Facts and Principles

The truth is more important than the facts. – Frank Lloyd Wright (1869-1959)


‘Our decision making needs to be fact based!’

Not many people would argue with that statement. But I will.

While I wouldn’t recommend making decisions devoid of all fact, we need to be careful not to assume that facts, figures and analysis are the only requirements to make good decisions. More importantly, we must never use facts as a cop-out to allow ourselves to make decisions that we know are bad. As obvious as this sounds, doing the wrong thing for the sake of political expediency and ‘keeping the peace’ happens all too frequently in business today.

As a case in point, many economic studies have used facts and figures to argue that a major catalyst to economic growth in the United States in the 1800s was the widespread use of slave labour in agriculture. Some have even gone so far to suggest that America would not be the economic superpower it is today without the slave trade.

In a presidential election year, there is much hand wringing about the state of the U.S. economy and there has never been an election in which this hasn’t been a key voting issue. So here’s my question: If ‘the facts’ show that slave labour was historically a key contributor to economic growth, why isn’t anyone suggesting a return to slavery as part of their platform?

The first problem is that facts are rarely, if ever, complete. The second problem is that humans have a tendency to dismiss facts that don’t support their preconceptions.

The fact is (no pun intended) that the really big and important decisions can often be made on principle (as in the slavery example) without having to bother doing a full blown cost benefit analysis to tell you the answer.

Data analysis is great, but it must be used to support and measure decisions made on principle, not to make the decisions themselves. As an example, we are often lambasted for our long standing criticism of pre-distributed cross dock as a retail distribution channel. After all, it reduces picking volume and frees up pick slots in the DC, decreases ‘touches’ in the supply chain and takes advantage of the existing outbound network to get product to the stores. What could be wrong with that?

While those are certainly facts about cross-dock, so are these:

  • It shifts the burden of picking store orders from a facility that was designed for that purpose (the retail DC) to a facility that was not (the supplier’s DC), lessening efficiency and increasing cost.
  • It requires stores to lock in orders further in advance, resulting in decreased agility when demand changes and higher inventories in the stores.
  • It reduces transport cube utilization, as pallets must be built with only the handful of products that are shipped by the supplier, not the thousands of products that are shipped by the retail DC.

So how do we use these conflicting facts (along with dozens of others that I didn’t mention) to determine whether or not cross-docking is a wise distribution strategy?

You don’t.

Retail is about customer service. Customers can walk into any store at any time to get any product. Their expectation is that the product they want will be there on the shelf when they show up to get it.

Postponement (i.e. committing to decisions at the last possible moment) is a timeless supply chain principle that maximizes service while minimizing costs.

By its nature, the cross-dock channel increases commit times at the point where the customer is demanding the product without notice and builds inventory at the point in the supply chain where it is fully costed and can’t easily be redirected.

That’s not to say that there is never a scenario whereby cross-docking doesn’t make sense, but violation of a core supply chain principle should at least give you pause before pursuing it in a big way.

No facts required.