business news in context, analysis with attitude

by Michael Sansolo

If misery really does love company, we Mets’ fans are on the prowl. Luckily for us, we don’t ever have to look far. Finding misery is easy and sometimes fixing it is possible too.

Take this little historical episode. Back in 1999, NASA accidentally crashed a Mars Climate probe into the planet for just the dumbest of reasons. When you read this you might remember what happened. Some of the software for the flight operation was calibrated in the metric system, while part of the probe itself used the Imperial system. (Or maybe it was the other way around.) The bottom line is our tax dollars created a new little crater on Mars.

Precision matters and little things can cause big problems if they aren’t watched carefully.

Luckily we don’t crash probes into anything in the supermarket business, but it’s not for lack of trying. MNB ran a story last week about the incredible number of products on the shelves that, according to one study, carry the wrong dimensions. The study’s authors say these mistakes cause a host of problems, down to incorrect planograms.

There are two key questions in the study: how widespread are the mistaken measurements and what problems do they really cause?

The first question might be immeasurable. The study authors, Gladson Interactive, claim 90 percent of products have incorrect dimensions and, quite honestly, that could be right or wrong. In many ways, it’s immaterial because the second question is so pressing. What problems are the measurements causing?

In an age of electronic communication, clean data is everything. Actually, it’s the foundation of everything. Computers, wireless devices and the Internet make everything so much easier to do. But nothing works if the basic data is wrong.

If the dimensions on a product are wrong, everything can go wrong. Forget about planograms, what about the cube on trucks. There are stories around of trucks failing weight checks because product was heavier than it should be. And there are stories of trucks being underutilized because the capacity load projected by a computer didn’t quite work out that way in reality. And the problem moves through the supply chain to the slots in the warehouse or the weight of cases that workers will be lifting.

None of those situations are hypothetical. I’ve heard countless retailers and wholesalers talk about the errors caused by sloppy dimensions and many, if not all, have an employee measuring products in a warehouse somewhere to correct the wrong information included in many on-line orders.

The reasons for the mistakes are actually pretty simple. Some are caused by changes in packaging or even small shifts in sizes between prototypes and final products. This being an industry of change, such things are bound to happen. And while the problem sounds so simple to fix (let’s get everyone a ruler and a scale) the scope of the issue does make it challenging. But our business is about taking on the challenges and fixing them. Isn’t it?

Logistics are hardly the sexiest item for a column like this. Details rarely are. Shoppers care about good prices, nice service, cleanliness and a nice shopping environment. They don’t care how the product got there, they just care that it’s there. But without sharp logistics, none of those other attributes work as well as they should. Without sharp logistics, the industry wastes fuel, wastes trucks, wastes back room space and wastes staff time. All are precious commodities and shouldn’t be wasted lightly.

Fixing data isn’t an issue of finger pointing. It’s just something that has to happen together and stay better forever.

NASA hasn’t crashed a probe into Mars since 1999. Apparently, they learned their lesson. Maybe we could all do the same.
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