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What is Murphy's Curve?

By Ian Hobkirk | 08/26/2019 | 7:07 AM

Murphy's Curve 350 DC

Most companies that have attempted to implement automated materials handling equipment have discovered that these projects can be particularly vulnerable to Murphy’s Law, the principal that, “anything that can go wrong, will go wrong.” This blog is one in an ongoing series on “Beating Murphy’s Law in Warehouse Automation Projects.”

Ensuring a project survives Murphy’s Law begins with understanding “Murphy’s Curve”, a key concept. In 1991, a seminal work was published in MIT’s Sloane Management Review called “Beating Murphy’s Law,” authored by W. Bruce Chew, Dorothy Leonard-Barton and Roger E. Bohn. The article described a principal that the authors termed “Murphy’s Curve” (figure x), which illustrates the gap that often exists between expected results and actual results on projects. Murphy’s Curve highlights a key observation:

Unrealistic expectations doom many projects to failure before they begin.

The reality is that even with successful projects, there is almost always a period of decreased performance which begins before the go-live. It can last for an extended period while the operations staff adjusts to the new processes and technology and while bugs are worked out of the system. With a well-planned and well-run project, this adjustment period is short, and performance begins to improve over time, eventually surpassing the pre-deployment levels and achieving the gains that were the rationale for the project. However, many companies gloss over this reality and expect that after deploying new technology they will see an immediate and sustained performance improvement. The variation between expected and actual results can be significant, as figure x indicates.


Figure x: Murphy’s Curve


Beating Murphy’s Law begins with an acknowledgement that Murphy’s Curve can, and will, be present in every operations improvement project to some degree.



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About Ian Hobkirk

Ian Hobkirk

Ian Hobkirk is the founder and Managing Director of Commonwealth Supply Chain Advisors. Over his 20-year career, he has helped hundreds of companies reduce their distribution labor costs, improve space utilization, and meet their customer service objectives. He has formed supply chain consulting organizations for two different systems integration firms, and managed the supply chain execution practice at The AberdeenGroup, a leading technology analyst firm.


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