Can you guess when I had my first experience with supply chain planning? No, it was not hands-on experience in my career or a student job. One of the first occasions I can remember occurred during my elementary school years and had to do with the oil industry.
Hours upon hours I played a computer game on my Amiga 500 called “Black Gold” (published as “Oil Imperium” in Germany), where I had to pick drilling sites, manage oil production and deliver the oil using tankers all over the world. Many of these simulation games followed me over the years, like “Railroad Tycoon” or the “Civilization” series. While I would surely not be hired by a private railroad company as CEO based on my gaming experience, I definitely learned a lot about supply chain mechanics just by playing those games.
Regarding real supply chains, there is a new trend that promotes the exact opposite, which is using gaming mechanics in non-gaming environments: Gamification. These elements known from games are e.g. experience points, high scores, leader boards, status bars or badges. By applying such elements in their products or processes, companies hope for a higher level of engagement from users. Depending on where gamification is used, the results could be a higher productivity level of employees or an increase in revenue from customers. In some areas, this concept has already been successfully implemented for many years. Airline frequent flyer programs are designed to reward users with points and provide ways to convert those points into rewards or status upgrades. This type of bonus program is also widely used in retail.
In the supply chain, the concept of gamification can be applied to physical activities, supply chain software or learning purposes. Some readers may raise an eyebrow right now and ask themselves: Why do we need “games” in very serious supply chain processes? At first glance, this seems counter intuitive since some employees are already suspected to spend some substantial time with casual games in the office. But if done the right way, the supply chain industry could substantially profit from several gamification factors.
Using game elements for motivation and teaching
First, some of the daily activities in supply chains can be very monotonous, i.e. calibration of loading or order picking. Simultaneously, these repetitive tasks are very intensive and thus require significant effort from physical workers. Over time, this very naturally leads to fatigue, which can be countered by motivation. If motivation drops, this normally results in a higher error level. Gamification of such routine jobs can be used to enhance the status of the activities, boost motivation and thus prevent errors. One example of a comparatively “boring” but very necessary task which was gamified comes from master data management. Master data is in constant deterioration, so tasks for data cleansing never run out. A solution presented at the SAP gamification cup involved assigning “cleansing missions” in which players could collect points and level up depending on the amount and complexity of the data.
Then there is also the potential of gamification for learning purposes. Many supply chain concepts are very complex and hard to understand. Integrating gaming elements into learning activities could help speed up and simplify the learning process.This is currently the most important area of application for gamification in the supply chain, with first implementations being more than 50 years old. For example, many of you may have heard of or actually played the “beer game”, which was developed by MIT in the 1960s. It is a simulation with the purpose of demonstrating the bullwhip effect.
The last argument I want throw in derives from the talent gap in the supply chain everyone is talking about right now. Supply chain jobs need to give Generation Y the incentives to think about starting their career in the industry. But this is not only about making job positions more appealing to sought-after applicants. Since most of its representatives grew up playing games, companies could put those virtual experiences and habits to good use in the supply chain reality.
Don’t play the wrong game
Implementing gamification in supply chain processes could also have a negative effect if not done properly. Some gaming elements like leader boards promote a higher level of competitiveness amongst employees which can corrupt their relationships with each other. Rankings also might take the last bit of motivation from underachievers. Problems could also arise if rewards are too easily obtained. What you can see in dogs that receive their treats practically for free, also applies to the work place. There will be no motivational boost, if there is no possibility for failure.
While most voices regard gamification as a very beneficial concept, there is also criticism of a more philosophical nature. Some experts say there might be a thin line between enhancing work and exploiting the play instinct of people. Adam Penenberg, author of “Play at Work: How Games Inspire Breakthrough Thinking”, said in an interview with Forbes: “I think there is a real possibility that companies will look at so-called gamification as a kind of soma for workers. Redesign jobs and mundane tasks so that they are more game-like, and squeeze ever more productivity out of employees.” Penenberg thinks that it is relatively normal that something which is becoming big business will be abused. “Done right, though, smart game design can help us achieve great things,” he added.
Guidelines for implementation
So if you are not planning to just squeeze out your employees, here are some guidelines for the implementation of gamification. Which gaming elements are the most suitable for the gamification of the supply chain? There is no distinct answer to that, since the design needs to meet the contextual requirements. Everything else is up to imagination. But there are a few rules which need to be adhered to:
- Keep information transparent: Gamification should not result in the masking of relevant information for a particular task.
- Provide (real-time) feedback: Users need to know if they are on track or understand why they have failed.
- Set up clear rules and goals: Users need to understand what is expected of them and how they can achieve it.
- Provide a little freedom: There will be no increase in motivation if decisions are made for the users and they cannot do it their own way.
- No reward without challenge: Very easy tasks should not or only hardly be rewarded. Rewards should be for real achievements.
Time will tell how, or if, this trend will transform supply chain processes. As an active “gamer” I would love to see the supply chain world more “gamified.” Next weekend I will try to do the exact opposite: Use my supply chain expertise in a good old pixelated game of “Black Gold” (and hope that I’ve improved since elementary school).
Do you know other examples of gamification in the supply chain? Do you think that gamification will have a substantial impact on supply chain processes?