the leadership of director Dr. Ernest Nichols Jr., the
FedEx Center for Supply Chain Management devises creative
problem-solving techniques for such diverse clients
as L.L. Bean, Memphis Housing Authority and the Shelby
County Criminal Justice System.
In every business model, lost time often translates to lost
profits. But in a business that is essentially predicated
on extending mortality's deadlines, wasted seconds also can
mean the difference between a life saved and a life lost.
For health-care professionals in emergency departments, high-pressure
situations arrive in sporadic bursts, pressing them to "make
life and death decisions at any point in time with trauma
center patients. And so they need to know what's going on
all the time," says Dr. Brian Janz, associate director
of the FedEx Center for Supply Chain Management at the University
So when the Regional Medical Center in Memphis, commonly
known as the Med, wanted to understand more effectively how
and where patients spent their time in the trauma center,
Janz and his team adopted the same technology that Wal-Mart
currently is deploying throughout its entire supply chain:
Radio Frequency Identification, or RFID.
While the flow of retail goods in the Wal-Mart system and
the movement of patients on gurneys through a trauma unit
have almost nothing in common operationally, both outfits
are using RFID toward a common goal: gaining efficiencies.
For the Med, it's an effort that is designed to improve
the level of care one that ultimately could render
common complaints about endless stays in hospital emergency
departments a thing of the past.
OK, but patients?
As the Med project shows, supply chain management is an expansive
realm for innovative technologies. And the FedEx Center for
Supply Chain Management is seizing these opportunities to
conduct inventive projects in a wide range of industries.
Boiled down to its most basic elements, supply chain management
is the integration and management of the flow of goods from
suppliers to distributors to the end customer. In effect,
the discipline involves a "collaborative effort by companies
to optimize the entire system," says Dr. Ernest Nichols
Jr., associate professor of supply chain management and director
of the center, which is located in the FedEx Institute of
Over the past couple of decades, an increasing number of
companies have developed more formalized supply chain management
practices to gain a competitive edge, says Mike Dominy, senior
analyst of business applications and commerce at Boston-based
consulting and research firm, The Yankee Group. "Supply
chain management has moved out of the back room and into the
board room," Dominy says. "Executives view managing
supply chains effectively as an important factor in their
the Regional Medical Center in Memphis, U of M professor
Dr. Brian Janz pushes Dr. Robert Otondo, also a U of
M professor, on a gurney as part of an innovative test
of radio frequency identification technology (RFID)
tags that are secured to patients to account for their
locations in the trauma unit.
Like most trauma centers in the United States, the Med has
faced the recurring challenge of accounting for the exact
whereabouts of patients at all times during their visits,
according to Janz, who is also an associate professor of management
information systems. His research findings indicated that
the Med was unable to account for two hours of an average
six-hour stay for a patient.
The test is designed to formulate whether RFID technology
can answer the challenges posed by a fast-paced emergency
care environment. Following research and project installation,
the actual test began in February and was slated to run through
March. Nearly every patient admitted to the trauma center
was outfitted with an RFID tag, which is similar in size and
shape to a pack of chewing gum. The battery-powered device,
which contains a small chip, is attached to the patient with
self-adhesive wrapping. Thedefault placement area is the ankle,
Twenty-three pairs of antennae wired above door frames in
the trauma center detect the radio signals emitted from the
devices when a patient on a gurney passes by, and 23 accompanying
black boxesthe RFID readersrelay the information
to a database. Through an Intranet network, the system logs
the tag number, the reader number and the time it passed by
the reader, pinpointing the specifics of each patient's location.
"With this kind of data, hospitals will be able to make
proactive decisions," says Janz. When, for example, "a
patient is moving toward a crowded x-ray department, hospital
staff may bypass the bottleneck and divert that patient to
CT scan," Janz explains.
The Med test underscores the center's increasing involvement
with Memphis-based companies. In its early years, the center
did most of its work with FedEx customers throughout the United
States and internal FedEx projects, Nichols says. The package-shipping
giant has been the center's predominant source of funding
since its establishment in 1993. In turn, the center has conducted
numerous projects for the company. "It is something that
brings us best practices from the industry. (The center) has
that at its fingertips," says Craig Simon, vice president
of FedEx Solutions, who credits a project conducted by Nichols
and a team in late 2002 with helping his group build the foundation
to grow. "It's nice to be able to work with them in a
more relaxed environment than it would be if we were bringing
in a large consulting company."
The center, which is completely supported by external sources,
funnels a portion of the funds it has generated through projects
into the Fogelman College of Business and Economics, Nichols
says. Spurred by an increased need by area businesses for
graduates with expertise in supply chain management, Fogelman
began offering an undergraduate major in the discipline almost
two years ago, which evolved from its former logistics marketing
program. "The business community here has been clamoring
for a degree program in supply chain management for years,"
says Dr. Gregory Boller, associate professor and chair of
the marketing and supply chain management department. "We
(Memphis) are the distribution capital of the world."
court to the slammer
The center has undertaken projects for clients as diverse
as First Tennessee, L.L. Bean, Memphis Housing Authority and
the Shelby County Criminal Justice System. If the last item
on that list sounds like a non sequitur, others thought the
same thing when Nichols began leading a team on the project
in 2000. "Some of my colleagues were like, 'What are
you doing in criminal justice?' But when you think about it,
you've got a supply chain there," says Nichols.
Faced with a federal lawsuit challenging the conditions of
the jail, an overcrowded population that hovered around 3,000
and a financial squeeze, the justice system needed to make
some changes. "We've got a complicated systemvery
fragmented and we needed to have more of a focus on
efficiency," says Bill Powell, criminal justice coordinator
for Shelby County.
In a two-phase project, Nichols' team devised a number of
recommendations to address the manifold stresses on the system.
In one key measure, the team recommended that district attorneys
become involved in a screening process right after a suspect
is arrested, which the system eventually adopted. "What
was happening was the police would arrest someone," according
to Powell. "We would send them to court and then the
prosecutor would look at it and might say, 'You know this
case isn't really worth anything. Let's just dismiss it.'
In the meantime you've locked the person up for a few days
or they've had to make bond and try to get a lawyer."
The system also started staffing judicial commissioners around
the clock and on weekends, which helps expedite the release
of certain individuals. "It used to be if you were arrested
on Friday, you didn't go before a judge until Monday morning,"
Powell says. "So this would be a delay in getting your
bond set and pretty much getting stuck in jail until you could
get a judge to review that case."
The justice system incorporated these strategies, along with
some data-driven efforts recommended by the U of M team, into
a jail population management plan. The creation of Powell's
job about two years ago also stemmed, in part, from the research
conducted by Nichols' team. "Prior to some of our work,
there was virtually no system-wide oversight or system-wide
performance measurement," Nichols says. The multifaceted
strategies have produced tangible results. As proof, Powell
points to the system's jail population that hovered around
3,000 several years ago. Now, it's at about 2,000.
one of the leaders of a geographical information system
test at the bustling FedEx Memphis hub, U of M professor
Dr. Mehdi Amini is studying how to reduce traffic congestion
at what is considered to be the largest airfreight center
in the world.
At the FedEx Memphis hub, airplanes, trucks, conveyors, dollies
and people move with efficiency dictated by the pressures
of rigidly set deadlines for delivering packages on time.
At peak hours, the operation buzzes with the energy of a caffeine
jolt followed by a chaser of adrenaline. But agility is as
important as speed. The hub, which handled 7.29 billion pounds
of cargo in 2003, is considered the largest airfreight center
in the world, and a daunting number of variables keep the
system in a perpetual state of controlled chaos.
As a result, the hub faces the constant challenge of traffic
congestion. At the beginning of 2000, a project team led by
Dr. Mehdi Amini, associate director of the FedEx Center for
Supply Chain Management, and Dr. Michael Racer, director of
industrial systems and engineering at the U of M, began examining
ways that would help relieve bottlenecks. Major structural
changes to the facility were not an option because of the
sheer size of the operation and the substantial amount of
capital invested in the infrastructure supporting it. The
challenge for the team: finding a way to collect and analyze
data of the system in an automated, timely manner.
The solution: a geographic information system, or GIS, a
digital map that tracks designated points in the hub. The
data is relayed to a database and translated to a user-friendly
visual display. The technology enables FedEx employees to
pull up detailed statistics such as 60 percent of the vehicles
arriving in a certain spot at 8 p.m. are fuel trucks. The
data can be used to divert a certain amount of traffic for
more efficient uses of the resources. But every choice harbors
the potential of a domino effect and its negative consequences.
"One decision that you make as a service provider can
affect the entire system in one way or another. Your decisions
are not isolated," says Amini, who is also a professor
of supply chain management.
Keeping that in mind, the team currently is working on the
second phase to devise the most effective applications of
the blueprint for managing the flow of all the different pieces
of traffic through GIS. "In a dynamic system like the
hub ... one night is different than another night depending
on the packages that are arriving. So you cannot have a static
way to manage this system," says Amini.
After all, that's not an option at the FedEx Center of Supply
Chain Management, where dynamism rules.