Other Voices: Seven surefire ways to fuel warehouse productivity

Engage employees, provide them with the best tools and harness their input to drive incremental improvements and ensure long-term success.

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Editor’s note: The following column by Eric Allais, president and CEO of Washington-based PathGuide Technologies, Inc., is part of Modern’s Other Voices column, a series featuring ideas, opinions and insights from end-users, analysts, systems integrators and OEMs. Click here to learn about submitting a column for consideration.


If you operate a warehouse or distribution center, you know how dynamic these facilities tend to be. A lot of things happen in tandem, so processes need to be coordinated. But when it comes to making necessary improvements to streamline those processes, it may feel as though you’re facing a stiff headwind if you’re bogged down by inefficiencies or unmotivated employees. If that sounds familiar, it may be time to consider making some changes.

Before we get into the matter of warehouse productivity, let’s touch on the subject of worker safety. There’s no question that manual jobs pose inherently more risk when it comes to work-related injuries. Working in a warehouse isn’t easy; it’s often physically taxing work. In addition, warehouses are often filled with large items being moved around using heavy machinery. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the annual rate of work-related injuries at warehouses and distribution centers is approximately five per 100 employees. That’s far greater than the general workforce, where the number is below one injury per 100 employees. As you would expect, these injuries and illnesses cost the U.S. economy tens of billions of dollars in lost productivity and expenses every year.

And let’s not forget the cost of replacing an injured or dissatisfied warehouse employee. According to various studies, the typical (median) cost of employee turnover ranges between 16% and 21% of the employee’s annual salary. That is not only expensive; it’s also disruptive to the workflow.

On top of working to improve the health, safety and working conditions of warehouse workers, ensuring fair compensation and training goes a long way toward maintaining stability and employee retention. However, these efforts alone go only part of the way to achieving a high-performing warehouse. There’s no secret formula or magic bullet on how to improve warehouse processes, but there are some very concrete steps that any company can take to improve efficiency, reduce errors and keep employees more engaged. Here are a few of the concepts I’ve discovered along the way.

1: Great housekeeping is a good place to start. It says a lot about how management views the warehouse and the employees who work in it. A messy, dusty warehouse with poor lighting and piles of packing, strapping, and boxing materials lying around can mean that management and/or those running the warehouse simply don’t care.

2: Teams are good, but individual rewards are much more persuasive. If you operate several shifts at your warehouse or distribution center, deliver incentives for their work with rewards for least errors, most on-time shipments, or tied to any other metric. The goal is to find your best performers and ensure they are recognized. The next step is to replicate their efforts by setting goals or standards that others can achieve.

3: When establishing standards, try asking the warehouse workers for direction. You may be surprised at just how deep their interest in fairness and accountability goes. Having experience on the floor gives them invaluable first-hand knowledge of processes and problems that may have an easily implementable solution. Many companies set up a feedback loop that results in continual improvement, even if it’s just incremental.

4: Establish fair metric standards. These standards or benchmarks must be fair for the employee – and fair for the company. Loyalty is something that needs to be earned. If your employees are held accountable to a reasonable set of performance expectations, they will be far more likely to embrace a challenge. These metrics go hand-in-hand with recognizing exceptional work where it is warranted, and finding areas where more progress is needed.

5: Set your employees up for success by providing them with thorough training. A business that empowers everyone, from the hourly workers up to the supervisors, is one where teamwork and trust will flourish. Remember, these people are a valuable investment, so give them the very best training and tools to do their job well, and watch them rise to the occasion.

6: Invest in the most appropriate material handling tools that help reduce the physical toll of warehouse operations. If your business involves heavy or highly repetitive movement, there may be cost-effective ways to implement automated or semi-automated equipment that reduce the lift and twist burden that many employees face. A reduction in worker injuries, coupled with higher productivity, translates to better employee retention.

7: Commit to process improvement. Without change, everything stagnates. Unfortunately, you can see that being played out in the warehouse setting today, with many organizations facing large, disruptive upgrades or replacement of their legacy systems just to survive. It doesn’t have to be that way. If you invest in your team and value their opinions, they will come up with new ideas that will incrementally improve your processes. Brainstorm with them, and remain open to new ideas.

The common thread here is that warehouse employees do their best work when they are engaged and have the right tools at their disposal. Not only can they prove their value in the day-to-day operations of the warehouse; they can shine some much-needed light on practices that will bring greater efficiency and profit to the business. Tapping into their knowledge and rewarding their efforts is an excellent place to start. But it’s also a recipe for long-term success.

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