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OM in the News: 3M’s “Hairball” Supply Chain

May 22, 2012

3M’s Command picture-hanging hooks, made of plastic and strips of sticky foam, don’t look complicated. The Wall Street Journal (May 17, 2012) reports, though, that until recently, the Command production process meandered more than 1,300 miles through 4 factories in 4 states.

3M’s recently retired CEO branded such convoluted production trails as “hairballs.” The man in charge of untangling, John Woodworth, 3M’s Supply Chain VP, characterizes the situation this way. “We had long supply chains.  It was and continues to be an issue.”

Every company tries to streamline manufacturing and supplier networks, of course. But few have a task as daunting as Mr. Woodworth’s.  3M makes 65,000 products, ranging from Scotch tape to film for solar-energy panels, dental braces and dog chews. They are produced in 214 plants in 41 countries. Mr. Woodworth, a 38-year veteran of 3M, figures he has been inside half of those plants.

3M’s long-term plan is to have fewer, larger, more efficient plants, and spread them out around the world. More production will be done in what 3M calls “super hubs,” plants capable of making scores of products for a region of the world. 3M now has 10 hubs, including six in the U.S. and one each in Singapore, Japan, Germany and Poland. It plans at least six more, all outside the U.S.

3M’s  stethoscopes, for example, used to be made in steps involving 14 outside contractors and three 3M plants. Now all processes are being brought into a plant in Columbia, Mo. The cycle time will fall to 50 days from 165. The company’s goal is to reduce cycle times—the period needed to go from ordering raw materials to delivering finished goods—by 25%.

Discussion questions:

1. Why did the 3M production process become so complicated?

2. Why is cycle time such an important OM concept?

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