The Lean and the Agile Concepts in the Reverse Supply Chain

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The chapter will start by presenting the research philosophy and research approaches applied for this study. Furthermore, the research strategy, the data gathering methods and data analysis procedures used to conduct this research will be described. The chap-ter will end by discussing the validity, reliability and criticism of chosen method.

Research Philosophy

Both the philosophy and the research have the aim to improve our knowledge of the world. The philosophy is more concerned on knowing what kind of things exist in the world and what is right to know them, while the research is concerned with their know-able properties (Williams & May, 2000). However, the research is impossible without the philosophy because the outcomes would be very different as they have emerged from the different starting points, and the philosophy is impossible without the social research because questions asked by philosophers should be supported by debates in re-search (Williams & May, 2000). According to Saunders, Lewis and Thornhill (2007) there are three different philosophical views: epistemological – philosophy of the knowledge and the nature of that knowledge; ontological – philosophy of the reality and the nature of it; and axiological that studies the judgments of values. In this research, the most relevant view is the epistemological one and it has three branches: positivism, re-alism, and interpretivism.
Positivism is a philosophical position that holds that only observable and measurable re-ality can provide the authentic knowledge (Salmon, Earman, Glymour, Lennox, Machamer, McGuire, Norton, Salmon & Schaffner, 1999). From the positivist point of view, the way to obtain and develop the knowledge lies in describing the phenomena that is experienced and can be verified (Saunders, Lewis & Thornhill, 2003). These im-ply that highly structured and quantitative research methods are appropriate (ibid).
Realism is based on the idea that the reality exists independent of human thoughts and beliefs (Saunders et al., 2003). The principles of the realist explanations lie on – ‘the outcome of an action follows from mechanisms acting in particular contexts’ (Robson, 2002, p. 30). It leads to a way of doing experiments; however, in social research it is far more complicated. For realists there are social objects that could be studied scientifi-cally, but the methods must fit the subject matter (Robson, 2002).
In this thesis interpretivism as epistemological position was applied. Interpretivism as-sumes that the reality is not objectively determined, besides the world is very complex and each phenomenon is often unique (Kelliher, 2005). From the interpretivist point of view, in order to understand and discover reality, it is necessary to explore ‘subjective meanings motivating people’s actions’ (Saunders et al., 2003, p. 84). This allows under-standing perceptions, motives, and values that humans have about their actions (Kelli-her, 2005). Since the reality of the business world is complex, dynamic and the set of circumstances in each particular firm are unique, the generalization for interpretivist is less valuable, and thus qualitative and less structured research methods are appropriate (Saunders et al., 2003). Since this research is concerned about analysing the managerial side of a company while focusing on the reverse supply chain, there is a necessity to understand the motives and the actions of a company. Even more, all gathered informa-tion should be processed by realising hidden objectives and correctly interpreted. Such is the main reason why interpretivist point of view is the most suitable for this thesis.

Deductive and Inductive Approaches

Depending on the reasoning that is used to support or justify the conclusions, the re-search can be classified as either deductive or inductive (Hugh, 2003). Deduction and induction reasoning (figure 3.1) have opposite directions – ‘Deduction reasons from the mind to the world, whereas induction reasons from the world to the mind.’ (Hugh, 2003, p. 160) Deductive reasoning moves from broader to more specific (Saunders et al., 2003); and conclusions follow logically from known facts (Sekaran, 2000). In turn, in-ductive reasoning starts from the observation of the specific phenomena and moves to a broader generalization and theories, and the conclusions are made based on observed facts (Sekaran, 2000). The main criteria for choosing the approach that should be ap-plied are the starting point and the aim of the study, and whether study addressed to de-velop or test the theory (Hyde, 2000).
The starting point of the deductive approach is based on well established theories and a researcher seeks to test if the theory can be applied to specific instances (Hyde, 2000). Based on the theoretical framework a researcher develops a hypothesis which, then, de-pending on the result of the observation can be either confirmed or rejected (Skinner, 2008). In the deductive research the quantitative data, highly structured methods are usually used (Saunders et al., 2003). On the one hand, that makes the deductive research process well controlled, yet on the other hand, a researcher become ‘independent of what is being researched’ which creates limitations for the alternative explanations of phenomena (Saunders et al., 2003, p. 89).
This thesis is written based on inductive logic. The starting point of the inductive re-search is a specific observation which leads to the formulation of the research questions and then, based on the data analysis, to the development of already the established theo-ries or creation of the new ones (Hyde, 2000). The inductive research is issue-oriented (Skinner, 2008) A researcher seeks to gain a deep understanding of the nature and the context of a particular phenomena or event and becomes ‘part of the research process’ (Saunders et al., 2003, p. 89). To be able to uncover different views on the phenomena a small sample and qualitative data with various data collection methods are appropriate (ibid). Such flexible research design allows to make changes of research emphasis which increase the possibility for the alternative explanations and facilitate the research progress (Hyde, 2000).
The study process of this thesis started with the collection of the facts and the develop-ment of the ideas about the reverse supply chains and their strategies. The literature’s study has shown that the study area is relatively new and is not explored enough to for-mulate hypotheses. Instead, deep analysis about the issues and the problems regarding the choice and implementation of the reverse supply chain strategy was needed. Thus, in this study, authors’ intention was not to test if the existing theory can be applied in a particular situation, but to develop the theory by adding new perspectives and new knowledge gained from real business situations.

Exploratory, Correlational, Explanatory and Descriptive Studies

From the point of view of the purpose of a study, the research can be classified as ex-ploratory, correlational, explanatory or descriptive (Kumar, 1999; Sekaran, 2000; Saun-ders et al., 2003). However, such classification is theoretical, which means that in prac-tice these categories can be combined within the same research (Kumar, 1999).
Exploratory studies are appropriate if a researcher seeks to explore the new, un-known or not enough explored areas (Sekaran, 2000). Since, the information about the situation or the phenomena is limited, to be able to get new insights, the researcher wants to investigate what is happening (Saunders et al., 2003). Furthermore, exploratory studies are based on the flexible research design, thus a researcher can change the direction of the study (ibid).
Correlational studies are appropriate when a researcher attempts to find out if there is a relationship between particular variables of the phenomena or the situation – ‘The main emphasis in a correlational research study is to discover or establish the existence of a relationship/ association/ interdependence be-tween two or more aspects of a situation’ (Kumar, 1999, p. 9).
Explanatory studies, in contrast to correlational studies, are appropriate when a researcher seeks to explain the nature of the relationship – ‘how’ and ‘why’ there is a relationship between two or more variables (Kumar, 1999). This means that the explanatory research can help to explain ‘why’ or ‘how’ some-thing is happening.
Descriptive studies are appropriate when a researcher attempts to describe a situation, a phenomenon or a problem accurately (Kumar, 1999). Descriptive studies are well structured, formalized and have established rules and procedures (Ghauri & Gronhaug, 2005); and the research questions or the hypotheses are stated clearly (Saunders et al., 2003).
In this thesis, the exploratory and some of the elements of the explanatory approaches are used. Since, the situation about applicability of the lean and the agile concepts in the strategy of the reverse supply chain has not been clearly defined by the previous re-searchers, in order to be able to answer research questions, both the understanding of ‘what’ and the qualitative explanation ‘why’ is happening were necessary. This also im-plies that research design should be flexible enough to make changes during the study (i.e. continuous developing of the study based on gradually obtained information).

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Time Horizon

Regarding the time perspective studies can be classified as either longitudinal or cross-sectional (Saunders et al., 2003). Longitudinal studies – collecting information on phe-nomenon or situation at two or more points in time (Sekaran, 2000) Longitudinal stud-ies allow evaluating the pattern of change during the time (Kumar, 1999) However, it can be very time-consuming (Saunders et al., 2003). Cross–sectional studies are used when the purpose requires to explore the overall picture on particular phenomenon, problem or situation (Kumar, 1999). The main disadvantage of the cross-sectional stud-ies is that they cannot evaluate the change (Saunders et al., 2003). According to Kumar (1999) cross-sectional studies usually relay on the quantitative methods. However, Saunders et al. (2003) argues that the cross-sectional studies are also commonly used in the case study strategy based on the interviews.
This thesis, regarding the time perspective, is cross-sectional. There were two reasons to choose this perspective. Firstly, in order to fulfil the purpose and to answer research questions, it was not necessary to study the situation in more than one point of time. Secondly, even if the business world is extremely dynamic, the strategy (in this thesis – the strategy for the reverse supply chain) is more stable and it often takes years rather that months to implement strategic change, and thus the application of the longitudinal perspective, due to the time limit, was not reasonable.

Qualitative and Quantitative Methods

Saunders et al. (2007) have stated that based on the type of information sought during the research process the research could be classified either as quantitative or qualitative. According to Kumar (1999) the problem and the purpose of the study is the main crite-ria for choosing the appropriate method. The chosen method requires different tech-niques and processes to measure the variables and to analyze the information (Blaxter, Hughes & Tight, 2001). According to Maxwell (2005) both quantitative and qualitative methods have different strengths, logic, and are addressed to achieve different study goals. The main differences between quantitative and qualitative approaches are pre-sented below (table 3.1). However, according to Saunders et al. (2003) qualitative and quantitative researches are not mutually exclusive – in some studies, to fulfil the pur-pose, both methods can or must be used within the same research.
According to Punch (2000) the main concept of the quantitative research is based on the gathering and analysis of the information about the phenomena in numerical means. The quantitative method is appropriate if a researcher seeks to ‘quantify the variations in a phenomenon, situation, problem or issue.’ (Kumar, 1999, p.10). The strength of the quantitative research lies in the possibility to generalize the sample’s result to the whole population (Creswell, 2002).
The qualitative research approach is used in this thesis. According to Punch (2000), the qualitative research can be defined as the research where study is made and a conclusion can be generated based on the qualitative data. The qualitative data represents the mean-ings expressed through words – ‘…is concerned with collecting and analyzing informa-tion in as many forms, chiefly non-numeric, as possible’ (Blaxter et al., 2001, p.64). The strength of the qualitative research lies in its deep focus on the particular situation, the ability to understand the meaning of such situation for a participant, and to understand the contexts of the participant’s actions within such situations (Maxwell, 2005). ‘It tends to focus on exploring, in as much detail as possible, smaller numbers of instances or examples which are seen as being interesting or illuminating, and aims to achieve ‘depth’ rather than ‘breath’’ (Blaxter et al., 2001, p. 64). The qualitative research is flexible and adaptable; however, the results are subjective and often cannot be applied to the whole population (Gillham, 2001).
The qualitative research approach is suitable for this thesis because it provides an op-portunity to understand a point of view, the attitudes and perceptions of the interviewed participants regarding the wide range of issues related to the choice and the implementa-tion of the strategy for the reverse supply chain. Furthermore, since the purpose is to explore and explain the nature of the phenomenon, rich qualitative data, that could fa-cilitate the understanding of the links between various different variables, is necessary. Besides, since the business environment is highly complex and each reverse supply chain is unique, to illuminate and understand the meaning of what is happening requires both the research flexibility and the ability to take a look from the ‘insider’ perspective.

Literature review

Blaxter et al. (2001) have stated that each research project should start by reviewing the existing literature (books, journals, etc). A literature review is defined as – ‘a systematic, explicit, and reproducible method for identifying, evaluating, and interpreting the
existing body of recorded work produced by researchers, scholars, and practitioners’ (Fink, 1998, p. 3). According to Kumar (1999), by reviewing the literature, researchers can clarify the research problem, improve the methodology and increase the understand-ing about the research area. There is no correct structure for the literature review, it should however start with a more general area which later should be narrowed down to the specific research objectives (Saunders et al., 2003). In order to save the time Kumar (1999) suggested use indices of journals, abstracts of articles and citation indices.
The literature review for the thesis was started by looking for relevant information in various electronic databases such as ABI/Inform, Business Source Premier, Elsevier Science Direct, etc. and Google Scholar search engine. Certain keywords were used: ‘reverse logistics, ‘reverse supply chain’, ‘supply chain strategy’, ‘strategy for reverse supply chain’, ‘lean’, ‘agile’, ‘leagile’. Hundreds of found articles were viewed by first reading the abstract, later looking at the introduction, and if relevant information was found continuing to a whole article. The most important strategy was to make very short notes on the main idea of the article. Later it has helped a lot when formulating the main research problem. Simultaneously to that, the search SCM books at Jönköping Univer-sity library and lecture conspectus were reviewed. When a useful article or a book was found, the authors were looking for a reference list to expand the knowledge on a topic, gather more important information, and be acquainted with more publications of the relevant authors. However, only a few articles were focusing on the RSC, and it has led to a challenge while narrowing the topic because of the limited previous researches and the time limit for the thesis.

Research Strategy

Saunders et al. (2003) stated that depending on the objectives of the study different re-search strategies should be applied (e.g. survey, experiment, case study, grounded the-ory, action research). Yin (2003) pointed three conditions that are important for the strategy selection: the proposed research questions, the extent of researchers’ control over behavioural actions, and the necessity of the focus on the contemporary events (Figure 3.2). Each strategy has its own advantages and disadvantages, and different ways to collect and analyze the data (Saunders et al., 2003).

Table of Contents
1 Introduction
1.1 Background
1.2 Problem Formulation
1.3 Purpose
1.4 Research Questions
1.5 Delimitations
1.6 Outline of the Thesis
2 Frame of Reference 
2.1 Reverse Supply Chain
2.2 Supply Chain Strategy
2.3 The Lean and the Agile Concepts in the Reverse Supply Chain
2.4 Supporting Facets for the Strategy
2.5 Summary of the Frame of Reference
3 Methodology 
3.1 Research Philosophy
3.2 Deductive and Inductive Approaches
3.3 Exploratory, Correlational, Explanatory and Descriptive Studies
3.4 Time Horizon
3.5 Qualitative and Quantitative Methods
3.6 Literature review
3.7 Research Strategy
3.8 Cases and Respondents Selection
3.9 Data Collection
3.10 Data Analysis
3.11 Validity and Reliability
3.12 Method Evaluation
4 Empirical Study
4.1 Introduction
4.2 Fläkt Woods
4.3 Systemair
4.4 Swegon
4.5 Rettig ICC
5 Analysis 
5.1 The Perception of Reverse Supply Chain Strategy
5.2 The Driving Forces for Implementing Strategy
5.3 The Criteria for the Lean and the Agile Strategies Selection
5.4 The Implementation of the Lean and the Agile Concepts
5.5 The Challenges in Applying the Lean and the Agile Concepts
6 Conclusions
7 Ideas for Future Research
Strategy for the Reverse Supply Chain: Applicability of the Lean and the Agile Concepts

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