The Most Overlooked DC Performance Strategy

automation

automationAt one point in my career, I did some work in a large distribution center in Southern California. This experience helped me understand the importance of a healthy workplace culture.

At that time, my employer’s intent was to pay above-market rate for our warehouse roles. To achieve this, the company benchmarked our compensation against national retail jobs vs. local warehouse jobs. As a result, the math was not in our favor. For our very physically-demanding warehouse roles, we were paid an unsustainable wage while living in an area of the U.S. with one of the highest costs of living. To make ends meet, many colleagues also worked second jobs. As you might expect, physical and mental fatigue took its toll and the work suffered. After all, it’s defeating to consistently load trailers in 110 ° desert heat for minimum wage.

But wages are just one lever to pull in attracting and keeping good employees. Companies must also offer a healthy workplace which listens to their workforce and offers modern tools that keep workers happy in addition to being productive. In fact, a study by LinkedIn found that 70% of employees would not work at a leading company if it meant they had to tolerate a bad workplace culture.

Technology’s role in helping employees thrive

Technology can play an important part. Today’s young workers are tech-savvy, so companies offering technology to aid new employees in their jobs can enhance their ability to attract the best applicants. For example, related to warehouse technology, a recent Lucas Systems industry study found 89% of respondents agreed that implementing artificial intelligence-based software within distribution centers can provide a competitive advantage. Technology presents an opportunity for a company to differentiate itself and upgrade its work environment. In addition, technology can also play a significant role in alleviating the physical strain so often associated with warehouse work.

In the following paragraphs, we’ll discuss the process of using technology and automation to improve the workplace culture and environment. Instead of looking at technology as a pure productivity solution, companies can benefit from exploring ways to use technology for employee retention. This takes creativity – and empathy.

Let’s explore how:

Use automation to alleviate workers’ tasks

Examine the warehouse and ask which activities are significantly tedious, boring, confusing, painful, or repetitive. Do you have a complex workflow that must be followed to a T or else it breaks down? Does it require manual data entry? Does it involve the same repetitive motion? These traits all present great opportunities to automate. Not only do you get the process benefits, but you also gain the trust of employees by improving their daily tasks.

Consider employee happiness into your ROI calculations

To truly determine ROI on automation solutions, you might want to consider returns outside of the traditional calculations. For example, introducing new technology is an opportunity to show employees how the company chose to automate low-level or repetitive tasks, allowing employees to focus on more high-value responsibilities. Examine how certain duties can be shifted and re-arranged for ideal utilization. Many of the best automation solutions do not eliminate headcount. Solutions such as robotics, conveyor, AI software, and others work alongside people, enhancing productivity while also positively impacting employee satisfaction. For example, one of our customers at Lucas, Apex Tool Group, experienced a 63% reduction in picking errors, but moreover, shared that employees “loved the system,” and said, “you rarely implement a new system and have users tell you ‘it’s made my life so much easier.‘ Making the process better for associates makes them more productive. And that’s better for the business.”

Another Lucas customer experience illustrates this point as well. Working closely with the customer, we integrated with Packsize, a custom box erecting solution, to create boxes on demand. This solution significantly reduced shipping costs by eliminating wasted cardboard and dunnage. It also increased the space utilization of picking carts and transportation.

These are clear cut benefits. But what may not be as obvious, are the benefits related to improving employee relationships. This box erector solution performs the building and taping together of shipping cartons – instead of assigning those repetitive and tedious tasks to employees. And this can be meaningful in the sense that employees can now focus their attention and energy on more engaging and productive tasks. The lesson here is this: When determining ROI, consider all these benefits. If you stop at the traditional math, you’ll miss important areas of overall value.

Engage warehouse associates in the problem solving

After identifying a few areas of need, the next step should be to engage your technology users in the discovery and requirements gathering process as early and often as reasonably possible. Research supports this tactic, as polling organization Gallup identifies employees feeling that their opinion matters in the workplace as one of the essential drivers for employee engagement.

  1. Get buy-in from employees to show them you value their collaboration – This goes a long way. No one likes to be suddenly forced to use a new process/product/technology without being involved in the planning and implementation phases. This is true whether you’re a minimum wage worker or a CEO.
  1. Tap into the knowledge base of your employee base – Because distribution center employees tend to move around more than others, they may have experience with a good solution or have already used something similar to what is being considered. Leverage this expertise and learn from employees. Survey your users to avoid unseen pitfalls and make sure you’re actually purchasing a solution that provides a good user experience.
  1. Spot gaps in standard operating procedures (SOPs) – and let employees identify these – Warehouses have SOPs and processes to be followed. Vendors come in, meet with management and consultants, then design technology solutions around those processes as they are written. The problem with this is that some of these processes have significant gaps, workarounds, or are not followed at all. So before aligning new solutions to existing SOPs, involve workers in the SOP design process to help uncover potential pitfalls. The last thing you want is to be stuck in a loop of change orders or, even worse, shutting down operations temporarily because of an SOP snag that could have been spotted with warehouse worker input.

In addition to product design, training is another opportunity to involve your frontline workers.

Create solutions to fit newbies and veterans

To create a good solution experience, think about those who are learning your system for the first time as well as those who have been using the system for a while.

Warehouse pickers might execute the same task hundreds, maybe thousands of times a day. They get lots of opportunities to learn very quickly, and they do. Comprehension of new systems might come quicker than one would expect. Even knowing this, company leaders still get worried about a new user’s understanding of a complex workflow. To combat this, they ‘dumb down’ the solution by adding extra verification steps, wordy explanations on screens, or they systematically handhold employees through the solution. While this can help with initial uptake, what eventually happens is a workflow too slow and cumbersome once employees are trained. When the system doesn’t scale up with the learning curve, employees find workarounds and other ways to ‘cheat’ the system as a means of moving faster.

Allow your solution to grow with its users and you’ll have happy users. You can offer Easy/Standard/Advanced workflow modes, adjustable verification steps, shortcut keys, and New/Veteran user group settings.

All of these suggestions come back to one central theme: Empathy for your workers and a commitment to make their jobs better. A recent Forbes article identifies empathy as the most important leadership skill. To commit to compassion for your workforce, put yourself in their shoes as much as possible. How would they best use the tools they’ve been given? What is missing from their workflow? What tasks are repeated but could be minimized with the use of technology?

Ask questions to your employees early and often. Intently listen to their input. Empathy is a fantastic design principle. Use it to find ‘better fit’ solutions, a more engaged team, better productivity and employees who come back happy, day after day.

Kyle Franklin is a Solution Consultant with Lucas Systems, leading numerous solution designs and implementations in the U.S., EMEA and Asia Pacific Regions and helping to transform and optimize distribution center operations worldwide. Prior to Lucas, Kyle held roles in international logistics and warehousing for global logistics providers. Kyle has an MBA with a focus in Operations and Strategy from the Katz Graduate School of Business at the University of Pittsburgh and a B.S. in Economics from the University of Illinois at Chicago.

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