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Automation: It’s time for materials handling pros to blow our own horns

Executive editor Bob Trebilcock gives his final thoughts on the recent Material Handling & Logistics Conference held in Park City, Utah
By Bob Trebilcock, Executive Editor
September 12, 2013

When I was a kid, my mother used to say: “No one wants to hear you blow your own horn.”

“But if I don’t, who will?” I’d say to her.

Okay, maybe I was an obnoxious kid. But perhaps its time for warehousing, distribution and supply chain professionals to start blowing our own horns. We need to remind our colleagues of the value we bring to an organization. That’s one of the points I took away from the Material Handling & Logistics Conference I attended this week in Park City, Utah.

The conference, which has been held for 28 years, is sponsored by Dematic. Full disclosure, I sat on this year’s planning committee. 

Value was at the heart of a presentation on supply chain transformation by Paul Dittmann, a professor at the University of Tennessee, one of the top programs for supply chain management. Dittmann began his presentation by explaining that economic profit is the financial metric most related to shareholder value. In Dittman’s view, the key driver of economic profit is supply chain excellence. “How much revenue do you derive if you don’t have the right product at the right time at the right place?” Dittmann asked. “That’s supply chain.”

At the same time, he pointed out that supply chain management is rarely included in an organization’s strategic roadmap: According to his research, only 1 in 6 organizations, or less than 18%, have a documented multi-year supply chain strategy.

While Dittmann walked through a number of bullets about the process of developing a supply chain strategy, the point that struck the biggest chord with me was this: “Supply chain professionals need to develop the vocabulary of business,” Dittmann said. “C level executives don’t care about the cost per case picked. They care about cash flow and return on assets. You need to speak their language to raise the level of supply chain within an organization.”

A presentation on how to sell a materials handling or logistics project to senior management by Rod Galloway, vice president of logistics strategy at Staples, made that case in spades. Galloway walked attendees through the steps his team takes to identify an opportunity, discover a technological solution, pilot and validate the idea, create a business case and then ask for approval.

At Staples, the logistics team constantly researches what its competitors are doing and then asks what they must do to close the gap, ensure parity or leapfrog the competition. One of his most important points is that to be successful in selling those ideas, we in operations must be able to demonstrate how our projects align with our companies’ goals. In other words, we need to speak the language of business.

My last takeaway, and perhaps related to both Dittmann’s and Galloway’s presentations, was the importance of attracting the best and brightest to our industry. For instance, Dittmann said the number one issue identified by his program’s advisory board is the need for talent. It was also among the top issues identified by participants in Material Handling Industry’s recent logistics roadmap summit.

To stay on top, our industry will have to reach outside our traditional pool of talent, which, to be blunt, is middle age guys (hey, I’m one of them). To that end, Dematic launched a Women Leaders In Logistics initiative prior to this year’s conference. “There is tremendous talent in our industry and we wanted to tap into those leaders,” explained Cheryl Falk, Dematic’s vice president of marketing. The initiative started small, with a group of about 20 women meeting as a small networking group in Park City. The initial goal was just to talk about how they could make the most of the conference. “By the end of the meeting, they were networking on a personal and business level, and sharing stories on topics like how to take their operations global,” Falk said. The group intends to create a group on LinkedIn, where other women in logistics can use each other as a resource.

“Too often, women in our industry work in the soft skills areas of the business,” Falk said. “But women are going into engineering and our industry should be going after that talent.”

Read Modern’s complete coverage of the Material Handling and Logistics Conference.

About the Author

Bob Trebilcock
Executive Editor

Bob Trebilcock, executive editor, has covered materials handling, technology and supply chain topics for Modern Materials Handling since 1984. More recently, Trebilcock became editorial director of Supply Chain Management Review. A graduate of Bowling Green State University, Trebilcock lives in Keene, NH. He can be reached at 603-357-0484.


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