Does the 'New Normal' need a 'New Breed' of warehouse manager?
I've been fortunate enough to manage and support warehouse operations of all shapes and sizes around the world for many years. In all that time I have never witnessed such rapid change over such a short period as we have in 2020. As we look to the dawn of a new year and a new era in warehouse management, many are starting to question if we require a new breed of manager to navigate this fast moving environment.
Personally, I don't believe we're looking at a wholesale change in the role of a warehouse manager, resulting in the loss of some core skills in favor of others. Those key drivers and attributes that first draw folks into distribution management – like being able to coach and develop a team to meet definitive targets and efficiencies, plus having a strong ‘operator‘ mindset - are still valued, but modern, digital warehousing certainly requires much greater depth and more varied IT skills.
Additionally, the COVID-19 Supply Chain – especially with the seismic shift taking place in online retailing – has become a lot more complex. Distribution operations embody that complexity, so the leaders of those operations must be much more than just drivers of traditional and bulk ‘pallet in, pallet out’ activity.
They must now be innovators and continuous improvement advocates to survive and thrive.
Innovation in the warehouse primarily comes in two forms: advanced technology and the new processes it supports, plus the genuine creativity in breaking through process design. Continuous improvement approaches are the accepted method for measured improvement, however most distribution centers struggle to de-prioritize their established ways without technological assistance.
Process design is a funny thing to think about when managing a warehouse, as most functions performed are static, time-tested requirements that have been cemented and difficult to change. However, warehouse managers who bring curiosity to the table and who think creatively about improvement will have a distinct advantage over their peers. What’s more, designing a new process is a skill in itself and becoming increasingly important in the warehouse management field.
Technology selection and implementation within a warehouse used to be an ITor PMO-based activity, where the warehouse operations team was the internal customer, but not necessarily the driving force behind selection and adoption.
This approach is now skewing and to best serve operations, warehouse managers need familiarity with software selection, programming, data analysis and project/implementation practices. I cannot stress enough that – except for the most ‘customizable’ solutions on the market – the best implementations are driven by operations staff who can also dedicate themselves to the execution and realization of the new technology.
Warehouse managers should now approach their operations with continuous improvement as a recurring and given KPI and whilst there’s still value in the Lean/Six Sigma (LSS) process –as a huge amount of warehouse operations are repetitive activities and there’s always waste to be addressed – more creative methodologies like Theory of Constraints and Total Quality Management are quickly taking precedent.
In addition, warehouse managers familiar with agile tenets and even holding Certified Scrum Master status will find parallels in the pace and organization of change management in some of their core processes.
So, it’s not necessarily a new breed of warehouse manager that’s needed to navigate our new world order– rather a ‘new and next level’ of effective operations leader who can quickly grasp and advance new software technologies and process improvements to promote greater understanding and efficiency.
It’s an increasingly pivotal role in any company hierarchy and supply chain, as well as a higher level career path, because extraordinary fulfillment times like these require a more focused and problem-solving skill set that’s infinitely adaptable.