Playing the Logistics Game – A student’s experiences

Even excellent students have shortcomings. And usually that is not being able to translate directly lectures and textbooks to results in a real world context. At first glance it would seem straightforward enough to apply theory, but when it comes down to it, people find it quite hard to apply it correctly. They will probably focus on something the lecturer emphasized on, and disregard other aspects, without taking into account the application and how results are generated and measured. Lectures and textbooks make excellent building blocks, but without a construction plan I’d dare say it’s quite hard to create the full picture and apply what you’ve built. Enter the logistics game. The way that I know for a fact helped me get some things straight, focus on important aspects of production planning and was much more memorable than most of my lectures that semester.

It’s simple enough. The game conductors are a customer ordering to a production company a product. There is a predefined layout (far from optimal), lot sizing, and rules that simulate a production environment that was not thought out very well. Yes all the building blocks are there, and the business could run as is, but it’s far from perfect. Participants assume positions in production, quality control, shipping, logistics, even in planning and management. Orders are coming in every month (1’ in real time), and there are more than 12 periods in a game year. Delayed orders are getting in a backlog, same with bad quality products. Costs are allocated to raw material in the production line, WIP, finished parts in stock, workers employed, and penalties are given for bad quality and accumulated backorders. And you need your average cost per part to be as low as possible. In broad strokes, this is the logistics game.

You start the game and quality suffers and the first thing that comes to mind is “put more people in quality control”. And at the same time the team completely disregards the learning curve effect. Then quality gets much better and people see “redundancies” everywhere. ‘Let’s fire someone’ they think, and they save some money, but they don’t try to fight the bottlenecks so they could reduce backorders and keep the real cost drivers in check. And that is why the logistics game is brilliant. You get 4-5 iterations of a “year” and you get to see what really matters in a simulated but somewhat realistic production scenario. Even if you’re driving blind (which hopefully you aren’t), you try things and see what sticks. If you’re lucky (or not driving blind), then you get to see real results and you get a nice feeling of accomplishment. If things are not going all that well, all the better. You leave the game, and for the rest of the day, you think what you could have done better. And quite probably you talk about it with the other players/students/friends. It’s a great experience, and it really engages participants much more than a typical lecture would hope to do so. And in the end, the learnings stick with you, because you had a number after each period’s end, telling you were good enough – or not.

If I were to give a crash course introduction to logistics, operations, and production planning principles and “good practices”, I would definitely play a game with the participants. And then any theoretical discussion on the matter would find real traction on the impression that the game left to everyone. And as a student I found it much more interesting than a lecture (so I was more motivated and paid more attention), and as a company employee I would see it as a nice break from work and going back to basics. It can be a lot of work for the game conductors, but teaching is always a lot of work. At least this one, really pays off.

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