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The Rocks and the River Analogy isn’t Just for Inventory!

The Rocks and the River Analogy isn’t Just for Inventory!

Recently, a former student of mine tagged me in one of his online conversations. The conversation started with someone asking how others were coping with this new stress, and went on to ask if people had changed their routines at all, or had implemented any new habits to help deal with the stress everyone is under.

My student recalled how I taught him about the analogy of the rocks and the river. Simply stated, the water level in a river is hiding the rocks below. It is generally safe for a boat to be on the river, since the water level is high enough, and the rocks won’t cause any damage to the boat. But if the water level drops, you’ll start seeing rocks, boulders, and maybe some other obstacles on the riverbed. Now, as the captain of your boat, you have to be very careful where you go, because all these rocks have been exposed, and you don’t want to damage your boat.

In business, the water level is a metaphor for inventory.  Many people feel their supply chain processes work well, because they have plenty of inventory in the system.  And if they take the inventory away, they will start to experience all kinds of problems (the rocks). These rocks come in all shapes and sizes- bad data, poor training, unreliable suppliers, no standards, poor maintenance practices, unreliable internal processes, no metrics in place, poor communication, etc..  Some people will blame the inventory reduction for the problem, but smart people will see the inventory reduction as a gift, realizing that the problems have always been present, but they are being masked by the inventory. Bottom line- we are fooling ourselves if we think we have no rocks. The problems are there, and they are costing us dearly every day, but we cover the problem with inventory (water level).

So that’s the “Inventory 101” class. So how is this appropriate to today’s environment? Brandon Czerwinski brilliantly applied the analogy to today’s new business climate. The inventory is the ‘abundance’ we have been accustomed to in our daily lives. As now that we are now in a world where some of what we have taken for granted has been taken away from us, and many people are in new work areas, it gives us a chance to think about how we work. Are we doing everything we can to optimize our processes? Have we prioritized correctly? Does our home office properly enable our work? 

Brandon said it very succinctly- “When we have abundance, or when the river is full, we assume all is well. When we have just enough or less, we begin to see the faults in the riverbed. Now, I'm seeing a similar effect. Now that I'm limited, where is my process failing to support me? What can I do to fix it going forward? It can be as simple as my home's layout - a case of "Spring Cleaning", or it can be as complex as a business model overhaul. It's an exciting and challenging opportunity to truly self-evaluate! In this sense, I've turned the stress into a positive motivator rather than dwelling in doubt. I'm starting at square one and improving as I go!

And yes, he did sit in the front row!