Innovation, responsiveness and resilience: The role of meetings and technology in logistics
A fast paced-industry, logistics relies on information flows to optimise its activities. How do meetings contribute to data analysis, team alignment and decision making? Read the interview with Philippe Hemard, former VP of Amazon, to find out.
Logistics is the backbone of many commercial and industrial activities. Without it, there is no supply, no stock movement, and no delivery. The recent health crisis hit the logistics industry hard. Yet, the sector has proven to be resilient, and has been able to tackle the explosion of e-commerce and hybrid trade.
Transversal in nature, logistics relies on information flows to manage the flow of physical goods. In the context of geographical dispersion, diversity of players, and uncertainties about the economic recovery, what role do meetings and technology play in organising activities, aligning teams, and industry performance? With over 20 years’ experience in developing end-to-end supply chains for companies such as Amazon, Danzas (now DHL) and FDS France, Mr. Philippe Hemard shares his vision on the future of the logistics industry, and sheds light on the function of meetings in this fast-moving sector.
The health crisis hit supply chains hard. How can logistics still create value for consumers and organisations?
Philippe Hemard: Logistics is creating more value for consumers and organisations than ever before. Like all sectors, it has suffered from the pandemic, particularly due to shortages. Yet, logistics has been able to adapt by rethinking its networks and supply chains. It's logistics that partly enabled the transformation of traditional trade into a form of remote trade by making stocks accessible through the creation of distribution channels, and pick-up points.
This shift only reinforces the omni-channel trend that has been developing over the last three years. In-store stocks are available on the Internet, and customers can choose to pick up the product in a shop, at a collection point, or have it delivered to their home. The accessibility of products in different forms is what enabled, and continues to enable, retailers to continue operating despite significant obstacles. Even if we hope to break out of lockdowns soon, we have to be realistic: there will be constraints for a long time to come. Everyone will continue to refine their remote selling techniques, and it will be up to the logistics networks to support the efforts of retailers.
When we talk about the logistics industry, we immediately think of physical flows. Yet, the management of logistics also requires the analysis and the use of large amounts of information. In your opinion, what contributes to, or facilitates, the sharing of information?
Philippe Hemard: It is obvious that the Cloud and the entire Internet enables this sharing of information. Today, it's possible to store a lot of data with the help of on-demand solutions. But that's not all: these almost infinite storage spaces also allow data manipulation and calculations. The Cloud has revolutionised the logistics industry, which is a major creator and consumer of data.
The legislation also kept pace with digitalisation. For example, now transport can happen without mandatory physical documentation. Blockchain technology allows for extensive authentication and security of information and documents, making them tamper-proof. This is not the only advantage of blockchain, which is much more universal. It will also enable exchanges to be codified and stratified around shared standards and nomenclatures.
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How did logistics reinvent itself with the help of new technology?
Philippe Hemard: The Cloud and the power of computers have had a major impact on the digital side of the logistics industry. Yet, technology is also affecting the physical side, too. We see this with autonomous vehicles, drones, robots in warehouses, and storage systems. Even traditional trucks are becoming increasingly sophisticated thanks to the contribution of Artificial Intelligence (AI) and machine learning, which enables the optimisation of delivery. Warehouse management systems and information and inventory management systems are making it possible to optimise work and space in warehouses, and to increase productivity. IT systems have evolved, and the arrival of AI and machine learning is accelerating change and making logistics more efficient, faster, and cheaper.
In my opinion, AI will be used more and more. An example can be found in sales forecasting, which is still a difficult exercise to do - even for AI. However, procurement and inventory management systems that have a level of AI that allows them to integrate data from outside the company - not just historical data - are much more responsive. No system, no matter how good, could have predicted the impact of COVID-19. But connected systems, flexible and probabilistic in their calculations, are capable of advancing sales forecasts by playing out different scenarios in the face of uncertainty.
A key characteristic of the logistics industry is its geographical dispersion. Do meetings play a role in aligning all stakeholders?
Philippe Hemard: By definition, logistics is an extensive network that requires the use of communication channels to exchange information between different sites. Without a doubt some of these exchanges must take place in meetings. But meetings are not only about exchanging information.
Meetings are also a way of getting together, aligning, and ensuring that there is a common understanding around performance.
This is the case, for example, with reporting meetings. Yet, for these meetings to have value, all participants must present their figures in the same way. There needs to be a common standard in order to validate different interpretations. This is especially important when the organisation is geographically dispersed.
In other types of meetings, such as project meetings, alignment must be achieved before the meeting even starts, by drawing up a meeting agenda. People meet to make decisions, find new solutions or work together on a specific issue: therefore, it's essential to define beforehand what the objective of the meeting is.
Do you feel that meetings contribute to faster and/or better informed decision-making? If so, in what way?
Philippe Hemard: If a meeting is effective, it will naturally contribute to better decision-making. If a meeting is bad, it will not advance anything at all. The question is whether it's always necessary to hold a meeting in order to make decisions. This depends on the organisation and the level of autonomy that employees have. Generally speaking, I think that the larger the organisation, the more necessary the meeting is. In more complex corporate structures, it's very rare that people, regardless of their level of responsibility, are completely autonomous from other departments when making decisions.
The same question arises at the team level. Here, everything depends on the type of management. In some companies, the hierarchy has strong decision-making power. In this case, managers will tend not to see the need for meetings as they are the ones who ultimately decide - rightly or wrongly. In contrast, there are more collaborative environments where it is necessary to seek team alignment to make a decision. A meeting will then be a very good way to seek alignment and/or validation.
The need for a meeting to make decisions is also related to the value of the meeting. Take the example of a large capital expenditure. If there is a robust process, in which the applicant has to complete documentation to justify the expenditure to obtain approval, a meeting is not necessary. It's all about the structure and the quality of information.
What distinguishes a bad meeting from a good one? What do you expect from the meetings you attend or organise (in terms of results, preparation of participants, availability of information, etc.)?
Philippe Hemard: For me, a bad meeting is one which does not have the right participants attending. This applies to meetings where too many people have been invited, or where key people are missing. In the first case, assuming that 50 people were invited when only 10 were really needed, it can be assumed that the meeting will still lead to the desired result. The fact however remains, that 40 people will have wasted time in the meeting. If this becomes a habit, they will get bored, and will eventually stop participating.
Apart from choosing the meeting participants, a meeting can be bad because it was poorly facilitated. This can be the case when discussions deviate from the meeting agenda, the agenda was not well-developed, or the meeting was ill-prepared - for example, documentation was not provided in advance.
Good meetings are those where the participants have been carefully selected. These are meetings where the organiser has taken the time to think about the objective. The definition of the objective helps as well in selecting participants. A good meeting is also one that starts and finishes on time, respecting everyone's agenda.
You also need to be well-prepared. One of the methods used at Amazon was to build reading time into the meeting. The reason was simple: people who have back-to-back meetings every day don't have time to read documents before each meeting - assuming that all documents are available. A meeting could, therefore, be scheduled from 4pm to 5.30pm, with a message that the first half an hour would be spent reading. You could decide not to come until 4.30 p.m. if you had had time to read the material.
Another important aspect of good meetings is the way they are run. If ten people have been invited, it is up to the organiser to ensure that each of them has the opportunity to give their opinion. The performance of a meeting is not measured by the time spent in a room, but by the effectiveness of the work it will generate. For that, there is no mystery: you need good meeting preparation, good information, a record of the discussions, and an action list. These are the ingredients of a good meeting.