Supply Chain Innovation: Is Your Knowledge Working Against You?

Author: John Nelson

Is your supply chain as simple and efficient as it can be, custom-built to address the challenges and business needs that your company, your suppliers and your customers face today?  Or, like many others, is it a complex structure of the additional lanes, services, products and SOPs that have been added on and forced to fit your existing process as your business has grown and changed over the years?

If your supply chain is not as smart as it could be, the only thing holding it back from innovation might just be all of your knowledge and experience. You’re probably thinking… “Huh? How could that be?” Let me explain a cognitive bias known as “the curse of knowledge”. 

In the early years of WWII, German hydroelectric dams were untouchable.  With layers of torpedo nets protecting the dam underwater, and imposing anti-aircraft guns on land, the only option for British forces came from late night bombing runs from above.  The challenge was that the narrow profile of the dams made them nearly impossible to see, much less to hit.  For more than four years, the allied forces had some of the brightest weapons engineers and most experienced military minds in the world trying to devise a strategy to destroy the dams. They came up with nothing.

It wasn’t until 1942 that an engineer from Derbyshire, England named Barnes Wallis came up with a solution to this problem while skipping marbles across a pond in his garden. He invented what came to be known as the “bouncing bomb”.  This ingenious design was essentially an oil drum filled with explosives that was mounted laterally on the belly of an RAF bomber. Flying at 240mph, 60 feet above the water, the bomb was given backspin prior to being dropped.  The result was a bomb that literally skipped over the surface of the water (and the torpedo nets that lay below) until it hit the dam, where the remaining backspin kept it tight against the dam while it sank and ultimately exploded.

So how is it that the RAF spent four years trying to solve this problem, but were unsuccessful until Mr. Wallis finally figured it out?  The answer, I believe, can be traced back to “the curse of knowledge”.

In a great article on this topic, Andy Zynga explains: “Cognitive biases are very human and arise from our need to make sense of a situation before deciding on a course of action. As we acquire, retain, and process relevant information, we filter it through the context of our own past experience, likes, and dislikes. Not surprisingly, with every subsequent challenge, our response is increasingly shaped by our knowledge of how we’ve always done it.”

Simply put… the wealth of knowledge and experience the RAF team had? It was actually working against them, because they were unable to break away from what they believed the solution should look like. Barnes Wallis had the technical skill set, but was not limited by past experience of "how he had always done it," and because of that, he was able to create an innovative and elegant solution to the problem. 

In very much the same way, a multi-modal 3PL provider like Trinity Logistics might be able to shed light on the supply chain innovation you need, but haven’t quite been able to put your finger on. We have the industry experience, without the bias towards how you have always done it.  You know more about your business than anyone else, but it’s never a bad idea to get some fresh eyes on your supply chain.  Who knows? Maybe a more efficient, simple and intelligent supply chain is closer than you think.      


John Nelson, the author, is the general manager of Trinity Logistics’ newly opened St. Paul, Minnesota office, specializing in alcohol and wine transportation services.

Categories: Logistics, Technology
Tags: cognitive bias, supply chain, technology

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