Of all the elements of supply chain management, leading people is perhaps the most challenging. Nowhere is that more true than in transportation and warehousing, the costliest operational links in the chain, which are relatively people-heavy. But logistics workers often fail to get respect, or even attention, from senior management.
Yet those logistics workers so often ignored by management may be some of the company's most valuable assets. Supply chain jobs—particularly those in warehousing and trucking—may not be glamorous, but they demand much more from workers than the typical manufacturing job. For one thing, they require constant learning, as the worker adapts to new tasks and changing processes. And because close supervision of warehouse workers or truck drivers is impractical, these jobs require people who are self-starters.
Those same logistics workers may also be some of the company's future leaders. Upward mobility is common in supply chain operations. A significant number of supervisors and managers began their careers as order pickers or forklift drivers. Yet the transition from worker to supervisor is difficult. Relatively few companies provide adequate training and support for the individual who is in transition from follower to leader.
All supply chain functions have unique characteristics, but all have in common the need for good human resources practices, from the earliest stages of employment. The legendary football coach Woody Hayes emphasized the importance of finding, motivating and keeping the right people in building a football team. The same principles apply in managing warehousing and distribution.
Start at the beginning
Recruiting is just as important in building a logistics team as it is in developing a football team. Most companies go about the task of finding entry-level people in one of three ways: advertising, "temp-to-perm" and referrals. Of these, advertising creates the largest pool of candidates, but it's an unfiltered pool. Many of those candidates will turn out to be unqualified for the job, and it will require some time to sort through the crowd.
"Temp-to-perm" represents a somewhat quicker route. Many employers bring in entrylevel people through a temporary employment agency. They then offer permanent positions to those who do outstanding work. A third source of people is referrals from the existing staff. Good workers will very seldom refer a bad person, so this method is likely to produce an above-average pool of labor.
The next step in the recruiting process is conducting the interviews. It's generally advisable to delegate the job of interviewing to human resources (HR) specialists, rather than line managers or supervisors. HR specialists are trained to ask questions that probe for potential attitude problems that make a candidate an employment risk as well as to avoid questions that are illegal. That said, when recruiting for expected growth or expansion, some companies opt for a combination of HR and management interviews, in order to get both the capabilities and culture "fits" right.
Many managers fail to realize the importance of the first day on the job. But as anyone who has experienced a disastrous first day will attest, there's no substitute for getting a new worker off on the right foot. Every newcomer will "learn the ropes" from somebody in the workforce. If management doesn't control who that "somebody" is, your workers may receive their all-important orientation from someone whose attitude is less than positive, if not downright toxic.
The last phase of the recruiting process is the probationary period.
In nearly every company, all workers remain on probation for 60 to 90 days. During this time, management has the right to terminate the worker if performance doesn't meet expectations. In other words, it's management's last chance to confirm that it's made the right hiring decision.
No matter how carefully designed your company's recruiting and interviewing process may be, the inevitable hiring mistake will occur. If it becomes apparent during the probationary period that you've made a mistake, act swiftly before the worker reaches permanent status. This is especially important in a union operation, where the termination process may involve numerous and complex protocols.
Cross the Ts
Once you've built a good team, your next task is to keep the team members motivated. For managers and supervisors alike, that means following the "seven Ts: " Take time to talk to the troops. The distribution center is also an ideal place to practice what Hewlett- Packard co-founder David Packard described as "management by wandering around."
The point of wandering around is not to catch people doing something wrong so you can correct it. Twenty-first century management is based on the practice of catching people doing something right and reinforcing good behavior. It's better to ask than to order, just as it's better to lead than to drive. Make it a point to praise in public and correct in private. In a supply chain operating environment, it's better to emphasize team effort than individual effort, simply because teamwork is usually a requirement for success.
Building a good team also means evaluating employee performance so that you can promote high-performing workers (and provide constructive feedback for those who aren't meeting expectations). Good companies promote from within wherever possible, and supply chain organizations have an unusually strong record of doing this.
A policy of promoting from within is a great morale builder, but there are risks involved. For example, it's all too easy to run afoul of the Peter Principle ("In a hierarchy, every employee tends to rise to his level of incompetence."). In warehousing, we still see supervisors or managers spending too much of their time handling routine, repetitive tasks. Sometimes this is a training problem; other times it's a clear manifestation of the Peter Principle. Either way, it needs to be corrected.
Hold onto the best
Retention is the process of keeping "A" players on the team. That's not always as easy as it sounds. If they're unhappy, your best people may jump ship. And even if they're happy, they may be tempted by lucrative offers from other companies.
Ironically, one of your best retention tools is the exit interview. When you lose a valuable team member, you want to find out why. The exit interview may reveal internal problems, such as a poor supervisor or some other management weakness. If you can identify the problem, you can move to correct it (and maybe avoid losing more valuable players).
There's a difference between an administrator and a leader. The administrator organizes, plans, controls and handles staffing matters. The leader inspires others to work toward a common goal and a well articulated vision. Strong leadership is particularly critical in a DC operating environment, where close supervision is impractical. In the absence of close control, motivation is a necessity, and only a leader can provide that.
Where do you find people with leadership potential? They may be right there in front of you. In supply chain operations, the line supervisor position is usually the incubator for future leaders. It's not always easy to predict which associates have what it takes to become a leader, but here are a few things to look for: superior communication skills, vision, empathy, coaching skills, a common touch, a positive attitude and self control. You can add to the list what retired General Electric CEO Jack Welch calls the four "E" characteristics of great leaders: energy, ability to energize others, edge—the courage to make tough decisions, and execution—the ability to get things done.
Not long ago, relatively few business schools recognized the distinction between administration and leadership (note that the top business degree is still called a Masters in Business Administration). Today nearly everyone recognizes that leadership is the essential ingredient for business success.