2020 EFMD Case Writing Competition Winners Interview Series: Continuous Improvement: the Journey to Excellence

EFMD encourages and rewards innovative and impactful cases in management development each year. This year brought an exceptional variety of winning cases across various industries. EFMD decided to interview the winners to find out more about their motivation, inspiration and significant challenges.

The fifth interview is with Tao Yue, Deborah Sherwood and Rene De Koster, the winning authors from the Rotterdam School of Management, Erasmus University, from the category “Continuous Improvement: the Journey to Excellence”.

Managing Lean Success: A Warehouse Balancing Act (A) & (B)

The case examines CEVA Logistics’s challenges, a Netherlands-headquartered global logistics company, in remaining true to its lean management principles and sustainability commitments of worker-centric operations, while at the same time meeting an important new customer’s demanding requirements as well as attracting and retaining qualified employees in an unfavourable business environment.

Could you tell us what the greatest inspiration for your case was?

Warehouse operations are labour intensive and require large spaces for facilities. With the advent of e-commerce, some companies store millions of unique items and handle large and variable daily order volumes.

On the other hand, the most laborious and expensive process, order picking, is repetitive, often suffers from poor ergonomics, and requires high-quality labour willing to work in shifts, which is often difficult to get. It is therefore not surprising that warehousing systems and processes are key candidates for automation.

This teaching case was inspired by the ongoing research of Professor René de Koster at the Rotterdam School of Management (RSM), Erasmus University. Since 2016, De Koster and his team are devoted to studying warehouse robotics management by focusing on systems with autonomous mobile robots and co-botic systems (humans collaboratively work alongside robots).

The team looks at both behavioural and analytical or mathematical models to optimise the design, deployment and use of such systems and deploy people working with them. 

The case looks at CEVA’s struggle to balance its core values, focusing on employee-centric operations with highly volatile demand and productivity pressure from customers, all with short-term contracts, in an extremely competitive landscape.

Based on the research and several rounds of interviews with managers at CEVA Logistics, a Netherlands-headquartered global third-party logistics service provider, we wrote this teaching case. The case looks at CEVA’s struggle to balance its core values, focusing on employee-centric operations with highly volatile demand and productivity pressure from customers, all with short-term contracts, in an extremely competitive landscape.

What were the major challenges in designing the case?

One challenge we encountered is that the logistics industry is quickly evolving. The dilemma we had originally identified based on research data became less pertinent to managers at CEVA when the case was being written. As a result, we decided to break the case into two parts, using Case A to address the dilemma of choosing between a directive and a transformational leadership approach.

Case B addresses the struggle to protect the workforce when labourers were moving out of Western Europe due to economic and political forces, concurrent with a rising trend of automation.

Another challenge stemmed from the different focuses of the researchers and practitioners. While both were focused on employee centricity, managers at CEVA were also preoccupied with putting lean management principles into daily operations.

They intuitively knew that lean management went hand in hand with transformational leadership, but our research did not find such a connection. Therefore, we had to research this phenomenon and provide a valid framework in the teaching note for discussion.

In what ways, according to you, could the case impact society and business in the near future?

The case is valuable to business – its current and future decision-makers – because it focuses on dealing with trade-offs between long-term human-centric operations and short-term economic benefits. By combining business process analysis with human behaviour analysis, the case invites users to think about potential behavioural consequences of decisions in the entire domain of operations management.

Moreover, the case is also very timely, as it asks an important question facing many Western logistics companies: How to manage a low-skilled labour force when the logistics industry is undergoing transitions due to the changing economic and political situation and the trend of automation? In answering this question, the topic of (co-)robotics is particularly interesting.

Companies that want to use co-bots are confronted with a number of issues, such as how investments in robots can be more financially attractive, how to organise the processes with human and robots working together, and what robotisation means for the employees in the warehouse. The case invites users to explore the best solutions to this contemporary, open-ended question.

The relevance of the case, is not limited to business. It can provide useful discussion material about sustainability, equality, inclusiveness, innovation and ethics.

The relevance of the case, however, is not limited to business. Since it tackles the fundamental question about how human labour can have value in an increasingly automated world and how to design work processes that are suitable for robots and humans, it can provide useful discussion material about sustainability, equality, inclusiveness, innovation and ethics.

For this reason, the case is included in the RSM Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) case series. With a focus on SDG 8 (Decent Work and Economic Growth), it also addresses several other related SDGs such as SDG 1 (No Poverty), SDG 9 (Industry, Innovation and Infrastructure), and SDG 10 (Reduced Inequalities). Ultimately, the case makes us realise that robotics in the workplace is about how we want to live our lives.

About Sponsorship

Each year, more than 17 institutions sponsor categories in the EFMD Case Writing Competition. The choice of category, its exact definition and any specific conditions are the privileges of the sponsor. Sponsorships for the following categories are currently available – Continuous Improvement: The Journey to Excellence, Indian Management Issues and Opportunities, Supply Chain Management, and MENA Business Cases. If you are interested in sponsoring the mentioned categories or launching a new category relevant to case writing and teaching, please contact Hansol Park at hansol.park@efmdglobal.org.

More information about the 2020 EFMD Case Writing Competition can be found on the EFMD Global Case Writing Competition page.

Please visit the Case Centre’s webpage to access the collection of the winning cases.