Editor's note: This article is based on the research of the late Eugene Gagnon.

Most people want to do a good job every day, and warehouse workers are no exception. However, management must first define exactly what a "good job" is. Should management fail to provide a standard, the worker will do it on his own, and the self-defined "good job" might not be as productive as it should be.

The role of supervision

While warehouse managers are responsible for buildings, equipment and people, the primary responsibility of supervisors and managers should be to identify and then remove barriers to productivity.

Most productivity losses in warehouses result from conditions that can and should be corrected by management. By asking how they can be of help, rather than focusing on errors or problems, warehouse managers can develop a collaborative relationship with workers, leading to increased productivity.

Many warehouse supervisors are simply paper shufflers. Management might have given them too many bureaucratic paper tasks, but, most likely, they are nervous about spending time on the floor.

A significant percentage of warehouse supervisors were promoted from the ranks, with little or no leadership training. Most were promoted because they were outstanding workers, or perhaps just because they were nice people.

In the absence of training, a recently promoted supervisor is more comfortable remaining in the office where the focus is on paperwork, than moving to the floor and facing the leadership challenges raised by the workers.

The true cost of people assets

Management must consider people as an asset, but, unfortunately, our conventional accounting systems have seldom done so.

Consider the cost of hiring and training each new employee. When hourly people quit the job soon after they have started — whether due to inadequate leadership or poor working conditions — your staffing costs will be greatly inflated.

We have seen a few warehouses with a 100 percent turnover on the night shift. Because retention of good staff is the responsibility of management, it is their responsibility to identify the reason for low retention and to correct the situation.

When people are unproductive because of conditions under control of management, your most important asset is being wasted. The cost of fringe benefits for workers can add up to 40 percent to the cost of base pay. Workers need to be told about and understand the value, as well as the cost, of the benefits that they receive.

When they understand the cost of human assets, managers take a greater interest in reducing lost time. In many warehouses, for example, break times for coffee and lunch are typically longer than scheduled.

When management fails to understand the true cost of maintaining a well-trained work force, inadequate attention is most likely given to the important task of recruiting, training and retaining a talented warehouse crew. Once people are recognized as an asset, the next step is to calculate a return on this asset.

The importance of metrics

Business author Tom Peters observed that "what gets measured, gets done." Warehouses with no work standards are likely to have employees working at 60 percent of typical productivity levels.

Those using measured work standards will achieve 80 to 100 percent of typical productivity, and those who combine standards with an incentive frequently will reach 115 to 125 percent of standard productivity. In some warehouses, supervisors will discipline any worker whose productivity falls below 95 percent of standard.

Managers frequently fail to appreciate the fact that most people want, and need, feedback. When you are measuring their work against the standard, there is no reason for the results to remain a secret. Supervisors also should be quick to lend their applause for a good job. All of us work to maintain pride and dignity, and nothing is more important than praise for a job well done.

People need goals and will set them on their own when they are not set by management. Unfortunately, those goals may be quite different from those that are needed for improved warehouse productivity.

Barriers to productivity

The most common and preventable productivity barrier is the perception that management does not care, or does not listen.

Perception is reality. In our consulting work, we find that at least 50 percent of our ideas for any project are generated through conversation with people on the floor. When we ask why these ideas have not been adopted already, the typical response is, "They don't care."

Attitude starts at the top. When we asked one manager about communication with his people, he complained that none of them ever provided good ideas. The reasons were apparent immediately. One individual made a suggestion that the manager dismissed as "the dumbest thing I ever heard." By stifling creative ideas, this manager created a huge productivity barrier.

Physical conditions also can create barriers. Frequently, we see warehouses with poor lighting. Lighting has a direct and measurable effect on both productivity and worker morale. At a time when a growing number of warehouse operations run on two shifts, or even 24/7, it is important to have the warehouse floor illuminated at midnight as well as it is at noon.

An overcrowded warehouse results in several kinds of trouble. Overcrowding occurs when the purchasing people don’t recognize — or don’t care — that the warehouse is full. It results in blocked aisles, buried product and a substantial deterioration in housekeeping. It also frustrates workers, who don’t have room to get the job done, and eventually they no longer care, because management apparently does not care.

Creating a positive work environment

In the best managed warehouses, both line supervisors and managers recognize that they are responsible for helping people to improve their work. They spend a significant amount of time on the floor, watching how the job gets done, looking for opportunities to praise people for doing the job well, and — when necessary — correcting or disciplining when tasks are mishandled, or work standards are not met.

Metrics are maintained, and the results are communicated to the workers in graphs or charts posted on company bulletin boards. Everybody understands what constitutes a "good job," and the company is dedicated to continuous improvement. A significant number of the improvement ideas come from hourly workers.

While this may appear to some as an utopian dream, we see it every day in the best managed warehouses.