If you’ve heard of someone doing a “milk run” in their logistics operations, you might have wondered what that means. We compiled a short history of the milk run, what logistics pros mean when they use the term, and how milk runs contribute to lean operations.
The origin and uses of the term “milk run”
The term milk run comes from milk delivery. Milkmen would drive a route, delivering milk to people’s homes and picking up empty bottles. Milk runs also described trains that would stop at multiple farms to pick up cans of fresh milk to take to a central dairy for processing.
In World War II, pilots referred to low-risk sorties as milk runs. The term can also be used more generically to describe a route with many stops. For example, a transportation route might be called a milk run if it has frequent stops, often in small towns.
What is milk run logistics?
It’s easiest to explain the process with an example. Let’s say that many different growers in one region supply wheat to a mill that makes flour. Each farm could send a delivery truck with a load of grain to the mill each day. That’s a pretty standard supply chain operation. In milk run logistics, however, a truck would go from the mill to the farms. At each stop on the route, the truck picks up wheat from a different grower. If each farmer only has a partial load to deliver, this is a more efficient way to collect the grain.
Milk runs can also be part of internal operations. Sometimes, they don’t even involve delivery trucks. Let’s take the example of a heavy equipment manufacturing facility. Several sections of the facility fabricate different parts of the machinery. Another team does the assembly. Someone from each fabrication department could deliver finished pieces to the assembly section. However, it’s probably more efficient to send a driver to the different sections to load and transport all the parts to the assembly area. In this situation, one driver takes the place of many, and each department’s workforce can focus on fabrication.
Why are milk runs beneficial?
As the examples above demonstrate, a milk run can be a more efficient way to handle logistics. But they do take planning. If the route involves products from different companies, you need an agreement about cost-sharing and other aspects of the cooperative delivery arrangement. Once the group settles these issues, this delivery method can save time and money for everyone by pooling operation costs and resources.
Receiving operations also benefit from milk runs. In the example of the mill, instead of processing a dozen deliveries from different farms, the mill can get a full wheat delivery from just one truck. In the internal example above, the assembly operations only have one delivery to keep track of rather than running down parts deliveries from multiple fabrication departments.
How lean operations principles streamline third-party logistics
Milk runs are an excellent example of lean management principles applied to logistics. At Red Stag Fulfillment, we are always looking for ways to apply lean and agile principles to our work. These cutting-edge management principles allow us to pivot quickly to meet changing circumstances. In the past year, we were able to re-route some of our clients’ shipments to alternate carriers when carrier capacity issues slowed down delivery for many order fulfillment warehouses.
Logistics is a dynamic field. Demand can change quickly, so your 3PL should be ready to change just as fast. Red Stag Fulfillment helps our clients apply lean principles to inventory management to maximize reliability while minimizing the capital needed to be fully stocked.