Executive Briefings

Rise of the Machines: The Brave New World of Management in the Automated DC

One of the most constant staples of science fiction is its view of the automated world of the future. Whether it was the giants of the genre (H.G. Wells, Isaac Asimov, Ray Bradbury, Arthur C. Clarke, Jules Verne), animated movies or the Tomorrowland section at the Disney properties, all envisioned a world where manual labor was largely replaced by intelligent machines rapidly performing dull, repetitive tasks.

Interestingly, that vision has largely come true in the 21st Century warehouse and distribution center. Automated technologies have become a staple in most areas, and even those warehouses and DCs that haven't made the move are making their way toward it.

Yet one thing that hasn't changed for many companies is the job descriptions for top management within the warehouse or DC. It isn't that the people in those jobs haven't changed and adapted over time. It's simply that the parameters being used to seek out and hire the best candidates are often still lagging and haven't been scrutinized.

How DC management needs have changed

In a traditional (i.e., manual labor-oriented) operation, the focus was on managing, motivating and developing people to achieve the desired results - as measured by throughput performance and order accuracy. The systems in place were only as good as the people performing the individual operations involved in them, so the better management was at motivating and getting the best out of the employees, the more successful the operation would be.

In a highly automated environment, however, people aren't performing the actual tasks; they're managing the machinery that does them. So the focus becomes first and foremost on finding employees who can manage and optimize the "system," and then supporting them with workers who can fill the right process roles to keep the system operating at peak efficiency. It is a very different skill set.

Following are the profiles for three key leadership roles in the automated warehouse or DC. Finding managers who fit these profiles will help organizations staff their operations to realize the maximum return on their automated system investments.

General Manager/Director

It starts at the top, with the person responsible for the full P&L of the entire operation. The General Manager/Director in the automated DC has to have a thorough understanding of the demand-driven supply chain. He/she must also have thorough knowledge of the benefits the automated DC can realize by continuously analyzing the available information generated by the reporting functions of various systems and reacting to events or changes in the supply chain to obtain or exceed the expected DC service results.

Generally someone in this role should have a bachelor's degree in engineering, operations or logistics, although an MBA is preferred. He/she will have 15 years' experience in the logistics and/or supply chain industry, with a minimum of five years' experience leading teams that utilized automated equipment such as an AS/RS systems, light and/or voice picking systems or robotics. This person will also have working knowledge of both a "pull system" and a more traditional "push system" while comprehending the differences in coordinating operations personnel throughout both.

Perhaps the most important intangible for someone in this position is having a "systems" mindset. A good General Manager/Director will be able to see the automated DC as a single organism, and will know how to pull the levers (whether technology or people) to optimize and adjust to a fast-paced, ever-changing environment. Being able to see the big picture is essential to keeping such a complex operation delivering the agreed-upon results.

Of course, a major factor in that is having a deep understanding of the performance metrics associated with operating automated systems, along with experience in applying them to monitor and optimize the technology investment. Knowing what can be reasonably expected is critical to delivering the desired results on a consistent basis.

Operations Manager

Reporting to the General Manager/Director, the Operations Manager holds a highly visible leadership position with responsibility for the inbound and outbound operations. That includes using the automated material handling systems to achieve daily throughput and productivity requirements.

Here again you'll be looking for someone with a bachelor's degree in engineering, operations or logistics, and preferably an MBA. Like the General Manager/Director, candidates for this position should have a "systems" oriented mindset. In this case, however, it is to help troubleshoot problems.

The root cause of most problems in an automated facility often occurs at a time or location that is distant from where the symptoms become visible. For example, within a pick module one could be experiencing carton traffic congestion on the conveyor (the "symptom"), but this problem could be generated on the other side of the facility by overly aggressive order release from the carton erector (the "root cause"). By having a more system-oriented mindset, the Operations Manager can get to the root cause faster rather than focusing solely on the point of the breakdown, helping to prevent the issue from recurring or affecting operations further upstream.

As is obvious at this point, the Operations Manager must have a strong track record of methodical problem-solving (as opposed to quick fixes and point solutions) and demonstrate very strong analytical skills. Strong computer skills with specific working knowledge of WMS/WCS software systems is essential, as is a minimum of five years' experience using automated materials handling equipment or working within a similar fast-paced, process-driven environment.

The person in this position will ultimately be responsible for keeping the day-to-day operation running smoothly. Managers of all the functional areas, such as receiving, storage, order picking, shipping, quality control and traffic functions will report to him/her. You'll want someone with at least 10 years' experience in DC management, preferably with a minimum of five years of annual budget management and cost control responsibilities. And, while the person in this position is focused on technology, great people and communication skills are a must - especially if you are transitioning from a traditional to an automated operation.

Technology Manager

The third critical manager for an automated warehouse or DC is the technology manager. As the name implies, this is the person who has hands-on responsibility for keeping all that automation equipment running smoothly.

What you're looking for here is someone with at least a bachelor's degree in mechanical or electrical engineering, and preferably an MBA. This person should have at least 15 years' total work experience in maintenance management, with five or more of them working with automated material handling equipment. He/she should also have good working knowledge of control systems such as PLCs, WMS/WCS and databases on PCs.

An effective technology manager in today's world needs more than technical skills, however, so be sure to look for candidates who have shown an ability to lead change initiatives (especially if you are just converting to automated systems) and inspire employees.

It's still about people

We haven't quite reached that staple of science fiction where the machines are capable of managing themselves. (Maybe that's a good thing given the core plot of most of those stories.) So having the right people in place is still critical to maximizing the value of your investment in automation.

Selecting candidates who view automation as a cohesive system that includes people, rather than simply a group of incredible machines, will help you keep your operation running smoothly and profitably. It will also ensure you're prepared for whatever the brave, new world brings.

Source: Wynright Corporation


Keywords: warehouse management, WMS, inventory control, inventory management, logistics & supply chain, supply chain management, WMS warehouse management

Interestingly, that vision has largely come true in the 21st Century warehouse and distribution center. Automated technologies have become a staple in most areas, and even those warehouses and DCs that haven't made the move are making their way toward it.

Yet one thing that hasn't changed for many companies is the job descriptions for top management within the warehouse or DC. It isn't that the people in those jobs haven't changed and adapted over time. It's simply that the parameters being used to seek out and hire the best candidates are often still lagging and haven't been scrutinized.

How DC management needs have changed

In a traditional (i.e., manual labor-oriented) operation, the focus was on managing, motivating and developing people to achieve the desired results - as measured by throughput performance and order accuracy. The systems in place were only as good as the people performing the individual operations involved in them, so the better management was at motivating and getting the best out of the employees, the more successful the operation would be.

In a highly automated environment, however, people aren't performing the actual tasks; they're managing the machinery that does them. So the focus becomes first and foremost on finding employees who can manage and optimize the "system," and then supporting them with workers who can fill the right process roles to keep the system operating at peak efficiency. It is a very different skill set.

Following are the profiles for three key leadership roles in the automated warehouse or DC. Finding managers who fit these profiles will help organizations staff their operations to realize the maximum return on their automated system investments.

General Manager/Director

It starts at the top, with the person responsible for the full P&L of the entire operation. The General Manager/Director in the automated DC has to have a thorough understanding of the demand-driven supply chain. He/she must also have thorough knowledge of the benefits the automated DC can realize by continuously analyzing the available information generated by the reporting functions of various systems and reacting to events or changes in the supply chain to obtain or exceed the expected DC service results.

Generally someone in this role should have a bachelor's degree in engineering, operations or logistics, although an MBA is preferred. He/she will have 15 years' experience in the logistics and/or supply chain industry, with a minimum of five years' experience leading teams that utilized automated equipment such as an AS/RS systems, light and/or voice picking systems or robotics. This person will also have working knowledge of both a "pull system" and a more traditional "push system" while comprehending the differences in coordinating operations personnel throughout both.

Perhaps the most important intangible for someone in this position is having a "systems" mindset. A good General Manager/Director will be able to see the automated DC as a single organism, and will know how to pull the levers (whether technology or people) to optimize and adjust to a fast-paced, ever-changing environment. Being able to see the big picture is essential to keeping such a complex operation delivering the agreed-upon results.

Of course, a major factor in that is having a deep understanding of the performance metrics associated with operating automated systems, along with experience in applying them to monitor and optimize the technology investment. Knowing what can be reasonably expected is critical to delivering the desired results on a consistent basis.

Operations Manager

Reporting to the General Manager/Director, the Operations Manager holds a highly visible leadership position with responsibility for the inbound and outbound operations. That includes using the automated material handling systems to achieve daily throughput and productivity requirements.

Here again you'll be looking for someone with a bachelor's degree in engineering, operations or logistics, and preferably an MBA. Like the General Manager/Director, candidates for this position should have a "systems" oriented mindset. In this case, however, it is to help troubleshoot problems.

The root cause of most problems in an automated facility often occurs at a time or location that is distant from where the symptoms become visible. For example, within a pick module one could be experiencing carton traffic congestion on the conveyor (the "symptom"), but this problem could be generated on the other side of the facility by overly aggressive order release from the carton erector (the "root cause"). By having a more system-oriented mindset, the Operations Manager can get to the root cause faster rather than focusing solely on the point of the breakdown, helping to prevent the issue from recurring or affecting operations further upstream.

As is obvious at this point, the Operations Manager must have a strong track record of methodical problem-solving (as opposed to quick fixes and point solutions) and demonstrate very strong analytical skills. Strong computer skills with specific working knowledge of WMS/WCS software systems is essential, as is a minimum of five years' experience using automated materials handling equipment or working within a similar fast-paced, process-driven environment.

The person in this position will ultimately be responsible for keeping the day-to-day operation running smoothly. Managers of all the functional areas, such as receiving, storage, order picking, shipping, quality control and traffic functions will report to him/her. You'll want someone with at least 10 years' experience in DC management, preferably with a minimum of five years of annual budget management and cost control responsibilities. And, while the person in this position is focused on technology, great people and communication skills are a must - especially if you are transitioning from a traditional to an automated operation.

Technology Manager

The third critical manager for an automated warehouse or DC is the technology manager. As the name implies, this is the person who has hands-on responsibility for keeping all that automation equipment running smoothly.

What you're looking for here is someone with at least a bachelor's degree in mechanical or electrical engineering, and preferably an MBA. This person should have at least 15 years' total work experience in maintenance management, with five or more of them working with automated material handling equipment. He/she should also have good working knowledge of control systems such as PLCs, WMS/WCS and databases on PCs.

An effective technology manager in today's world needs more than technical skills, however, so be sure to look for candidates who have shown an ability to lead change initiatives (especially if you are just converting to automated systems) and inspire employees.

It's still about people

We haven't quite reached that staple of science fiction where the machines are capable of managing themselves. (Maybe that's a good thing given the core plot of most of those stories.) So having the right people in place is still critical to maximizing the value of your investment in automation.

Selecting candidates who view automation as a cohesive system that includes people, rather than simply a group of incredible machines, will help you keep your operation running smoothly and profitably. It will also ensure you're prepared for whatever the brave, new world brings.

Source: Wynright Corporation


Keywords: warehouse management, WMS, inventory control, inventory management, logistics & supply chain, supply chain management, WMS warehouse management