Ken Ackerman 2017-10-03 02:02:48
GREAT WAREHOUSE SUPERVISORS ARE MADE, NOT BORN Maybe there was a time when it was easy to find new warehouse supervisors. When Joe Forklifter was recognized for his operation skill, and furthermore he always had a good word for the boss, the sensible thing to do was to promote him into supervision. No leadership training was necessary because Joe was surely smart enough to figure this out. If that didn’t work, we placed an advertisement for skilled warehouse supervisors and hired the best person who came in the door. Again, no leadership training was needed because the respondents all claimed ample experience and skills. When labor is scarce, promotion from within is the safest option. When unemployment predominates, looking outside can be a good strategy. But in the absence of leadership training, newly-minted supervisors may fail. The consequences of that failure can be serious. WHERE ARE THE LEADERS? A typical organization can be segmented into performers, followers and draggers. Ten percent of the group are performers, another 10 percent are draggers and 80 percent are competent followers. In warehousing, the outstanding performer handles more units per hour than expected, he or she looks for more work without waiting for an assignment. The dragger is the exact opposite. In many cases, the warehouse supervisor spends too much time coaching the draggers. As a result, the performers are neglected and become demotivated. The leader should consistently invest more time with top performers in order to raise the standard of excellence of the crew. This does not mean that the draggers should be ignored. Perhaps some can be moved from dragger to follower, but it is far more important to inspire the top 10% to achieve even better performance. However, as we have just observed, there is a difference between outstanding performance and effective leadership. In a warehouse environment, leadership may start with a daily huddle, perhaps five minutes at the beginning of the shift when the supervisor communicates with the team. The daily huddle demands above average communication skills by its leader. The supervisor must communicate in a language that is common and well understood by everyone on the team. The supervisor sets an example and inspires the team to improve performance. The huddle should consider three questions about yesterday’s work: What went well? What needs improvement? Have you seen any barriers to productivity? The sequence is important. Describing what went well creates a positive spin for the meeting, and avoids the possibility that the huddle is simply a place to complain. Ability to lead the daily huddle effectively is the hallmark of a skilled supervisor. On the other hand, inability to handle the huddle is a warning that the supervisor may not be the right person for the job. FROM PERFORMER TO WAREHOUSE SUPERVISOR To repeat, senior management commonly makes the error of assuming that a top performer will automatically be an effective leader. Creating leaders from performers begins by setting the example. The supervisor can and should be a mentor to outstanding performers. He or she can create the desired environment by modeling leadership behavior and teaching apprentices to develop the skills of a leader. Top performers need to understand why the manager of a bakery is hired to manage the bakery, not bake the cakes. In the warehouse, that means that the leader should not also operate a lift truck. Yet the leader may occasionally demonstrate ability to operate a lift truck and to do most of the jobs assigned to the crew. He or she may occasionally be a doer, but not all the time! THE SUPERVISOR AS A CHANGE AGENT The best leaders embrace change. Many performers and nearly all followers take pleasure in the status quo. In the warehousing industry, the best companies are often the ones that initiate meaningful change. Nearly every survey of users of logistics services reports that shippers feel that the service providers are not innovative. By going against the trend, your company can stand out. However, doing so requires a leadership team that recognizes the value of change. “We’ve always done it that way” must become a forbidden phrase! The quick win is a proven way to get the work crew interested in change. It can be a very small thing, like changing the pick path, but it is a change which gets results and shows the crew that it is useful to constantly look for a better way. Quick wins are sometimes the moving of roadblocks. Consider these examples: Complicated procedures Unreliable processes Functional silos Another forbidden phrase should be, “That’s not my job.” Quick wins may be nothing more than improvements in teamwork. Does the account clerk in the office really understand the processes used on the warehouse floor? Would trading jobs for a day improve that understanding? Are some of the people in your organization committed to protecting turf? Are some managers territorial about their jobs? We have seen how the huddle team can become the vehicle for identifying future leaders. However, the huddle can also be a catalyst for change. The examples mentioned above may be detailed in huddle conversations. Outstanding performers and even followers may see roadblocks that are not recognized by the leadership team. RESISTANCE TO CHANGE It is common to blame resistance on the draggers. Yet sometimes it comes from bureaucracy, and even from the top of the organization. Structures, reporting mechanisms and procedures can all be instruments that facilitate resistance to change. When the warehouse supervisor is a change agent, he or she should also be outspoken in identifying and attacking sources of resistance. In a warehousing environment, the resistor may be your customer. It is obviously never wise to pick a fight with a client, but the resistance should be at least recognized. Entrenched resistance creates stagnation, and a stagnant organization will not retain talented people. IS THE SYSTEM THE ROOT OF THE PROBLEM? An operating system is a highway that directs the entire warehousing group toward a higher objective. It is more than a computer system, but today the software may be an integral part of the system problem. Here are three signs that the system is part of the problem: Too many meetings Constant “checkup” e-mail and calls Too many reports Remember the meetings you have attended that had no clear objective? Think about the reports that must be filled out. Do you understand how they are being used and why they benefit the organization? How many checkup phone calls or e-mails do you receive from someone who wants to be sure you are staying on task? All of these actions betray a lack of trust, and they become entrenched because they are part of a system. Systems can be changed. What are you doing to become the change agent? ACCOUNTABILITY, OWNERSHIP AND ENGAGEMENT Effective supervisors know how to hold their team members accountable. When a worker is given an assignment, does it get done correctly and on time? When this does not happen, what action is taken? Failure to hold people accountable is the hallmark of ineffective leadership. Yet many of us fail in this area because we either forget or never learn the critical importance of accountability. When a worker refuses to be accountable, discipline is essential. The ultimate outcome may be dismissal. When a warehouse worker performs well because it is part of his or her DNA, that person has taken ownership in the job. Not everyone will do this, but the effective leader must set the example and persuade others to follow. Engagement happens when a worker feels aligned to the purpose of the job. In many ways, it is similar to ownership, but engagement involves a greater sense of enthusiasm. In the warehouse, the engaged team members are those who never really need supervision. They do what needs to be done and go on looking for other things to do. In addition to doing the work, they make suggestions for how to do it better. MANAGEMENT BY ASKING GOOD QUESTIONS Instead of just getting product out the door, the effective supervisor tries to spend more time listening to people, soliciting improvements and taking the initiative to drive change. That means more than asking, “How is it going?” Consider these questions that stimulate improvement: What are one or two changes your team put in place as a result of last week’s huddles? Which crew members did you recognize for their good ideas? What changes have you made? Who on your team may be a potential leader? What were some new “what went well” items you recall from last week’s huddles? Questions like these are focused on improvement and growth, not just on running the warehouse. PUTTING IT ALL TOGETHER A great supervisor is a leader, not just a doer. Therefore, a first step to growing great leadership is to understand the difference between doing and leading. In a growing organization, additional supervisors are constantly needed, so a critical task is to find the next leaders. The best warehouse organizations are committed to change. The leaders should be change agents, but sometimes the ideas for change may come from below. Accountability is a hallmark of effective supervision. A great supervisor knows how to hold people accountable and is willing to discipline those who do not perform. Your warehousing organization is enhanced when great supervisors know how to ask good questions. Kenneth B. Ackerman, president of the K.B. Ackerman Company, is STAFDA’s warehousing consultant. He has been in logistics and warehousing his entire career, including as chief executive of Distribution Centers and part of the management consulting division of Coopers & Lybrand before forming the Ackerman Company. He is editor and publisher of Warehousing Forum and author of several books including Warehousing Profitability, Lean Warehousing, Auditing Warehouse Performance, and Warehousing Tips. Contact him at (614) 488-3165 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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