|As we travel around the country visiting clients one recurring impression is that far too many warehouses and Distribution Centers are like an asylum being run by the inmates. No one is in charge and operations occur in a rather haphazard manner according to variable, uncoordinated directives. Even after investing in expensive Warehouse Management Systems the facility is not operating at anything approaching maximum efficiency. When interrogated, management usually states that the training took place, but things have regressed. This is further rationalized by statements that amount to “I do my best, but they have me outnumbered.”
This excuse happens to be true, if you consider yourself as the sole enforcer of how the operation should look and run, and the “right” methods for achieving this. But this does not have to be only way to manage. Distribution requires a Team Effort, but you, “the Coach,” should be calling the shots, not each individual player. Fortunately, with some simple management techniques you can start turning this situation around as soon as you put down this article.
The power of positive reinforcement
The typical image of the military is of a Drill Sergeant shouting instructions to the recruits and punishing real or presumed infractions with long field runs and push ups. In reality, once the Recruits gain the education and respect of their officers “orders” are issued with far less sound and fury. A General does not order, he expects, and so should you.
Translating this into your operational context means that training must be followed with management reinforcement of the skills and techniques discussed. For example, a program that emphasizes housekeeping should be enhanced with every member of the Team, from the President to the janitor, looking for implementation of the skills. In other words, find someone doing things properly and invest the time to insure that they do this again. How? By lavishly complementing them in front of their peers. Lay it on thick.
“I saw what you just did. You followed exactly what we discussed in the training meeting. Beautiful! Keep up the good work.”
Make sure that everyone knows about this and that you expect the same behavior from them. Several situations will develop from this. Everyone will be watching the one who received the compliment to try to catch him deviating from the acceptable policy or procedure. He in return may become overly sensitive to insuring that “his work ethic” is followed by everyone. This is the positive approach.
Without management reinforcement a negative condition could result with the good worker castigated by his peers. Under these circumstances, it is imperative that management steps in to reprimand the “bad apple” in private and institute additional retraining.
For some employees, nothing seems to gain their attention and cooperation. If this happens the only recourse is intensive retraining of the offenders or their voluntary resignation. For those who absolutely do not respond to positive reinforcement, reprimand them in public to increase peer pressure. In states with liberal gun laws this can be a very risky policy. Humiliation is absolutely the last recourse, and never done lightly. It is far better to get them to agree that “things are not working out” and employment somewhere else will be best for everyone.
To reiterate, praise lavishly in public, reorient patiently in private and rely on peer pressure to sort out the workforce. No one likes to work with people who obstruct advancement and undermine everyone’s efforts.
A group empowerment exercise
Try a simple exercise to improve stocking. After a short orientation, divide the workers into teams of two or three, preferably with a picker and a stocker in each team. Give each team an aisle to “police.” The object is for them to go from one end to the other and straighten the products, remove trash, restock empty shelves or pallets and prepare the aisle for efficient picking. Sounds simple and straight forward doesn’t it?
Next, have the teams critique each other’s work. What do they like? What don’t they care for and why? Every time we have used this training technique there have been striking differences between the reconstituted aisles. Some look “sharp” while other areas appear to be untouched. The reason for this is that no one has a clear concept of what constitutes a “good job.” Some believe that it is sufficient to merely pick up the trash, while others open boxes and preset them in a manner that enhances the picking function and reduces the chances for making errors. Visually the differences should be painfully obvious.
The third and most important step it to gain consensus on how the job should be performed. In this manner the workers are essentially training themselves in the “best practices” that they would like to see employed. Record what is desirable and post this where everyone can see it. Then turn them loose to work through the aisles one more time using the new techniques.
The end result will be a neater, more logical picking area with everything neatly in place, ready for use. Maintaining these procedures is easy with Positive Reinforcement used to add peer pressure to management’s backing of the systems and procedures developed by an empowered staff. With a little finesse, not only will the changes be implemented, they will be embraced by everyone.
Moving on to bigger and better things
While enhanced stocking is an easy procedure to implement, other areas may require a more subtle approach, based on outside forces or requirements.
Receiving and shipping areas must be delineated by some form of marking. According to OSHA Section 1922 this can be done with appropriate lines on the floor, or anything else that everyone can agree on. For example, four columns can be used to mark an area or signs/banners hung above the space will suffice provided everyone has been trained to respect the markings.
Using this as a starting point, organize the warehouse staff into groups to “seek and destroy” extraneous furniture, trash, returns and other accumulated miscellaneous extraneous “stuff” in the delineated area. As they say in sailing, the time to clear the decks is before the storm. Stow whatever remains in convenient locations and organize the space to accept the appropriate materials. This can mean moving returns or ladders from between the doors and placing empty pallets in the space that is opened.
Nothing is sacred, even the supervisor’s desk and chair. The goal is to make everyone cognizant of the obstacles and hazards that they have been walking around for years. After this has been done once, rotate the teams and do it one more time. This should help everyone visualize and define what is vital and what can be removed.
With the new space empty and clearly marked the dock area should be able to operate at a much higher level of productivity. This will not happen unless old paradigms are also changed. One of the worst procedures in warehousing is to “Receive today, stock tomorrow.” Chances are that this is exactly what caused many of the past problems and if this mentality remains in place the staging areas will quickly revert to the old pattern. Here again Positive Reinforcement techniques will prevent regression. Even better, with the new empowerment provided to the staff, cleaning the dock area can become a starting point for many more programs in the Return Goods area, maintenance shop, catalog and literature aisle (clearly in need of a rethinking in an online, Internet era), storage yard, etc.
Sequencing the focus and work can also be left up to the warehouse team once they are empowered and trusted to reconnoiter, identify and develop programs on their own.
Provide the tools
Training and a cooperative atmosphere are excellent steps in turning a work force around, but one must also supply the right tools to do the job with less effort and more efficiency. Identifying and acquiring these tools can also be an enhancement program for the staff. Previous articles over the years have covered clothing, cartons, lighting, fork lifts and other relatively inexpensive tools to enhance any operation. The goal for this exercise is to identify any changes or additions that the staff can endorse.
An excellent place to start small is with empowering the warehouse team to identify the most suitable knife for use by receivers, stockers, pickers and shipping personnel. Hundreds of styles are available, but few operations have standardized on what works well in their context. Have a team investigate the features that best suit their needs, without regard to price, then report their findings, and solicit additional suggestions from the rest of the staff. Be prepared for some debate and remember that a knife is part of a larger system that also includes a place to carry the knife, spare blades and some room for individuality.
Once consensus is reached, purchase the chosen knives, paint or engrave the individual’s name on it and issue the new tool. Anyone caught by the team using any other knife can be subject to peer pressure or a fine” that goes to a charity (matched by the company) or a fund to purchase special meals and treats for meetings. This should guarantee that everyone in the operation will be looking for proper usage and compliance with the group decision. Now extend this to more complex tools and situations.
This technique is easy to scale up or down depending on the individual situation, budget and psychological factors. Just remember that “Two heads can be thicker than one.” While the team is doing their research you, or other enlightened management, should always monitor their activities. The more you trust their judgment, the easier your work load.
All this takes time
Good workers are never found like ripe fruit handing low on a tree. A staff that cares, thinks and acts must be carefully nurtured and developed. Starting small programs with assured success, then using the results as steps towards larger goals will require Management at all levels to continually stress the importance of independent development for each person in the operation. The key elements of Positive Reinforcement and trust must be emphasized with appropriate rewards and goals. Simple thanks will go a long way towards fostering the right attitudes. Bets and treats along the way can add fun. What is required of you is creativity and uniformity of fair treatment to all deserving individuals.
You also have some important allies in making this program work. Teach the power of Positive Reinforcement to everyone in management. While a kind word and pat on the back from you carries quite a bit of weight, sincere appreciation from everyone will insure that every employee will respond. Yes, they do have you outnumbered, but only if the staff is working against you. Most people want to provide a good day’s work for a good day’s pay. This has not changed for thousands of years. What has changed is the tools and techniques that you can use to gain cooperation…if only you take the first step of thanking people whenever they do things right, instead of critiquing their missteps.
Remember that deep in the heart of even the worst individual there is a spark of goodness. Find it and use it against them.