Insights into Operations from the LGO Domestic Plant Trek: Week 2

David Walker, LGO '13 January 23, 2012

David Walker, LGO ’13

David Walker, LGO ’13

When I first heard of the Leaders for Global Operations program at MIT, the mental image that it conjured was of steel refineries and inefficient factories. As I went through the application and admissions processes, I quickly learned that operations could certainly be distinct from the type of heavy manufacturing that I had envisioned. It wasn’t until the recent two-week domestic plant trek with the rest of the LGO class of 2013, that I came to understand the impact that operations has on nearly every aspect of daily life. During the first week of the plant trek, 52 students examined the headquarters of Caterpillar in Peoria, Illinois. Impressed by their hospitality and the sheer scale of the construction equipment they were building, we took note of the flexibility of their manufacturing processes as we made our way to Detroit. Visits to Ford’s Rouge plant, the LEED-certified GM plant in Lansing, and Boeing’s Everett facility followed. Each tour gave the class more and more insight into the daily logistical and operational challenges that face any company. In my mind, these manufacturing-based visits fit with my perception of what it meant to be in operations.

The second week of the plant trek, however, provided a completely different viewpoint. The class kicked things off with a tour of PHX6, one of Amazon’s largest fulfillment centers. A fully modern facility with several thousand employees, they have turned inventory management and distribution into an art. Within minutes of an online order, the components of the shipment are already being processed by a mix of manual and automated processes. Knowing the rough cubic volume of each item in the order permits an optimum packaging volume to be used, saving weight, materials, and shipping costs. Worker ergonomics are studied to reduce workplace injuries and eliminate wasted movement. Near-flawless integration of software algorithms and packaging equipment ensures that rush orders receive the required priority on the distribution lines. I left PHX6 in awe of the perfection that Amazon was pursuing. This was what many people were referring to as they spoke about the importance and potential impact of improving a company’s operations.

Trips to Dell’s facility in Austin and Amgen’s manufacturing site in San Juan later that same week yielded additional insights. After fundamentally shifting their underlying business from computer manufacturing to a data-services model, Dell’s internal focus has moved from manufacturing operations to supply chain management and system integration. After their presentation, I felt as if the supply chain portion of the operational puzzle was falling into place. Where I had previously seen supply chain optimization as a separate, supporting leg of the operations platform, the Dell tour helped me to see it was an integral part of the same solution. In a similar way, a thorough review of the Amgen factory revealed that the general principles of heavy manufacturing are not at all bound in aluminum and steel as I had imagined. Instead, Amgen’s engineers work with DNA to create a wide range of specifically tailored disease-fighting proteins. Looking back on the two-week domestic plant trek, I recognized that I tend to find aspects of heavy manufacturing at Boeing, Amgen, and GM the most interesting facets of operations. That being said, the trip was a tremendous help in rounding out my perspective. Far from being relegated to heavy industry and manufacturing alone, the study of operations is relevant to defeating the most difficult problems we face within our society. I found myself even more interested in delving into operations in the future, recognizing that there are so many opportunities available within the sphere of global operations.