Groups of people working together in a warehouse have typically been called a crew, a shift or a workforce. More recently, we have called them teams. What is the difference between a team and an ordinary warehouse crew?

  • In a self-directed team, each member understands interdependence and works to support other members. In a crew, members may work independently and even at cross purposes with others.
  • Team members are committed to goals they help to establish. Crew members probably have no part in establishing goals, though they may be persuaded to support those goals.
  • Team members apply talent and knowledge to find new solutions. Crew members do what they are told, though they may be encouraged to make suggestions.
  • Team members encourage questions from others on the team. Crew members may feel that questions or disagreements are divisive.
  • Team members communicate openly. Some crew members may be cautious about what they say.
  • Team members will call on a team leader for a decision only if the team does not arrive at one. Crew members get results by going along with what the team leader requests.

Perhaps the most important difference between self-directed teams and crews is that the best examples of such teams have been found in creative environments like the design of a new airplane or a new car. However, some occupations may not lend themselves to the team concept, and one example is a long-haul truck driver.

Consider the key job descriptions in warehousing: receiver, order picker, packer, loader and checker. Is there a major need for teamwork in interaction in the performance of these jobs? Are they more like the design team at Boeing or more like the long-haul trucker?

If self-directed teams do not work effectively in warehousing, it may be because self-direction can be dangerous in the warehouse environment.

Warehouse discipline vs. self-direction

How well would a warehouse function if each receiver were empowered to make a decision on the best place to store every inbound truckload? We have seen warehouses where this happens by default, simply because nobody else has made a decision about putaway. The results usually create substantial disorder and poor layout.

How well would a distribution center function if an empowered order picker was allowed to decide which of the pending orders should be picked, and which should be left for others to handle? Will the warehouse function effectively if an empowered packer is allowed to decide which orders will be packed this morning and which will be left for someone else to do this afternoon?

Discipline is the hallmark of warehouse management, and discipline implies direction. While the term autocratic is a dirty word in American society, it is an accurate description of how work gets done in warehouses.

Any warehouse that allowed an empowered team to change the order of work would run the risk of considerable disorder. This is why there have been several examples of failure when self-directed work teams were tested in a warehouse workplace.

Teams fail when decision making by consensus takes forever. They fail when people waste endless hours in unproductive meetings. When a team loses sight of the big picture, failure is the result. When the concept of team-based work systems is rammed down people's throats by upper management, the result will be failure. If the team atmosphere drives out creative individuals, the process should be abandoned.

Teams and temporary workers

A substantial success story with warehouse work teams is found at a facility in Virginia. About half of the hourly warehouse workers are temporary workers. The team concept provides a successful way to organize jobs for the full-time people in this fulfillment warehouse. Tasks are divided into five categories as follows:

  • Receiving
  • Putaway
  • Shipping
  • Project leader
  • Order picker

Within the five categories, there are three levels of proficiency. All workers start out at level one. To progress to level two, they receive a qualitative test to demonstrate proficiency. They must show proficiency in four of the five job categories to move to level two. Even greater proficiency is required before they are promoted to level three.

The team approach is a good way to handle the dynamics of dealing with both vested and nonvested people at an hourly level. Success in team management depends upon communication of clear expectations and the diligent application of detailed procedures for the work. In some respects, the procedure provides the direction needed to make the warehouse work successfully.

Span of control is broad with just two supervisors, one of whom spends only half the time in supervision. The role of supervisor is as a coach, someone who maintains discipline and guides the team in executing the gameplan. The concept works because the supervisor expects the best and believes in the inherent quality of the people working in this warehouse.

While the extremes of team management could be destructive in a warehousing environment, the use of some team concepts can be quite healthy.

A role for teams in warehousing

The use of teams in warehousing could be a valid concept, provided that the teams are not self-directed. Some have found that the word team is a friendlier term than other language used to describe a warehouse crew. In the same way, team leader may seem to be a more contemporary concept than the traditional foreman or supervisor. The concept implies cooperation, which is favored by nearly everyone.

What are the shades of difference between a team leader, a foreman or a supervisor? Perhaps not much, so if one term gives a better perception, that is reason enough to use it. As long as warehouse discipline does not suffer in the process, the concept of self-directed work teams may feel pleasant, but it is foolish to abandon warehouse discipline for the sake of teamwork.