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Towards Worker-Centric Warehouses

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

By Benoit Montreuil, President 2008-2009, College Industry Council on Material Handling Education

Kevin Gue, past president of the College-Industry Council on Material Handling Education (CICMHE), has developed an important document titled The Worker-Centric Warehouse: A Manifesto. This is document is a key outcome of a first phase of research by Dr. Gue, funded by CICMHE and Material Handling Industry of America (MHIA) as a follow-up initiative on a major theme of the 2007 Material Handling and Logistics Summit—evolving a new generation of distribution centers and warehouses as real workplaces of excellence.

The topic is red hot. On one side, distribution is becoming key to competitiveness, with much of manufacturing being offshored to developing countries. Warehousing jobs are replacing manufacturing jobs all over the developed countries. On the other side, warehousing jobs rank quite low in terms of attractiveness and satisfaction, and with a growing labor shortage, it becomes ever more difficult to hire and keep quality warehouse workers. There is a growing clash that needs to be addressed openly and thoroughly.

Simply put by Kevin, the key question is: If you were to design a warehouse in which your children had to work, what would it be like?

Worker satisfaction is about fulfillment of one’s wishes, expectations and needs. It is affected by a wide scope of design factors, including architecture, automation, ergonomics, processes and flows, safety, task complexity, task variability, task feedback and job significance. It is also affected by a variety of context factors such as benefits, career opportunities, corporate culture, family, job scheduling management-labor relations, pay, training and vacations. Yet right now, most warehousing projects have dominating objectives aimed at meeting throughput and storage requirements at minimum costs, with very little thought about the interchangeable workers who fill the orders.

Kevin has put together a set of ten tasks having to be performed in order to make the evolution a reality. These are detailed in his manifesto, in which I will briefly summarize the essence of his points. First, a compelling message must be defined. What is the concept all about? Why is it important? Second, this message must be communicated to the actors in industries involved in the design and operation of warehouses.

The next tasks are about benchmarking and instilling best practice. Third, the state of the distribution worker must be thoroughly studied, in order to deeply understand the workers’ experience and satisfaction gaps. Fourth, as there are currently well documented best practices for green buildings, there is a need to document best practice for human buildings, aiming toward sustainable green and human warehouses. Fifth is to establish a certification system, such as the LEED program, that encourages and rewards worker-centric design. Sixth, is to publish best-practice knowledge for dissemination in industry, building on principles from industrial engineering, architecture, interior design, human factors, and so on.

The seventh and eighth tasks are about changing education, so as to help grow the next generation of warehouse designers and managers: build relations among the various disciplines involved in worker-centric design, and introduce the topic into appropriate business and engineering curricula.

The final two tasks are about leveraging resources to make the vision happen, requiring leadership and money. He suggests that a knowledge center for worker-centric design be put in place and grown, headed by a passionate individual capable of easily bridging academia and industry. Funding the initiative from sources such as the retail and distribution industries, labor groups and unions, the material handling and logistics industry, private donors and government is a final key task.

I urge you to read his manifesto thoroughly and, most important, to get involved. You can help make things happen. The overall importance of the topic should be motivation enough. If this is not sufficient, then just think about the potential market for human-centric material handling and logistics equipment, systems and facilities that results in new business solutions. With the recession that has hit industry so hard, companies have to evolve, to reinvent themselves to survive and prosper: to make the worker-centric movement part of your transformation.

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