Leaders interested in innovation or breakthrough improvement often speak of the importance of “thinking outside the box”. By this we mean discarding existing limitations on our thinking (the box) to generate new ideas, products or solutions. There are few if any truly new things under the sun, only novel combinations of the existing. However the so-called box can limit even our thinking about how we recombine things. Thus the saying.
A September 6, 2011 article in the New York Times about the passing of 92-year old engineer Keith Tatlinger made me realize the importance not only of thinking outside of the box, but of thinking about the box itself. In the 1950s Mr. Tatlinger invented the first commercially viable modern shipping container.
The box itself has been around for many thousands of years, and the metal shipping container for hundreds. One of the key innovations made by Mr. Tatlinger was the mechanism that locks the containers together, allowing them to be lifted, stacked and moved on and off ships, trucks and trains effectively. This lowered shipping costs and enabled producers to move a variety of goods to market. He is one of the unsung heroes the modern globalized supply chain.
The humble container is often forgotten about unless one is a packaging engineer, a purchasing person pinching pennies, or a lean logistician putting together a PFEP. If we were just a bit mindful we would notice containers everywhere. Within a value stream, items arrive in a container (shipping), to a container (distribution center) to be placed in a container (milk run truck) and delivered to a container (factory). Here they are taken out of their container (box) and place in yet another container after each process. How many value stream maps have been drawn completely blind to the variety of containers that are needed to serve the customer?
When thinking about the box, we need to do so at three levels. First, we need to ask “is this the appropriate container for this process?” Has the size, weight, material been designed with people and process in mind, or was the box selected haphazardly? The selection of box can have not only cost but also quality and safety implications on a process. Second, we need to ask “why is the container needed at all?” This is a 5 why line on inquiry that leads to root causes such as apparent economies of scale, capacity imbalances, distance between processes or simply ignorance of the benefits of continuous flow. Finally, we need to zoom out and ask “what does this box tell us about our paradigms?” We must use the physical box to learn about our mental frame of mind. What assumptions have we made and what guides our thinking such that we arrive at the use of this particular box?
Keeping in mind that “box” is meant in the broadest sense, we should view disposable packaging as an opportunity to use returnable containers, an unexamined pallet or box as an opportunity for container sizing for supermarkets and kanban, a factory, office or medical building as a box filled with people and processes that need flow to thrive, and most of all our planet earth, the container of all value streams, all enterprises, all markets and all people. It is important to think about the box.
The fruit I buy travels in boxes of metal, wood, cardboard and finally reaches me in a plastic container. Nature only makes containers that are edible, biodegradable or both. That is a thinking box worth stepping back into.