Maybe the hippogriffs weren't available. And it was probably clear from the start that an 870-page volume wouldn't be a good candidate for shipping by broomstick (even a Firebolt model) or by "owl post." In the end,all 8.5 million copies of Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix rolled up to loading docks and doorsteps across America after traveling by conventional means—truck, rail, ship and plane.
These conventional choices were probably a big relief for Andy Yablin, the guy who had to account for each copy from the moment it left the bindery until it arrived at the retailer's or redistributor's premises. Since January, Yablin, vice president of global logistics for Scholastic Inc., the U.S. publisher of the Harry Potter books, has had little time for anything other than figuring out where each of the 8.5 million copies would go once it was produced, when it was going to get there and how. A challenging task, to be sure, but that wasn't the half of it. To accommodate author J.K. Rowling's wishes to keep the plot secret, Scholastic placed an embargo on the book's contents. That meant Yablin also ended up as the de facto chief of the Potter transportation police, charged with making sure that not one of those 8.5 million copies went astray while in transit.
Obviously, launching book 5 of the wildly popular Harry Potter series was no ordinary mega-challenge. But when the pixie dust settled, it was apparent that Yablin and his team had prevailed. When customers lined up outside bookstores across the country for the much-ballyhooed midnight release, the books were there waiting for them.
Though nothing in his background could have prepared him for this challenge, Yablin at least came to Scholastic with deep experience in the field. He holds a degree in logistics from Northeastern University in Boston and a master's degree in management from Lesley College in Cambridge, Mass. While at Northeastern, he began working at Mobil Oil, a job he found through the school's co-op program. He joined Mobil full time after graduation and stayed with the company for 14 years, managing gasoline storage and delivery and ocean, rail, pipeline and truck transportation. He lef t Mobil to become North American transportation manager for Pepsico's Pepsi Bottling Group, where he was responsible for truck load transportation in the United States and Canada, overseeing raw materials delivery into 70 bottling plants. In Apri l 2002, he moved to Scholastic, where logistics has a high profile with executive management — Yablin reports to Beth Ford, senior vice president of global operations and information technology, who reports directly to Chairman, President and CEO Richard Robinson.
Yablin talked to DC VELOCITY Chief Editor Peter Bradley about the weeks and days leading up to that magic moment when Harry 5 was released.
Q: What was involved in getting ready for such a major rollout?
A: We started in January, about six months ahead of the expected launch date,so we were actually planning well before the book was even finished. We started with the framework from the last two book launches, going over the pluses and minuses for both Harry 3 and Harry 4.
In the end, we decided to use the same framework that we used for Harry 4, which was to contract with a third-party logistics company to manage the truckload scheduling and coordination and large pallet-quantity orders that could be combined into truckload orders. That company would be responsible for load planning, coordinating deliveries and making the delivery appointments as well as coordinating with the producing plants on the outbound schedule.
The company we contracted with is called Combined Express. They're a large company in the book industry and knew the commodity, which was important to me.We held our first meeting with them in February.
Knowing that security was going to be an issue, one of the first things I told them was that they'd be restricted to one major carrier for the majority of the moves. For 95 percent of the truckload business, they partnered with J.B. Hunt directly. It worked out that we were able to take about 94 percent of the volume directly from the binderies or printing locations to the end customer. Because we only had six weeks from the time presses started up to the drop-dead date, I knew that we had to take steps out of the process. To go direct not only would save us a lot of money, but would also keep the process pretty tight. We did a lot of work on the load-planning side to ship as much as we possibly could direct.
The remaining 6 percent of the volume, books going to smaller independent stores, moved out of our distribution facility in Jefferson City, Mo. We still contracted through Combined Express and J.B. Hunt to move that 6 percent into Jefferson City. Then we hired [less-than-truckload carrier] Yellow Freight, which handled just under 1,400 deliveries out of that facility. The truckload business was about 800 one-stop or multi-stop loads out of the binderies. We also used two other carriers: UPS moved some of the volume, and the U.S. Postal Service handled 15,000 orders consisting of one or two books. So we had four main providers.
Q: Tell me a little bit about the work of the internal teams.
A: There were two teams. The team I headed up included a representative from the Jefferson City distribution facility, my folks on the logistics side, and one of the sales operations guys, who reported to the VP of sales. Our task was to figure out where the book would go once it was produced, when it was going to get there and how.
At the same time, the other team, a procurement team under the VP of purchasing, was working on securing the raw materials, the paper, the printing time and all of that. The two teams worked pretty closely together. I managed the inbound logistics for materials going to the bindery.We knew that shortly after the covers for the book got to the bindery, the books would be coming off the line.
The VP of supply chain and his department became involved in the planning process as well, playing a key role in the project. It was really a whole supply chain process, keeping the same carriers and the same personnel in the loop the whole time. Early on, we had biweekly planning meetings. As we got closer to the rollout, those meetings became weekly, then daily interactions with a structured discussion about how we were doing and the issues of the moment.
Q: What were some of the issues that came up?
A: We had normal production issues— nothing major, just production dates that moved back and forth. We produced at 12 locations—11 domestic, one in Mexico— which meant coordinating 12 binderies' production schedules and matching up those production schedules to a transportation schedule.
We ran into some issues moving books across the border, which turned out to be nothing more than delays. Crossing the Mexican border is not the easiest thing to do in the best of times, but we had just come out of the war and security had tightened up, so we had to build in some time there.We really didn't have a lot of fluff in the schedule b ecause we had only six weeks to do this and every book that was coming off the line was critical.
The other day-to-day issue was that once we started printing— we started producing around the 14th of May— we needed to account for every book every day. As days passed, the volume of books to account for grew larger. To keep track of the finished books, we had a roll call for every book every day— whether it was in the bindery's warehouse or on a truck staged in a secure yard. And that became more challenging as we got closer to the drop-dead date, given that we had eight and a half million books scattered across the United States.
To ensure security during transit, we put numbered cable seals on every trailer. We had Qualcomm [tracking equipment] on all the J.B. Hunt trucks so we could locate them while they were in transit. We even had an alarm mechanism set up to notify us if they stopped or if we didn't hear from the driver for X amount of time. Upon receipt at the yard, the seals were checked. If there was a disconnect there, the alarms went off. And once the trailer was in the yard, the seal was checked every 24 hours.
At the same time we were worrying about security, we were also taking steps to mitigate transportation costs. For example, we knew that the book was going to be heavy. Once we knew its exact weight, we could determine what the target truckload payload would be so that we could minimize the number of loads by maximizing the pallet count.
Eventually we targeted 42,000 pounds as the standard truckload payload weight and then worked backwards to calculate the number of cartons on a pallet to maximize that. It turned out that loading 28 pallets on a truck would get us to 42,000 pounds.
Early on in the planning process we realized that it would be a nightmare if we let every customer order a different configuration. So we notified customers that it would be 500 books on a pallet and if it was going to come from the bindery, it had to be a complete pallet. We also told them that a standard truckload was 28 pallets, and that's the way it was. It wasn't 26, it wasn't 27; it was going to be 28.
I think the simplicity that we built into the process really helped us. The forklift loader at every bindery knew that 28 pallets was a full load. It didn't matter where it was going. It really helped us maximize our loads as well as minimize the aggravation we would have faced if Wal-Mart ordered one way and Target ordered another way.
In addition, we used J.B. Hunt's intermodal service to move books from the East Coast to the West Coast. That had a couple of advantages. First, on the doublestack containers, we requested the upper level wherever possible, which kept our freight pretty much out of harm's way. The other thing that did for us was allow us to trade off some storage time for transit time.
Q: You had 8.5 million books to produce. Take me through the timetable for the rollout and the process you used to distribute them to your customers.
A: We had two waves of deliveries. We had a wave the week of June 11th. The target drop date was the 13th for orders that were going to book redistributors. These companies all had approval to get the book early so they could redistribute it through their own networks.
The large orders—like those that would move via Yellow Freight—all dropped on the 19th of June, but they were pre-positioned around the country all ready to go before that. On June 19th, Yellow Freight made 1,100 of its 1,400 deliveries. We used their Exact Express service, so we actually had hourly updates on how many deliveries were made, signatures received and proofs of delivery posted online. So by 11 o'clock Eastern time, we had confirmation that all 1,100 deliveries had been made across the United States. That included Hawaii and Alaska.
We had picked two locations in the United States— Memphis (because of Fed Ex's hub) and St. Louis— where we kept standby inventories of books we could put in the air if we had problems. We tapped into that for a couple of cartons that got damaged in transit, but we made every delivery on time, so we didn't have to worry about using that inventory.
For Hawaii and Alaska, we worked with Yellow Freight to pre-position books from the first press run in May in Honolulu and Anchorage, using secure ocean containers rather than having to move the books via air.
Q: That had to save you a lot of money.
A: Yes. Air transport would have cost about five times as much as ground service. And we had time on our side.
Q: We talked a little about security. I imagine that was a high priority for you.
A: It was priority number one. All the production employees were screened and secured. Each one of the binderies had responsibility for security of the product while it was there.Once the books left the bindery, security became my responsibility.We had a stringent security plan in place that all of the carriers signed up for, and they knew what they needed to do if there was a breach. In Jefferson City, the DC's distribution team, which was headed up by Chris Peters, oversaw the security of the product during the time it was stored in the warehouse.
Q: How many locations were you actually delivering to?
A: That's hard to say. I can tell you that the 1,300 or 1,400 deliveries made by Yellow Freight all went to different customers. The 15,000 shipments that we sent out by the U.S. Postal Service were delivered to 5,000 different customers and then there were about 2,500 shipments that went via UPS.
Q: How did you coordinate with other departments within Scholastic?
A: The trade sales group, headed up by Ed Swart, took the lead on the project. They're the ones who interacted with customers and predicted what volume they'd need. Swart and his team also played a key role in maximizing and simplifying all of the loads. In addition, my interaction with the VP of procurement was clearly critical for both of us, because we needed to get the inbound materials into the bindery. And because these binderies don't have any storage facilities, we needed to have vehicles pre-positioned and ready to pull the inventory out of there as soon as the books were finished. It required a close relationship between purchasing and logistics to make the operations side of it work. I can't stress enough that although I may have been the leader and orchestra tor of the project, the launch represented a tremendous cross-functional team effort.
Q: Tell me about the last week. Was it 24-hour days for you?
A: Everything was pretty calm for the first four weeks of production because we were moving trailers to the secure yards and it was pretty controlled. Once we started making deliveries around the 13th, I'm not sure I really got a good night's sleep until the 21st.
Q: What have you learned from this for the next book launch?
A: I think about 95 percent of the plan that we put in place for this one will carry forward to the next launch, although there are always some things you'd do a bit differently. In this day and age, with staffing and other issues, I think using a third-party logistics company is a great way to bring in the expertise when you have a spike in your volume. They can be there when you need them and they're gone when the project is over. I'd say bringing in hired talent to help manage the project is a st rategy I'll use again. I wrote five words down before you called: planning, communication, execution, teamwork and coordination. To me, those were the key elements that helped guide us through the whole program.