Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Resilient Community: Malcom's Platform by John Robb

Resilient communities aren't built through one-off projects/efforts, good will, and lifestyle changes. Instead, they are a vibrant ecosystems of activity, that are innovative, robust, and efficient. The key to growing ecosystems that exhibit these qualities is to build platforms that span everything from electricity to food to security. Here's a short story about Malcom McLean to get your head around the idea of what a platform is (this is for my upcoming book on Resilient Communities) and why they are so powerful:

Malcom's Platform

In 1937, during a commercial delivery trip carrying North Carolina cotton bales to the port in Hoboken, New Jersey, Malcom McLean became frustrated at the wait he experienced to unload his cargo at the port facility. He later remarked, “I had to wait most of the day to deliver the bales, sitting there in my truck, watching stevedores load other cargo. It struck me that I was looking at a lot of wasted time and money. I watched them take each crate off the truck and slip it into a sling, which would then lift the crate into the hold of the ship.” This thought was carried forward seventeen years, when at the helm of a company with 1,776 trucks and 37 transport terminals (on the Eastern Seaboard) he gravitated to the idea that long haul routes would be better accomplished through sea transport.

However, to accomplish this, he needed to remake the shipping industry from the ground up. In other words, he needed to build a shipping platform for the shipping industry. What is a platform? At a high level, a platform takes related activities that are complex, unique, and variable and turns them into activities that are simple, universal, and standard. Here's how Malcom built his (and now our) shipping platform:

* First, he created a shipping container that could be detached from a truck and stacked on a ship without unbundling the contents.

* He followed this with new wheel systems to quickly attach containers to trucks.

* Finally, he developed container ships that allowed easy roll-on/roll-off and container stacking.

The new containerized system he developed simplified shipping by pushing the complexity of packing and unpacking cargo to the edges of the shipping network. Second, it made interconnection with the network easy, since containers were inexpensive and of a standard set of sizes. Finally, it lowered/standardized costs, reduced theft, and limited damage.

The debut of his new system was with the maiden voyage of the Ideal X, a converted oil tanker that loaded fifty-eight containers at Port Hoboken, New Jersey and unloaded them in Houston, Texas to his waiting trucks for delivery. The success of this innovation led him to radically expand his business into a powerhouse called SeaLand Industries that had twenty seven thousand containers and thirty-seven container ships by the end of the 1960s.

Obviously, it didn’t end there. The advantages in speed, cost, and flexibility were so compelling that the entire shipping industry was transformed as companies, ports, and governments adopted his containerization process. By 2000, nearly 90% of the world’s shipping was accomplished using containers in support of a vast global ecosystem of manufacturers and retailers made possible by Malcom's shipping platform.

No comments: