It’s easy to consider ourselves fairly advanced these days. We have sophisticated technologies at our fingertips that can make virtually any part of our home or work life easier and more efficient. We can do anything from ordering take-out to checking our bank balance, all at the tap of a button. We may feel we’ve mastered our environment and pushed ourselves leaps and bounds ahead of any other species. In reality though, we don’t have the monopoly on innovation. Did you know, for example, that ants came up with agriculture 50 million years before man started farming in ancient Mesopotamia? They, along with termites and bark beetles, have been doing it way longer than us.
So what else can we learn from other species? Quite a lot, when you start looking into it! A large number of studies have been written, analyzing how social animals like insects, fish and birds work together to share information and optimize processes like food gathering and task allocation. Many of the findings can be applied to industrial challenges like logistics management and fleet routing.
Many production lines and supply chains involve a number of simple, consecutive steps. One step must be completed before the next begins – a production model known as a bucket brigade. This model has also been observed in ants, where one ant has a simple, repeated job to do, such as carrying a piece of food from the source to a point nearer the nest, then passing it to another ant to take it the rest of the way while ant number one goes back for more food. This decentralized way of running the production line makes it easy to introduce changes or new members at any stage if demand or volume goes up (an important concern for retailers at Christmas, for example). When the national distribution center of Revco Drugstores (now CVS) switched from a centralized process to this model, it drove a 34% increase in throughput among its order pickers.
Many social insect societies include specialists. Take bee colonies, for example, which have different individuals dedicated to foraging, guarding the hive, rearing the young and protecting the queen. While it’s possible for a forager to become a brood minder, it’s not really desirable, as the bee could bring in disease and would not have the experience needed to effectively do its new job. Where possible, bees try to ensure that each member of the community sticks to what they do best, to ensure maximum efficiency. A GM Motors factory has also adopted this approach when it comes to painting new trucks. Each team can ‘bid’ for a new truck depending on the color of paint they are equipped with and when they’re available. Although any team can use any color, it’s generally more efficient for a team already stocked with blue paint to take the next blue truck. If they need to change color in order to continue working though, they can.
Finding the quickest, most efficient route between two points is as important for a distribution fleet manager or telecoms engineer as it is for social insects. Ants meet the challenge by leaving a trail of pheromones behind them wherever they go, like a marker telling their colleagues that come after them which way to go. The pheromone trails evaporate over time, so if an ant can get to his destination (that tasty apple on the ground over there, for example) and back again quickly, he’ll be able to reinforce his pheromone trail, and so make his route more attractive for others to follow. The more efficient the route, the more popular it becomes and so the more it gets used – self-reinforcing efficiency. BT has used this approach to route telephone calls across its network. ‘Ant’ software agents explore the available routes through the network, taking the least congested options and leaving markers for others to follow.
Finding New Opportunities
Foraging is a big part of life for many social animals – whether they’re birds looking for particularly tasty worms, fish evading the local shark, or glow worms seeking the best snails to eat. Individuals that hit the jackpot will share that information with the rest of their community, for example by singing in the case of birds, or emitting especially brilliant light in the case of glow worms. This use of swarm intelligence – sharing information throughout the group to achieve the most collectively beneficial results – can be replicated in numerous business contexts. For example, the employee that is rewarded for going out and finding new business opportunities for Capital One, or the pilots with SouthWest Airlines that share feedback with their colleagues on the most convenient arrival gates at airports.
Fortunately, I don’t think we’re facing imminent annihilation by a superior species of termite, but there are definitely some ideas we can take from the animal kingdom when it comes to helping our own teams to work more efficiently. Let’s not leave it another 50 million years this time though.
In your opinion, what other supply chain and logistics lessons can be drawn from the animal kingdom?