Getting Lean to Boost Warehouse Labor Performance

Implementing lean principles through all facets of a warehouse operation is an effective, economical way to boost labor performance. The relentless pursuit of eliminating waste transforms corporate culture, and builds a foundation for optimal performance from the warehouse floor to the corner office. Tim Sroka, senior manager, lean operations for Menlo Worldwide Logistics, a third-party logistics provider based in San Mateo, Calif., suggests 10 ways to encourage a shift in culture, and spark improvements in warehouse employee performance, morale, and engagement through lean principles.

1. Frequently recognize a job well done. Recognition and teamwork are critical elements of boosting warehouse labor performance. Recognizing employee efforts doesn’t require trophies or bonus checks. Small tokens from peers can make a difference. Some companies use card systems to instantly recognize any employee—from entry-level to leadership. Implementing a solid recognition program with incentive plans boosts morale and performance.

2. Make teamwork the rule.Create a cultural shift from the old-school, autocratic, top-down style to one that increases employee engagement and creativity. Involve the people who perform day-to-day tasks in improving every process they touch in their work. In an atmosphere of open communication, their talents and experience will lead to the best improvement ideas and they’ll feel a sense of pride and ownership in the new processes implemented.

3. Focus on continuous improvement utilizing “A3” thinking.Create a solid plan in A3 format—a one-page summary on legal-size paper that tells the story of a proposal or progress review at a glance. The plan motivates employees to continuously review and improve existing processes, and maintains a spirit of teamwork and engagement. When everyone works together to eliminate waste and improve flow throughout the facility, the group can agilely respond to business changes as they arise.

4. Use lean tools, such as value stream mapping, to create a blueprint for improvement. Value stream mapping is the process of establishing a clear picture of product and information flow. It depicts both current state and desired future state, in ways all team members can understand. The value stream map provides employees an overall view of all warehouse activities, allowing them to suggest improvements in other areas, as well as their own. Display the map in the warehouse so that employees are able to reference improvements and bring the next steps to life.

5. Establish a visual management system. Installing prominent status-at-a-glance boards is critical to success and optimum warehouse employee performance. Just as a fan should be able to look up and quickly see the score at a ball game, an associate should be able to do the same to find out what’s happening on the warehouse floor. Clear and consistent signage makes it easier for employees to do their jobs and function effectively in all areas of the operation. One best practice is to position the status boards so that they are viewed and used in specific locations, such as Inbound or Outbound, close to the dock. The intent is to regularly track how the warehouse is doing without looking on a computer, then display the progress in “real time.”

6. Take the 5S path to workplace organization.Following the 5S’s—sort, set in order, shine, standardize, and self-discipline—minimizes waste in time, motion, and travel. It also allows for the best possible utilization of available space. The 5S system means efficiency, because an employee who doesn’t have to go hunting for a tool has a better chance of finishing a job and identifying potential process improvements. Periodic facility-wide assessments ensure that 5S remains in place over time and attrition.

7. Level the workload.The best-run warehouse operations balance workloads for the most efficient use of each associate’s time and abilities. Continuous cross-training yields a nimble, flexible staff with solid morale and the ability to quickly respond to changing business needs. Each manager should maintain an updated cross-training matrix to monitor the progress of the team and their evolving skill sets.

8. Implement standardized work. Developing detailed and illustrated standard operating procedures (SOPs) and standard work instructions (SWIs) for every job is a crucial step toward the quality goal of repeatable processes. With SOPs and SWIs in hand, new employees walk onto the floor with specific reference material to consult. This results in a shallower learning curve, and makes it easier for managers to monitor and assess performance.

9. Build quality into processes. Accurate quality measurement systems establish quantitative baselines and enable the organization to monitor the current status at all times. When a variance or mistake occurs, the team focuses on the process, not the person involved. Utilize a “Five Why’s” investigation, where team members ask “why?” not once, but at least five times. For example, if a forklift knocks off a sprinkler head, you don’t simply ask why it happened, but why the forklift was so high, why it was in that location, why the sprinkler head was placed there, and so on. Drilling down to root causes allows the team to collaboratively rebuild the process to prevent recurrence.

10. Aim for a just-in-time (JIT) strategy. Just-in-time warehouse management strives to eliminate the waiting, storing, and unnecessary movement of product, materials, or information. The goal is to establish as close to continuous flow as possible without constant movement and the need for intermediate steps. Stagnation in the movement of parts, people, process, or communication within the warehouse—for example, an e-mail that sits in someone’s in-box for three days—interrupts proper flow and can lead to process errors.

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