6. Conclusions, limitations and future research opportunities
This paper presents an alternative systematic method to improve transport operations based on lean thinking and the reduction of the STEWs proposed by Sternberg et al. (2013). The paper thus offers road logistics and transport organisations with an approach that they can employ to improve their operations. This is considered the main practical contribution of this paper.
The theoretical contribution of this paper is also significant. Besides the proposal of the method and its reported application, the paper also contributes to the lean and logistics theory by providing a structured research definition of the application of lean thinking in road transport operations. In this case, the paper identifies and classifies three streams of research, which have been directed to: (1) define wastes specific to road transportation, (2) develop lean performance measures for road transportation, and (3) propose methods to eliminate waste in road transport operations. A clearly defined research structure, such as the one provided in this paper, will not only facilitate the understanding and further research in this promising field, but also stimulate scholars to further study the application of lean thinking and waste reduction in road transport operations. Through a better understanding of this area, logistics and transport organisations will also be able to formulate more effective strategies for the improvement of their operations using lean thinking.
In terms of the implementation of the systematic method proposed, various constraints were encountered, with complex confounding factors that are important to be highlighted in order to also consider its deployment. Kumar et al. (2006) comment that it is important to discuss the difficulties encountered when implementing improvement programmes in order to provide valuable learning lessons, and in this way facilitate their future deployment. In the case of the implementation of the proposed systematic method, convincing top management for taking a broader view of the process instead of only considering route design through software optimisation was an arduous task. This may be considered a natural phenomenon in the logistics and transport industry, as previously indicated by the literature review most inefficiencies in road transport operations are addressed through mathematical modelling (e.g. Ghiani et al., 2003; Laporte, 1992; Hill and Benton, 1992; Bodin et al., 1983), operations research-based methods (e.g. Gendreau et al., 1996; Baker and Ayechew, 2003; Boudia et al., 2008; Pisinger and Ropke, 2007), and simulation (e.g. Osorio and Bierlaire, 2013; Kuo, 2010). In addition, the limited use of lean thinking in the logistics and transport sector may also suggest that there is no clear understanding of the benefits on how lean thinking can support the improvement of operations in this sector. This study provides a basis for this clarification. Top management teams were convinced by citing examples of some successful organisations, in other industries (Taj, 2008; Lyons et al., 2013; Sternberg et al., 2013), that had improved the efficiency of their processes and enhanced their bottom-line results using the application of lean thinking principles.
Moreover, finding employees’ resistance when introducing a new business strategy is a normal phenomenon (Kumar et al., 2006; Antony et al., 2005). The employees of the studied organisation earlier believed that the use of lean thinking and resulting implementation of new and fewer routes could considerably change their working patterns, affect their performance, and ultimately endanger their job opportunities. This negative attitude was overcome with the support of top management, who convinced their employees of the opportunities and benefits that the adoption of lean would bring to the organisation and its employees. The management encouraged their employees by rewarding them for their effort in improving performance following the adoption of lean principles. This also contributed in convincing them that their jobs would not be in danger and efforts on improving performance will be adequately rewarded. This progressively increased confidence among employees, and eventually they were prepared to embrace the proposed method in their operations.
Finally, although the method proposed yielded positive results in the studied organisation, the use of a single case study research approach employed in this paper suggests that further research must be conducted to test the method in different industrial settings and organisations. This will further validate the effectiveness and applicability of the method in different industrial situations. Therefore, the collection of further evidence through a multiple case study approach is part of the future research agenda of the authors. The limited use of lean thinking to improve lean road transport operation as highlighted in the paper suggests that there is no clear understanding on the benefits of lean, and how to use its principles and tools to improve this type of operations. This article has provided some evidence of this, and can serve as a motivation to undertake further research in this area.
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