March 1, 2009
Column | outbound

From the White House to the warehouse

If your company has been struggling with staffing issues—and what company hasn't?—you may want to take a page from John Straub's book.

By Mitch Mac Donald

If your company has been struggling with staffing issues—and what company hasn't?—you may want to take a page from John Straub's book. Since he took over as vice president of human resources for logistics service provider Kane Is Able in 2006, Kane's employee turnover has plummeted by 50 percent. In the company's 19 DCs, productivity has soared by 34 percent while turnover has dropped from 42 percent (roughly the industry average) to 18 percent. And, perhaps even more impressive, driver turnover at Kane, which operates a fleet of 200 tractors and 800 trailers, is just 20 percent annually—an astonishing number when you consider that the industry average in 2008 was 116 percent.

Who is this magician and where did he come from? Most recently, the White House. Prior to joining Kane, Straub was special assistant to the president for administration. Earlier in his career, Straub, who has worked directly with three of the last four U.S. presidents, served as associate dean for human resources at Harvard University and as an administrative officer for the U.S. House of Representatives.

Although these workplaces might seem to have little in common, Straub says that's not the case. Wherever they may work, he says, human resources professionals face the same basic challenges when it comes to recruitment, retention, productivity, and the like.

Take leadership development, for example. Whether it's the White House, an Ivy League university, or the warehouse, he says, "associates are starved for good leadership, and good leadership can be hard to find."What makes a good leader? Among other attributes, Straub says, a good leader sets clear goals and expectations, removes barriers that might keep the team from being successful, and rewards achievement and corrects weaknesses.

That sounds basic enough, so why is good leadership so rare? Straub says the explanation lies in traditional promotion practices. "Many leaders got to their positions by being the longest-serving member of their team, many times in spite of their lack of leadership capabilities," he explains. "Leaders tend to be subject matter experts but may suffer from lack of creativity, passion, ingenuity, and capability."

As for other common HR-related missteps, Straub points to the widespread corporate practice of slashing jobs when business slows. While that might help companies reach short-term budget goals, he says, it also leaves them with a demoralized workforce whose performance is likely to suffer.

Straub thinks corporations would do better to focus on a different target altogether: the huge costs associated with recruitment and training. What many don't realize, he says, is how much it costs them to replace a single associate and how much they could save by simply stopping the revolving door. "Think of the amount of lost productivity, the loss of institutional knowledge, the recruiting and training costs, equipment and systems training costs, costs associated with covering the gaps, potential overtime, and on and on," he says. Even if you're only talking about $10,000 per departure, he adds, the costs could run into the millions of dollars over the course of a year.

And speaking of recruiting, companies might want to take note of the "attitude first and aptitude second" hiring process Straub has instituted at Kane Is Able. "Instead of focusing on the number of years they have spent operating a particular piece of machinery," he explains, "[we look] for candidates who [demonstrate] a passion for customer service. Essentially, we hire for attitude and train for skill."

The results are hard to argue with, which raises an interesting question: Could we entice the current president to "recruit" him back to Washington and let him work his magic on the economy?

About the Author

Mitch Mac Donald
Group Editorial Director
Mitch Mac Donald has over 30 years of experience in both the newspaper and magazine businesses. He has covered logistics issues for 25 years. Named one of the Top 10 Business Journalists in the U.S. in both 1995 and 1996, he has served in a multitude of editorial and publishing roles. The leading force behind the launch of Supply Chain Management Review, he was that brand's founding publisher and editorial director from 1997 to 2000. Additionally, he has served as news editor, chief editor, publisher and editorial director of Logistics Management, as well as publisher of Modern Materials Handling. Mitch is also the president and CEO of Agile Business Media, LLC, the parent company of DC Velocity and CSCMP's Supply Chain Quarterly.

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