Don’t Be Stupid

By James M. Apple, Jr.

People get frustrated (rightly) when they are unnecessarily doing silly things repeatedly, and nothing gets changed.

Every time I have the opportunity to begin work on a new project, I get a stark reminder that it is not the employees on the floor who keep repeating the same old mistakes. Instead, it’s those of us who have the responsibility for planning the process.

An employee whose primary assignment is focused on a single task doesn’t have the exposure, or breadth of view to be able to re-plan a complete process in the plant or distribution center. But, they can certainly see, and feel, when they are doing the same silly thing over and over again.

When a task gets done and undone, and then maybe re-done, management calls it an exception. To the people on the floor, it’s just plain stupid!

I watched an operator struggling to fit too many cartons in a lane of flow rack in the picking area. He put some on the floor, and then said he would come back to do the rest when there was space in the lane again. And I thought, yes, if someone doesn’t move them first. And hopefully that happens before the picker runs out and creates a short on a customer order.

It is not uncommon to find a large number of highly qualified employees busy handling returned goods. This is generally a tedious and time-consuming process. One has to wonder why so much of this product, carefully inspected, refurbished and repackaged, sits for so long on the shelf, and then perhaps is sold-off at reduced prices, or even worse, scrapped.

Employees ask, “Why didn’t we know this sooner?” Actually, we probably did have the right information available to know this when the return was authorized, but our focus was on credit and salvage, not on the probable ultimate disposition of the merchandise. In my experience, returns usually add excess inventory to a dying product.

The employees know that these are wasteful processes, but the system keeps asking them to do it again.

Supervisors and management, too, know that this happens repeatedly. We listen, but we don’t hear, or act. Or, so it appears to the people.

What happens when we do nothing? Employees get frustrated. They don’t think that it’s important to do the job right the first time, because they are going to have to do it again, anyway. They lose confidence in supervisors and management. Ultimately, the best look for more satisfying work.

Employees are the best critics of a proposed new process. Not just because they’ve never done it that way before, but because their daily life is filled with dealing with exceptions. Too often, a new proposal assumes that everything will work according to plan, and it looks to the operators that the exceptions will bring it crashing down. To gain employee confidence, we must have openness, respect and two-way education. Using this invaluable resource in the planning process reveals these gaps early, creates understanding and buy-in, and, ultimately, a more robust process design.

Some say that as the economy begins to recover, that we will again face a shortage of qualified people to fill our jobs. Running off the best people that we have because we don’t force ourselves to fix broken processes is not only wasteful and costly, it is just plain stupid!


James M. Apple, Jr. is a Director in The Progress Group. Prior to co-founding The Progress Group in 1991, he was a Partner with Coopers & Lybrand’s SysteCon division. During 1992-1995 he served as a Senior Systems Advisor with Vanderlande Industries, a major conveyor and systems provider in Europe.

Jim is an internationally recognized thought leader in the area of facility design and integrated distribution systems. His contributions to the improvement of distribution practices have been recognized by his receipt of the prestigious Reed-Apple Award, which is given for lifetime contributions to the advancement of the material handling profession. Jim has also received the Institute of Industrial Engineers’ Facilities Planning and Design Award. He has written numerous articles and handbook chapters on warehousing and logistics operations and is a popular speaker on logistics seminar and conference programs.

Prior to SysteCon, Jim worked as an Industrial Engineer with IBM, was Supervisor of Facilities Planning for the Oldsmobile Division of General Motors and was Executive Vice President for an automotive aftermarket parts supplier. He holds B.S. and M.S. degrees in Industrial and Systems Engineering from the Georgia Institute of Technology.

Source: The Progress Group

Subscribe to MH Hotline

To receive your monthly issues of Material Handling HOTLINE, please provide contact information requested below:
  • Your personal information and privacy are absolutely safe with us. We will not rent, sell or loan your personal information to any other company, organization or individual. Privacy Policy