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Warehousing is Hard Work - If Consumers Really Knew...

By Steve Simmerman | 08/28/2011 | 9:45 AM

Where did the summer of 2011 go?  Seems like most of us endured one of the hottest summers on record based on my trips to Dallas, Chicago, Salt Lake, Charleston, Atlanta and other parts of the US. During those trips I've had the opportunity to see many, many distribution centers and have seen an extremely wide range of material handling equipment and systems. I also saw hundreds of hard working people in those DCs. Some of the hardest working people I observed were in the picking operations in these DCs. It struck me how hard these people work day in and day out so that we, as consumers, are able to get our favorite foods, drinks and other products at our local stores. As you may know from my previous blog entries, I like to talk about the People, Process and Technology components of logistics.  As I watched an order picker in a grocery DC this summer, I was reminded how important the "People" really are to DC operations.  I watched a single order picker in an aisle that had to be 200 feet long, or longer, riding an electric pallet jack and wearing a voice-controlled headset.  He was the only picker in the aisle. It seemed to be a very lonely job and one without end as I watched him pick case after case after case.

Does the average consumer have any idea how hard a warehouse team works to receive, store, pick and ship their favorite products? I don't think so.

Several years ago when my father-in-law passed away, I inherited a piece of material handling equipment. He was an independent and entrepreneurial guy. He and his partners started what turned out to be a very successful screw, nut and bolt manufacturing company in Chicago. My father-in-law ran the warehouse. I worked in the warehouse for part of one summer and the 'automation' in that warehouse consisted of a few forklifts (or "tow motors" as he used to call them) and a fleet of trusty "hand trucks". Those hand trucks were used to move "kegs" of screws, nuts and bolts around the warehouse from receiving, to storage, to picking areas where screws were weigh counted and "dumped" by hand to fill orders. It was very hard, messy work. The "hand truck" I inherited actually has the word "Receiving" stenciled on the side of it - lest anyone in "Shipping" try to borrow it!  This piece of material handling equipment obviously has some sentimental value to me, but it also serves as a constant reminder to me as I tour DCs and talk to customers. 

Hand Truck

While we all strive to improve the efficiency of distribution operations, reduce costs, etc., it fundamentally comes down to the people working in that DC.  The fastest conveyor, slickest WMS, latest scanning or voice technology means nothing if the people in the DC are not trained, coached or motivated to succeed. So as this hottest summer on record draws to a close, I applaud all of those warehouse associates that work extremely hard each and every day so that consumers can enjoy their summer BBQs with their favoite products among family and friends. To those of us that advise customers on how to improve operations, I urge you to put the people in that operation on the top of the list of priorities and ask a few simple questions:

  • How will this technology or automation not only improve operations, but how will it affect the people that interact with it?
  • Are we doing all we can to train, coach and motivate those people in order to achieve total system success?
  • Have we engaged the HR team to help integrate these improvements into the culture of the DC?
  • Have we even asked the people on the floor for their input, or are we designing solutions in a vacuum - hoping they will miraculously be accepted?

We've all seen many warehouse "improvements" fail to achieve the desired results due to lack of focus on the "People" component.  Sure the "hand truck" may be a primitive piece of material handling equipment, but it's a person that works with that equipment and it's the person that we need to focus on just as much as we do the technology and process.

Send me a photo of your version of a "hand truck" in your operations - we'll try to see who has the oldest piece of material handling equipment still in operation.


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