May 2007 | Case Studies | I.T. Toolkit

A Labor Management Tool For All Seasons

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Raising the heat on worker productivity and efficiency was key for Four Seasons Temperature Control. A labor management system helped it achieve that—plus some cool savings.

Because employee wages comprise a big chunk of distribution center costs, any tool that helps companies get more bang for the payroll buck is worth exploring.

One such tool, the ProTrak Warehouse labor management system from software provider Tom Zosel Associates (TZA), produced positive results at the Lewisville, Texas, facility of Four Seasons Temperature Control, a manufacturer and distributor of aftermarket automotive heating and air conditioning products.

Since Four Seasons started using the software three years ago, it has seen worker productivity rise by 15 to 20 percent, says Distribution Manager Mauricio Ortiz-Segura.

Now, the company is seeking even greater gains with an upgrade to the latest version of the software, ProTrak Warehouse 5.0.

Four Seasons Temperature Control, a division of Standard Motor Products, maintains its headquarters and a 500,000-square-foot distribution center in Lewisville.

"In a building this size, it is difficult to keep track of what employees are working on," explains Ortiz-Segura. Four Seasons used to measure employee performance based on how much a worker accomplished during a full shift—the volume of product pulled, for example.

But that gave managers only a rough idea of an employee's work habits. "Some workers were productive during the first four hours, but did not accomplish much the rest of the day," Ortiz-Segura notes.

Executives at Four Seasons wanted to create performance measures based on engineering standards, but found many of the well-known software solutions didn't meet its needs. "The solutions were dedicated to the manufacturing environment," Ortiz-Segura explains.

"Tools for gauging individual and team productivity have always been available to manufacturers. But those activities tend to be sequentially based," says Ray Becker, vice president at TZA, Long Grove, Ill. "The flow of DC associates' activities is not easily observed, monitored, and judged objectively, based on pure statistical performance."

The best way to monitor DC performance is to use a labor reporting system that integrates with a warehouse management system (WMS), he says.

ProTrak meets Four Seasons' distribution center needs, Ortiz-Segura says. He also likes the software's ability to create a map of the warehouse—it considers the distance a worker needs to travel when computing how long it should take to complete a given task.

"We now know the speed of our equipment, as well as exactly how much time it takes an employee to move from one end of the warehouse to the other," he says.

Laying Down the Baseline

Once Four Seasons decided to implement ProTrak, it had to establish baseline standards for all jobs its employees perform. Executives defined and analyzed each task to make sure DC workers used the most efficient processes. If not, they revised the process and trained employees on the new method.

Then they broke every process into component motions and assigned each a time, using industry standards to define how long it takes to, for example, lift an arm, or reach for a product.

"We also conducted time studies to verify that the predetermined standards were correct," Ortiz-Segura says.

Integrated with Four Seasons' proprietary WMS, ProTrak receives information on each order sent to the DC floor and calculates a standard completion time.

At the start of each job, employees use a stationary computer, or kiosk, to log into ProTrak; they then use either a radio frequency (RF) data collection terminal or a paper-based process to conduct the work.

If workers use an RF device, ProTrak extracts data from the WMS to monitor their progress in real time, comparing it to the standard. If the worker utilizes a paper-based method, ProTrak uses data entered at the kiosk once the job is complete.

TZA offers an optional kiosk to handle processes that aren't included in a WMS—such as receiving or kitting operations—in which it's not convenient to carry an RF terminal while doing the work.

The kiosk offers one major advantage: it removes any ambiguities about when employees are actually working.

In the past, an employee would finish an order, and could go to the breakroom or restroom before picking up the next one; the company did not have an objective way to define when the first job ended.

But ProTrak officially ends the first job only when an employee logs in to start the second one. The system stops the clock for designated breaks and automatically starts it again when the employee is due back at work.

Since Four Seasons started using ProTrak to evaluate performance, employee efficiency has increased, Ortiz-Segura says. With the rise in productivity, the company can handle seasonal demand spikes with fewer temporary workers.

"We've saved hundreds of thousands of dollars in labor costs because we are not using many temporary workers," he says. The company also reduced its head count through attrition.

While the ProTrak system helps managers spot employees who aren't working up to par, it also helps the company reward superior work.

"Before implementing ProTrak, a common complaint was that one employee could complete almost double the work of another employee, but was still paid the same amount. Measuring productivity was difficult," Ortiz-Segura says.

Now, Four Seasons offers month-end bonuses to workers who, according to the software, perform especially well.

"Any organization that wants to utilize an incentive pay system cannot do so effectively without a well-implemented reporting tool," TZA's Becker says.

Rather than relying on supervisors' subjective assessments, ProTrak provides a structured, objective way to measure performance, he notes.

Besides encouraging employees to work harder and more efficiently, ProTrak helps Four Seasons managers plan for near-term staffing needs. Because the system calculates how long it should take to complete each job, managers can judge how best to deploy their workers.

"We can move people from one department to another, and determine when we need employees to work overtime. We also know when to send people home early if we don't have enough work to keep them busy," Ortiz-Segura says.

Four Seasons will refine its labor deployments even further as it starts using the demand-planning feature in the ProTrak upgrade—one reason it decided to switch from ProTrak 4.0, a client-server system, to the new web-based version.

This module uses historical performance data to suggest not only how many people to assign to a certain zone, but also which employees to assign, based on who excels at which jobs.

Bonus: New Security, Alert Functions, and More

ProTrak 5.0 also offers a new security feature that enticed Four Seasons. In version 4.0, any user who was authorized to view information about employee performance could also change it.

Version 5.0 offers 10 levels of access, so managers are able to define the supervisors who can merely view the information, and who can alter some or all of it.

Other new features in ProTrak 5.0 include long-term labor planning, a graphical dashboard, and a notification function that sends an alert to a manager's e-mail, pager, cell phone, or other device if work isn't proceeding according to plan.

Like any system that monitors performance moment by moment, ProTrak challenges managers to persuade employees that it is not a "big brother" technology designed to restrict and control their lives. "We experienced resistance at first," Ortiz-Segura admits.

"The challenge is convincing associates that their company is implementing fair and equitable standards," Becker says.

To avert resistance, TZA tries to involve employees as much as possible in the implementation process. "We do a lot of work to make sure they are as comfortable with the program as the management team," he adds.

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