward with a standardization initiative! Was it work? Yes! Was it profitable? Yes! What else was accomplished? (again, in part)

  1. Customer requisitions were reduced
  2. Product performance issues were reduced
  3. Vender performance was increased
  4. By extension, QA issues would also have to have been reduced, i.e. shelf life problems from carrying duplicate stock No.'s of the same product
  5. Less scrap
  6. Inventory value would also logically have to have been reduced
  7. Solutions were found to practical problems

There's a possible +/-15% savings available to you to offer and all of this has been served to you on a silver platter! You've even got a case study. Why don't you go for it?

You haven't even had to:

  • reduce costs or prices
  • install expensive new software
  • add stress in any of your buyer-seller relationships
  • no scrambling to find ways to shave 15% from your own profit
  • no beating up on your own suppliers.

You've been handed a gift, all for the price of a (free) magazine. And all of this because you read a simple but invaluable article from a progressive and worthwhile source. You sat in
the comfort of your cozy little office, sipping your Venti Starbucks coffee with your big feet high on the desk and you somehow didn't let all that cholesterol from the fudge brownie clog your thinking before the blood got to your brain wherever it is. At least that's how you might succeed in 2011 if you try.

All you have to do from here is learn from your peers and then offer to do the same!

And that's only one of the dozens of ideas and case studies presented. No rocket science, no fanfare, just plain common sense. And to quote Alex from Madagascar 2 ... all it takes is lots of "grit," "spit" and "sticktuitiveness."

So welcome to 2011. Opportunities abound. Now try not to get hit by a bus this year. Instead, why not try to overtake one!

Malcolm MillsMalcolm Mills is a 25-year veteran of the purchasing and procurement field and author of "It's a Tough World Out There-25 Ways to Lose a Customer 25 Ways to Fix It." The book is available by contacting Malcolm at

This article originally appeared in the March/April 2011 issue of Industrial Supply magazine. Copyright 2011, Direct Business Media.


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