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Creating Project Teams with the Right Mix of Engineering and Operational Expertise

Justin Willbanks | 21 January 2020

From the beginning of my career, I have frequently seen an imbalance where too much attention is paid to either the number crunching/model development side or get product out the door side of the distribution environment. It can come in the form of front-line managers and supervisors that refuse to use data to help guide decisions, or it might be industrial engineers developing labor standards without intimate knowledge of an operation’s processes. There is typically (and understandably) a gap in fully understanding what the other side does and their reasoning behind decisions. There also frequently appears to be a lack of trust that the other side is fully capable of making decisions without the other’s input.

Unfortunately, this problem can grow when outside engineering consultants are used, because they are not experts on the nuances of the individual operations they encounter. They are often hired for the specific purpose of designing the layout of a new building or to develop labor standards for warehouse processes. These projects tend to only last a few months so there is little time to acquire deep knowledge of the ins and outs of every area of the facility.

As someone who’s been on both sides of the aisle, I can confidently say that it takes a collaborative approach to effectively implement any of these types of projects. Whether it’s an internal project with staff integration engineers, or an external engagement with a consulting firm or integrator like Bastian Solutions, there are several important steps that should occur in order to ensure a successful end result.

Mindset & Cooperation

The first and most important step, in my opinion, is to have the right mindset. I’ve encountered several situations where a project doesn’t stand a chance because it’s not fully embraced from the onset. It may be a feeling of resentment from the operational leadership that someone else is coming in to “fix” their operation. Or it could be a consultant who feels like they’re the expert and are there to do their job, their way. Whatever side is at fault, getting a project kicked-off without an open mind and complete buy-in from both parties all but guarantees a disappointing outcome.

Communication & Knowing the Roles

Determining the appropriate project team roles and responsibilities is vital to ensuring both parties are actively engaged throughout the process. There obviously needs to be someone in a project management role from both sides to ensure key milestones are met, but there also needs to be someone “in the weeds” of the project work itself. I will typically work very closely with someone at the manager or supervisor level throughout the project to gain valuable insight into the details of the operation. I will also share the reasoning and thoughts behind my approach to a certain task in order to stay completely transparent. The goal is to keep clear lines of communication and guarantee consistent input from both sides.

Keep the End User in Mind

When it comes to tasks like designing facility layouts, it can be easy to get too immersed in things like increasing storage density or space utilization without putting yourself in the end user’s position. There are several dense storage concepts such as very narrow aisle (VNA) or push back rack that offer great opportunities to reduce the overall storage footprint but come at the cost of efficiency and ease of use. I usually suggest that front line supervisors and managers discuss some of the alternatives that are being considered with the team on the floor to garner their feedback and potential experience in past operations. This can help in understanding some of the drawbacks and whether they outweigh the positives.

If developing engineered labor standards or improving processes is in scope, plenty of time on the floor is required. The only way to truly know what is going on in any operation is to experience it firsthand.  This also tends to be the best way to spend quality time with the associates and fully understand what they do on a daily basis. Run any ideas you have past them and get their feedback. In turn, ask them for any ideas they may have. Great ideas often come from those that perform the work day in and day out, thinking of ways it could be performed better. In the end, the implementation of these new processes will be smoother if everyone has played a role in developing them.

Qualitative Return-on-Investment

Staying with the theme of keeping the end user in mind, it’s important to understand all expected benefits or drawbacks of a project or solution when determining if it’s feasible to move forward. As is typically the case, most projects are measured by the financial return on the investment required to implement the recommended solution. But when potentially hundreds or thousands of associates will be affected, it’s important to also keep the qualitative ramifications in mind when developing solution alternatives. Certain automated solutions, regardless of their effect on headcount, can be viewed in a bad light from the associates out on the floor. It’s important to keep this perception in mind and how it will be communicated should that concept be recommended.

It’s also important not to immediately disqualify any solution that doesn’t provide a significant return on the investment. In certain situations, simply making processes easier or safer is the right approach. An easy example would be utilizing a lift-assist device to make handling unwieldy cases or products easier. There’s not a huge gain in productivity but reducing strain and fatigue on associates helps create a heathier workforce that can turn a qualitative decision into a quantitative one in the form of reduced turnover and training.

To recap, the primary objective is to encourage collaboration between the individuals possessing engineering and detailed analytical knowledge and those with a deep understanding and expertise of the operation itself. And although these suggestions cannot guarantee a successful, collaborative project and project team, they will go a long way in ensuring both parties are represented throughout the process. Having an open mind and allowing everyone who has a stake to contribute is the overarching objective. Project success and the subsequent adoption of any design or process recommendations will be greatly dependent on the involvement of both parties.

Author: Justin Willbanks

Justin Willbanks is a Consulting Engineer within the Consulting division of Bastian Solutions. His primary areas of focus are Labor Management System implementation, Operational Engineering & Distribution Center/Automation Design. He has more than a dozen years of experience in supply chain operations and consulting.


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