Global Material Handling System Integrators

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Still doing things the old way…

Last week, I got the opportunity to tour a brand new, large carton sortation system for a third party logistics company. The system was only a few months old, but quite impressive. It was well designed and the layout was very efficient. It replaced a current process where cartons were sorted manually onto pallets – a very labor intensive process.

As we walked through the facility, I noticed several workers unloading a truck and manually sorting the cartons to pallets. As I approached the crew, I realized that they were doing the intended work of the sorter. I asked our host why they did not just put these cases onto the sorter, since there was plenty of capacity. I was told that, although she did not agree, the supervisor believed that the operators on the receiving side of the sorter were too busy to palletize any more cartons. I responded by asking if it would not be a more effective use of labor for the crew to first help the operators on the receiving side to catch-up and then induct the cartons from the truck onto the sorter. It was then that I got the real answer. “Well, this supervisor really doesn’t believe in the automation and prefers to do things the old way.”

Creating Stakeholders

We talked a little bit about this all-to-familiar situation. This is often the dilemma when a member of distribution leadership was not included in a major change – they fight it. They either don’t understand it, and therefore feel they can’t use it; or they resent it, fearing that they will not have the value as a leader that they once had. Often, project managers think that they can “involve” others outside the project team by holding training sessions or allowing them to have “input” into the design. But these activities do not create ownership in the new system. They do not create stakeholders.

It is crucial to the success of an automation project (or any major change, for that matter) to create stakeholders out of the floor leaders. These are the individuals that can make or break a project implementation. So how do you do that? You have to give them real project responsibilities. Instead of giving them training, you put them in charge of conducting the training. Instead of allowing them to have input into the design, you ask them to facilitate design sessions for their areas. In short, you have to infuse them into the project, so they are not just fringe players. This is often difficult for the project manager for several reasons. These people have other, day-to-day responsibilities that must still go on. Also, these people are often not “trained” to facilitate meetings, write training materials, etc. But usually the biggest hurdle to the project manager is that, in order to pass on some ownership for the project, they have to give up some ownership to these leaders. Although this sounds logical, it is not always easy. Yes, there are risks in giving up some control. But I have seen firsthand the rewards associated with the unselfish project manager nurturing these floor leaders and allowing them to take responsibility for the success of the project.

In some rare cases, a floor leader just can’t make the transition from the old manual process to the automated one. It is a sad reality. But I believe that in most of the cases, when a leader is allowed to be a stakeholder in the success of the change, they rise to the occasion - embracing it, cheering it on, and doing whatever is needed to make it a win. It is the wise project manager that understands this.

Author: Margie Schramke


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