On time, or not, that is the question

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In many ways, logistics is like a theatre show, particularly when we think about operational and transport planning. Paddy MacBrant explains why.

The idea of a carefully choreographed dance starting every 24 hours where each performer knows exactly when they need to produce ‘the goods’ makes perfect sense. However, anyone who has worked in logistics (or theatre for that matter) will know that creating that dance can be a mammoth task. It can feel like directing a cast where everyone is hell-bent on being the star of the show, instead of a harmonious ensemble with a common vision. If Caeser gets stabbed by Brutus at the beginning of Act 1, it makes very little sense, and the show isn’t worth watching. The same thing is happening every day in logistics operations around the country; a vehicle arrives to collect a load that isn’t ready so neither the picking of the load nor the arrival of the vehicle is appropriate.

Every motion in logistics is triggered by one thing: the customer. The action of buying a product has the same effect as yelling ‘action!’ as well as ‘cut!’ on a film set. ‘Action’ because a new dance begins to replenish that product ready for the next customer. ‘Cut’ because the dance has ended, the customer has what they came for and the business has made a sale.

If you’ve ever been to a show where the actor has forgotten their lines, you’ll know how agonising the silence is. The operational clock is the script that we, as logisticians, write to remove those awkward silences. The difference is that the audience isn’t watching.

A store without products on the shelf is not a very appealing shopping destination and so we find businesses throwing vast amounts of resources at the problem without asking the very simple question that drives the ticking of the operational clock. That question is ‘When do they need it?’

To illustrate the point and move us away from theatre land, we’ll use a practical example. A customer walks into a high street branch of CILT Stores Ltd. looking for a high-quality tote bag, ballpoint pen, and reusable coffee cup. If they can get those three things, they’ll be a very happy customer who will tell all their friends about how great CILT Stores Ltd is.

To satisfy that need we must consider the following questions:

  1. When does the store need the product to be able to stock the shelves?
  2. When does the vehicle need to depart the DC to arrive on time?
  3. When does the loading team need the order ready so it can be loaded onto the vehicle?
  4. When does the picker need the pick list to prepare the order?
  5. When does the system need the order to create the pick list?
  6. When does the store need to raise an order?


The answer to the questions drives an order cut-off time and the opening motion of your operational clock. This is oversimplified because it ignores some of the intricacies of the process.

Imagine the inefficiencies of;

  • Sending a vehicle with just 3 items. Imagine what the cost to serve would be
  • Waiting for orders to just ‘trickle in‘


A parked vehicle is a very expensive paperweight. However, the most expensive thing to haul is fresh air, and getting a vehicle can be complex! To fill that vehicle, it must depart at the right time to perfectly coordinate with every single order that is due to be on board. It must be planned to take an economical and efficient route with as many orders on board as possible. It must also know, hours in advance, which orders it will carry so that the warehouse can prepare those orders.

To best serve a customer, you want them to have maximum opportunity to buy stuff from you and to best utilise your vehicles, you want them to be full to bursting, right? Therefore, to best fill your vehicles, you need them to leave as late as humanly possible and arrive as close to the time they are needed. Suddenly the transport plan becomes pivotal to the whole operational process and we can start to do some clever things.

With those six questions, I mentioned earlier, we can unlock possibilities to enhance the service that we provide to our customers and become market leaders. By understanding the capabilities of your warehouse, the habits of your customers, and the capacity of your fleet, you can put a transport plan in place that removes the awkward pauses in the performance and sets tr changes of success.

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