A carmaker’s tricks oils non-profit wheels

Babson College students joined forces with Toyota to help a food bank optimise the way it operates
Wiljeana Glover: 'It might seem a strange partnership, but it works'

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What can a car manufacturer teach a food bank? Plenty, according to Wiljeana Glover, a professor of technology, operations and information management at Babson College, Massachusetts.

This year Babson and Toyota launched a pilot programme with the Greater Boston Food Bank to improve its inventory control, capacity and productivity. The food bank distributes nearly 50m pounds of food a year to relief agencies. Prof Glover says the project gave business students a practical lesson in how manufacturing tools and techniques can be applied to the non-profit sector.

When did this partnership begin?

In 2010 Toyota funded the Babson Social Innovation Lab, an “action tank” for creating and implementing solutions to social problems. This year the Lab teamed up with the Toyota Production System Support Center, a consulting branch of the company that helps organisations and non-profits optimise the way they operate.

What can Toyota teach a food bank?

It might seem a strange partnership but it works, says Prof Glover. Many concepts that are grounded in engineering and manufacturing can be translated to other settings. Food relief agencies are not widgets, but ideas such as continuous improvement and organisational workflow can be applied to other sectors.

Where did the project focus?

The students focused on the Marketplace, a small grocery store attached to the food bank’s warehouse, where the relief agencies shop. The store sells short-dated produce, meat and other perishable goods, as well as shampoo and school supplies. Many of these items are government issued and others are donated by local grocers or come direct from factories. The goal of the project was to reduce the Marketplace’s “scrap rate” – what it throws away – and to make it more appealing to agencies by improving the shopping experience.

How were the students involved?

The college wanted this to be a real learning-by-doing experience. It had a team of three students and their first priority was to spend time at the Marketplace talking to managers, clerks and the people who stock the shelves, to discover pain points. From there the students identified several areas in need of change, the first being the flow of the store. At peak times it was virtually packed and there were bottlenecks. The students were also concerned about safety; people were picking up pallets of food incorrectly and there had been some near misses and accidents. Finally, the students wanted to redesign the large shopping carts at the Marketplace – called U-boats. These were bulky and some of the handles were coming apart.

What were the students’ solutions?

The students used a curriculum the college developed with Toyota’s manufacturing expertise, known as the Toyota Production System. To this was added a hands-on simulation and a visit to a shoe company that had used the production system. The students then brainstormed how to apply TPS techniques, and Toyota advisers provided coaching and pushed the students to look at problems from different perspectives.

Which ideas were implemented?

One of the simplest and most effective was the creation of a pathway through the store using red and yellow tape that directed shoppers to enable the most efficient shopping. These pathways also increased the capacity of the store by 15 per cent. Signs were improved so that people thought about the safest way to lift and carry items. In terms of the U-boats, the students test-drove a few new designs, but in the TPS tradition of using creativity before spending capital, their short-term solution was to fix the old ones by welding the handles.

Is it a better shopping experience?

There have been mixed responses. Some agencies do not like the new pathways but several of the newer agencies are happy with them. The students learnt that not just employees needed to be included in the discovery process; they had to involve customers, too.

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