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July 6, 2007 - Supply Chain Digest Newsletter
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First Thoughts by Dan Gilmore, Editor

Bees, Order Picking and Self-Organizing Logistics Systems    

I was on my way recently to give a presentation at the Manhattan Associates User Conference when I passed a sign for an intriguing presentation: “Self-Organizing Logistics Systems.”

It was offered by Dr. John Bartholdi of The Logistics Institute at Georgia Tech, and unfortunately scheduled at the same time as my session. But I left a card with the host and told him I’d like to speak later with Dr. Bartholdi, and he was soon gracious enough to contact me.

So what is “self-organizing logistics?” Well, it is has something to do, literally, with the birds and the bees, or I guess the bees and the ants. Somehow, Dr. Bartholdi observes, bees in the hive are able to run incredibly effective “logistics” operations, without the benefit of software, pick-to-light systems, or even RFID. In fact, they don’t even have a boss. The queen gets treated royally, but she doesn’t tell the drones what to do.

So how do bees do it? As best we can tell, by self-organizing, based on simple signals from surrounding bees. “Each bee or ant in a colony follows some simple rule” Bartholdi told me. “Together, they achieve tremendous organization and effectiveness on a larger scale.”

Somewhere along the way, Bartholdi got to wondering just whether there were applicable self-organizing concepts for supply chain and logistics systems. Turns out there are, and that Bartholdi has been writing about them since the mid-1990s. I’m slightly embarrassed to only be learning about the concept right now.

The most clear and proven opportunity to utilize the concept is in order picking in a distribution center, specifically for “case” or especially “piece” picking (the picking of individual items into a carton or tote).

It’s always a high cost operation, and companies have tackled it with lots of technology and process, from “cluster picking” to zone picking, dynamic zone picking, Labor Management Systems with engineered standards, pick-to-light, now voice, and more.

All those have a place, and can add value, but are often based on a flawed concept, says Bartholdi: these “work content models” (zones, etc.) are “almost always wrong in practice – it’s just a guess.” Because workers operate at different speeds, both naturally, and at any given point, they become bottlenecks, and slow down the effectiveness of the whole.

The answer: self-organization: Forget zones, whether static or dynamically assigned. Each workers just does the next thing they are supposed to do (more in a moment), and adjacent workers respond. Voila – the line balances itself, and productivity and throughput are substantially increased.

“The concept is too darn simple – I can’t make any money on it!” Bartholdi jokes.

It works like this: Each worker starts down a pick line, at the speed they can accomplish given their skill and the difficulty of the next pick. When the last worker finishes his pick at the end of the pick line, he or she walks back upstream to take over the work of their predecessor, who walks back and takes over the work of his or her predecessor and so on. This continues until, after relinquishing his picks, the first worker walks back to the start to begin a new set of orders/picks.

If  you also then sequence the workers from slowest to fastest, Bartholidi calls the system a "Bucket Brigade," and the workers will spontaneously gravitate to the optimal division of work so that throughput is maximized.

Let me try to paint the picture another way. When the last/fastest worker gets done, he/she simply walks upstream until he/she encounters the picker behind them, and takes over any picks from wherever the hand-off occurred. That worker does the same, etc., until the first picker returns to the beginning of the line.

OK, like me you are probably saying “Has it been tried? Does it work?” Apparently Yes to both questions. Bartholdi’s Bucket Brigade web site ( - I have occasionally had some trouble getting the page; the site was down this morning - try later if so) lists a number of successes. Like many things, it seems to have found something of a home in one industry segment, that being music/video/books.:

  • McGraw-Hill: Order-pickers in distribution centers
  • The MusicLand Group: Order-pickers
  • Time Warner Trade Publishing/Little, Brown: Order-pickers
  • Bantam-Doubleday-Dell Distribution: Order-pickers
  • Harcourt-Brace: Order-pickers
  • Blockbuster Music: Order-pickers

Drug store chain CVS apparently achieved a 34% productivity increase from the Bucket Brigade approach.  “Most companies see a 25-50% gain,” Bartholdi told me.

As may be clear, the concept is especially applicable for anyone using pick-to-light, as the hand-off between workers would be totally seamless. There would be a bit more overhead in that hand-off with other picking technologies, but Bartholdi says the benefits apply there as well. There are some limitations – you need fairly dense picks/higher volumes to really see the benefits. But then again, that’s where costs are high.

The bigger question may be: Does this concept have applicability in the supply chain anywhere outside order picking?

It appears clearly yes in certain assembly systems in manufacturing. I don’t have space to detail it here, but there is some information, and one interesting research paper from Australia, on this topic on the web site. Some may suggest there are some similarities to the Toyota Sewing System (TSS), and there are, but TSS traditionally involves static zones, and didn’t incorporate the idea of sequencing workers from slowest to speediest.

Dr. Bartholdi is also looking at other logistics processes, such as shipping that involves multiple legs. While he believes the concept would prove valuable there, the realities of trying to get disparate parties to coordinate like this may be too daunting. But it could work for more closed loop systems, like military logistics. He is looking at other possibilities. In some cases, he believes such as system could work as well or better than if you had detailed visibility and could “optimize” everything.

“Bucket Brigades are a pure pull system,” Bartholdi added. “Insects know nothing about push.”  

That’s something worth thinking about. I also think there is some money here after all for a few bright logistics consultants….

Do you have any experience implementing Bucket Brigades? What were your results? How does this concept strike you? Do you see any other opportunities for using it in supply chain?

Let us know your thoughts at the feedback link below

Let us know your thoughts.

Want a printable version? Go to:


Dan Gilmore


Supply Chain Videocast Series

Supply Chain Performance and Vendor Compliance with On-Demand Software

How Retailers, Consumer Goods, High Tech and other Companies Can Improve Operations And Reduce Chargebacks by Monitoring Data Flows and Supply Chain Execution

EDS' Tom Schaumburg says Improved Data Quality will Improve Supply Chains and Drive "Frictionless" Commerce

On-Demand Version - View it Now, or When It Is Convenient


This Week’s Supply Chain News Bites – Only from SCDigest

July 5, 2007
Global Logistics: Port Congestion Worries Fade, as Container Volume Growth Slows Dramatically

July 5, 2007
Procurement and Sourcing News: Will Large Increase in Corn Crop Put Lid on Agflation

July 3, 2007
Global Supply Chain: Will Product Safety Issues Create Need for an "Import Czar?"


In keeping with the market’s trend, our Supply Chain and Logistics stock index recorded mostly positive results.

Software provider Logility posted the week's strongest gains (up 5.3%).  In the hardware group, Intermec was up 3.7%.   In the transport and logistics group, J.B. Hunt recovered most of the previous week’s losses with a gain of 4.5%.

See stock report.


From the RetailWire:
Slotting Allowances Lead to Dumbed-Down Retailing

Do Consumer Goods Manufacturers Really Have the Power In the Grocery Supply Chain?


by Ann Drake

What We Don't Know Can Hurt Us

How Information Sharing with 3PLs Benefits Both Sides


by Dr. John Gattorna

Supply Chain Collaboration: How Far Do You Go? (Part 2)

The Unique Sub-Culture of Collaboration, Plus Keys to Making Collaboration Work


Have a supply chain or logistics related questions you need answered?

Ask our panel of experts. See our growing list of questions and answers - share your insight.

Reader Question: How do you avoid or identify a potential supply chain consultant's bias towards specific vendors they have relationships with?

See responses from Tyndall, Tompkins, Craig, Norek. Add your perpsective.


Q. Why was Lincoln's Gettysburg Address much in the news in the early to mid-1990's when it came to bar coding?

A. Click to find the answer below



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Feedback is coming in at a rate greater than we can publish it - thanks for your response.

We're really behind again - bear with us. But keep the letters coming!

Catching up on a few letters this week. Our Feedback of the Week comes from our First Thoughts story on It was Supply Chain or Die for Coats NA from Harmon Consumer Group, who was personally involved in that effort, and offers some interesting thoughts on the challenges of supply chain transformation.

We also have comments on Dell's need for a new supply chain with its move to retail sales, the challenge of integrating Lean supply chain principles with functional silos internally, and SCDigest columnist Mark Fralick's Scorecard for supposedly SOA-based supply chain software applications (See SOA It Isn't So. . . ).

Keep the dialog going! Give us your thoughts on this week's Supply Chain topics. As always, we’ll keep your name anonymous if required.

Feedback of the Week – On Supply Chain or Die

I saw your article on the Coats NA Supply Chain project just now and wanted to respond. Having worked in Coats in the initial phase of my career this was of more than passing interest to me. While the content of the transformation described is not unique I think the challenges of supply chain transformation are different in each organization.

Of course financial crisis, change of ownership control, change of key executives are some common examples of triggers of a renewed focus on supply chain, I believe an integrated approach of Supply Chain and IT is a great way to develop the understanding of opportunities in organizations where technology and processes can be integrated to bring substantial value. Like the executive in the article, I manage both Supply Chain and IS and that has helped me introduce systems improvements integrated with operational goals that are visible and impactful on the bottom-line.

Resistance to change is usually a significant factor because of the encompassing nature of the changes in Supply Chain. But I believe transformation is as much about visioning and executing change as persuading and educating people on the financial and operational benefits of supply chain improvements. Communication is the key.

Lalit Panda
Harman Consumer Group

On Lean Supply Chains and Sales-Marketing:

Merging CRM and SCM is difficult in a company with functional silos still in place.  Sales & Marketing wants to hold on to their customer relationships tightly in our organization and do not welcome collaboration from SCM functions directly with customers (transportation, purchasing, production planning, order management/customer service).  A lean supply chain allows SCM to impact the organization from raw material supply to finished goods customer satisfaction.  Many organizations will not embrace this broad scope approach (too much political turf in the way). SCM works all the way up to delivery of product but does not necessarily include key touch points with customers in the field necessary to discover where SCM adds value.

Cost to service customers is also an important benchmark on the effectiveness of a lean supply chain yet many (if not most) companies continue to allow high cost to serve customers to be subsidized by those served more economically.

Supply Chain Director
Consumer Goods Company
Name withheld by Request

On Dell Needs a New Supply Chain?

I think it's important to understand that a company's supply chain strategy is driven by the business model and go-to-market strategy.  In Dell's case the business model is changing...going from a direct only model to a direct model and a retail distribution model.  Yes, they need a new supply chain to support this.  Dell's success in this endeavor will largely depend on how well they can execute this new supply chain.

Supply Chain Manager
Dell Competitor
Name withheld by Request

On Fralick's SOA Scoarecard:

If points 1,2 and 3 are are talking to a software salesman.
Probably with an ERP background who never sold supply chain software before...but thinks he can.

If points 4,5,6 are true you are talking to the pre-sales engineer who actually knows what he's talking about.

Eric Joiner


Q.  Why was Lincoln's Gettysburg Address much in the news in the early to mid-1990's when it came to bar coding?

A. Symbol Technologies, now part of Motorola, commonly showed how Lincoln's Gettyburg Address could be encoded in just a 1 inch by 1 inch version of its, at the time, new two-dimensional bar code, PDF417.

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