Logistics is logical thinking? Forget it!

‘Logistics is logical thinking’ is a statement that I often hear. Tempted to agree, I start to wonder that if this is true, how can it be that I am so often confronted with very different solutions to very similar problems. Could it be that logistics is not as logical as we often seem to think?

In case of increasing lead times, one logistics manager reacts by increasing order quantities, whereas the other one decides to place his orders earlier. In order to mitigate the unreliability of an Asian supplier, one manager decides to build a local warehouse in Asia, whereas his colleague opts for absorbing the uncertainties in Europe. In order to help production, one manager implements a long frozen period, while his colleague decides to do levelling by using inventories. Finally, in case of lack of grip, one manager thinks it best to implement an APS system, whereas his colleague decides to review his production management concept. Makes sense, right?!

Recently I decided to consult my encyclopaedia, which states that the term logistics comes from the Greek logos, meaning ‘speech, reason, ratio, rationality, language, phrase’. All very logical and rational key words, but unfortunately no explanation for our observation that in comparable situations, we keep coming up with very different solutions. Do we think logically at all then?

Some further Googling tells me that logical thinking is a conscious attempt to suppress excesses of our natural thinking, by selectively blocking the lanes we use for our natural thinking. Natural thinking? Obviously there is something that is called natural thinking. Google subsequently tells me that natural thinking is our most primitive way of thinking. When thinking naturally, our thoughts are following certain natural patterns that have been paved by repetition. Familiar cliché patterns appear to be important here and the associated connections trivial.

Something is starting to dawn on me. The expression ‘Logistics is logical thinking’ could very well be such a cliché pattern. The manager, convinced that he/she is thinking logically in fact is not; he/she is thinking naturally instead. Possibly with detrimental consequences. Maybe not if he/she is unconsciously capable, but certainly so if he/she is unconsciously incapable.

My encyclopaedia may state that logistics is logical thinking, but obviously we do not always think logically. According to Professor Steef van de Velde (RSM), our logic indeed has its limitations. He argues that root causes are lack of information, our cognitive limitations and limited available time to get to optimal decisions. That is why we use routines, heuristics and mental shortcuts. These heuristics will work fine in many situations, but not always! This is because we all tend to make judgmental errors.

In case you think that logical thinking is the highest good, then I have to disappoint you. As stated earlier, logical thinking is a conscious attempt to suppress excesses of our natural thinking, by selectively blocking the lanes we use for our natural thinking. Once a lane has been blocked however, it is extremely difficult to open it again. E.g. try and convince an MRP adept of the power of pull, and a lean adept of the importance of inventory. So even if you think logically, the question remains whether your organisation really benefits.

Increasingly, supply chain management is proving to be a critical success factor. Companies like Apple and Procter & Gamble are excellent examples that support this observation. Superior logistics is not the result of logical thinking, nor of natural thinking. Superior logistics is a product of thinking differently. Thinking differently requires a willingness to jointly increase and apply knowledge and expertise, based on experience and reflection. Sometimes looking for answers. Often without knowing what you are looking for, until you have found it. It goes without saying that serious gaming can play an important role in thinking differently.

According to my encyclopaedia, logistics is indeed equivalent to logical thinking. Unfortunately we do not often think logically. And even if you think logically, the question still remains whether you have not accidentally blocked the wrong lanes. Superior logistics requires different thinking. Try and experiment with a serious game. A whole new world may open itself to you.