The Importance of Thinking About the Box

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.


  1. John Santomer

    September 17, 2011 - 1:52 am

    Dear Jon,
    With kaizen improvements aiming to reduce “muda” of various kinds, when do we say that the development of new packing and shipping materials (biodegradable or both) is viable enough to replace the current ones in use? We’ve seen some used in candy wrappers but not to the extent of packing materials that transport goods continents apart. Do you suppose it is cost effective to produce these new containers, reduce our carbon footprints in doing so and not increase the heavy tax we already impose on our natural resources? We are already killing ourselves by overburdening mother nature with our needs…very few actually ever care to replenish what they have taken and use. Many are still blinded by the returns from the business and have not thought about what the industry has brought to the environment. Others are just obliged by government environmental rules and yet find ways to go around those strict compliance measures.

  2. Jon Miller

    September 17, 2011 - 6:26 pm

    Hi John
    I guess the question in my mind is “Why do we need new packing and shipping materials?” We need to think deeper about the consumption-production behaviors that result in the need for non-lean packaging so we can start to address the problem at the root cause. We will never be as good as nature at making anything organic. Future cities will need to produce more of the food it consumes within the city itself, hanging gardens of Babylon-style.

  3. John Santomer

    September 17, 2011 - 11:19 pm

    Hello Jon,
    If this is the case, then its already being realized in Singapore where they have been growing produce in rooftops of buildings as a viable approach to reducing cost of importation and alternatively reduce the need for non-lean packaging materials. Lack of farming lands/compacted distribution networks have reduced delivery time/distance to reach their consumers. This lowers production cost and stretches produce shelf life. It’s their way of addressing the country’s growing dependability on bulk produce imports and become sustainable.

  4. Jon

    September 19, 2011 - 10:50 am

    In the USA we’ve tried moving our cities out to the farms (suburbia) but that didn’t seem to shorten our food supply chain. Moving farms into the city might be a winning idea.

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