There is a lot of talk about the graying of the supply chain. Many of our experienced logisticians, both on the shop floor and in the boardrooms, are approaching retirement age while we've done a less than stellar job of developing interest in supply chain careers with the younger generation. We may be headed for a shortfall of available talent ... or we may be rightsizing our workforce to match technology's improved efficiencies and capabilities, forcing us into investments that we've been avoiding.
Several questions need to be addressed now, while we have the opportunity to draw upon the experience and wisdom of the tenured employees and the enthusiasm of the newest entrants to our discipline. How do we pass on knowledge to a generation of workers who think they know more than we do? How do we capture creative thought while simplifying job tasks? How do we motivate better performance from a generation that grew up believing everybody gets a ribbon just for trying?
Let's begin with the first question raised: How do we communicate among generations?
Communication in business has historically been "top down" as in a military hierarchy. The people at the top tell the people at the front lines what to do. This is often true even in companies that claim to have open-door policies. The new generation expects to have autonomy and input from day one. They expect to have access to the president and to clients and suppliers overseas, using the same social networks they use with their friends. Deference to age and expertise is less prevalent, which changes the communication hierarchy. The training environment provides us with an example of this issue.
Whether it's in the warehouse, in a truck or in the office, we have a workforce that is arriving at the company better prepared to use the advanced tools than those who are training them. This is a generation that grew up with technology. They haven't had to fight to keep pace with changes in technology because they expect to be introduced to the latest and greatest communication tools constantly. In fact, many think they should receive upgrades just because they exist. While I can remember when salespeople thought a car phone was a great efficiency tool, a car phone is a ridiculous concept to the upcoming generation; even more ridiculous than a house phone. Phones don't have restrictions. Even the idea that a phone is used to talk with people is outdated. They expect phones to have full keyboards and internet access. Trying to train somebody on a process that you see as having evolved into an efficient method is difficult if the trainee can't see why you think it's so wonderful.
Trying to train a "Millennial", those entering the North American work force now, on the use of any tools we have today can be an exercise in frustration. Information is something you look up when you need it, not something you store in your brain for future use. They are likely to pull out their smartphone and look at the product in use on a YouTube video. Many of us grew up in an era where huge investments in technology took time to implement. By the time you had the latest tools in place, your competitor was installing something newer. The reality is that most of us never learn to use these tools to their full potential, anyway. We apply an old process to a new tool and wonder why the efficiency isn't all that the sales rep claimed it would be. New tools are expensive. Some companies don't get around to the investment, which raises another issue for attracting the next generation of employees.
Why would anybody use paper to pick an order in a warehouse? Computers and conveyor belts can move the product accurately and efficiently. If we need humans involved in the physical activity, we have pick-to-light and pick-to-voice options. These may seem like cutting-edge ideas to our seasoned veterans, but they are expectations among the Millennials. If we aren't there today, we may have a hard time finding anyone to work in our DCs. The time to invest is now, while we have a workforce to help us implement new systems.
As we work to attract new entrants to the logistics world, particularly in the distribution environment, we may need to re-think our approach to the jobs available. In a world of 3PL facilities, where clients demand creative solutions to their needs but award the contract based on the lowest cost, with a provision to reduce costs by 10 percent the following year, we create a conundrum.
We have spent a lot of time and effort simplifying the jobs to allow for "plug and play" interactivity. If Rick phones in sick, we call a temp agency and replace him for the day, with a half-hour investment in training. This is possible because we have developed simplified job tasks. Loading areas are clearly marked so if you put something on the floor by the west door, you know which region will receive it. We use checklists and colour-coding to ensure the square peg goes in the square hole. This keeps our costs low and improves our ability to land the contract.
We train our workforce to follow the procedures, and provide them with visibility to only a small piece of the product flow. This allows for greater efficiency, but does it prevent us from developing creative logistics solutions? The best ideas are usually generated by the people doing the work, but if the field of vision is so small that it allows for the "plug and play" approach, we undermine our logistics concept of total cost of service.
We may need to find ways to engage the new workforce by removing some efficiency to allow for creativity. Of course, that won't eliminate the biggest problem with cost elimination. Once a 3PL finds the 10-percent cost reduction for the client, the client tends to remove 10 percent from the following year's budget. This does not provide incentive for the 3PL to seek additional cost savings. Sharing the savings through an appropriate formula that considers business growth by category would be a better incentive. It would allow the 3PL to engage employees in projects to find more opportunities rather than forcing them back into their simplified roles to keep the immediate costs down. This would allow them to take the "plug and play" workers off the floor and be part of process projects to find new innovative solutions without incurring an operating loss.
This leads to my third question, "How do we motivate better performance from a generation that grew up believing everybody gets a ribbon just for trying?" In order to nurture our children, we took away the notion of winners and losers. We raised them in an environment where playing the game and having fun was all that mattered. Now we're asking them to come and work in an environment where our competitors will work to defeat us on every level. Winning does matter; it means survival. Losing leads to bankruptcy.
We need to find ways to motivate this technologically savvy workforce that doesn't understand the idea that texting friends or updating your Facebook account when you're supposed to be working is unacceptable. Social networking is an unexplored opportunity for most of us. The Millennials expect it to be part of their lives.
I recently encountered a sales associate in a retail store texting away on her phone while customers wandered around the store without assistance. I asked her if she worked on commission and she replied that she did. What I saw as a teenager texting her friends while customers needed help, she saw as a marketing effort that would pay for her textbooks. She was using Twitter to advise people of the hot product on sale in the store. Her expectation was that she would sell far more product by increasing the traffic into the store than she could possibly sell by assisting the 8 or 10 people already there. She may have been right, but this example really demonstrates the communication gap among generations. How would a similar scenario look in a DC environment, and would the entrenched management understand the difference between social creativity and laziness?
I hear a lot of people talk about how lazy this next generation is, and some of them may be, but she helped me to see my own prejudice in this area. We can't judge the next generation by our standards. The Baby Boomers were idealists who set out to change the world with peace marches and protests to save the planet. Generation X continued to see war and extinction of plant and animal species and became cynical. They grew up in an era of recessions, layoffs, and divorce; globally aware and at ease with diversity. Generation Y was raised by idealists and cynics in an era of technological advancement and globalization; more independent and politically liberal than previous generations.
George Orwell said, "Each generation imagines itself to be more intelligent than the one that went before it, and wiser than the one that comes after it."
Collaborating, connecting with managers and leaders, co-creating to solve issues, personalizing their work environments ... these are all traits of the new generation. They don't fit easily into our hierarchical structure. They may not accept our hours of work. They don't have the "fear" of unemployment that Generation X has. If they are told they must follow the rules or quit, they may just quit. At first glance, we might think that's O.K. We don't want slackers like that working for us anyway, but as that attitude becomes the greater mindset of the workforce and of the consumers, we had better learn to adapt ourselves rather than expect them to adapt. We need to learn to capture their creativity and encourage them to work with us because they want to, not because they have to.
This generation grew up getting a ribbon for participating in gym class. They were raised with a certain sense of entitlement, and an emphasis on positive feedback that most of the older generation never experienced, nor expected. To motivate the new workforce, we need to find ways to provide them with encouragement, but more importantly, with opportunities for collaboration beyond the small job tasks we pay them for.
When everybody decides to buy a horseless carriage, it's time to stop making buggy whips. We have a workforce that is graying, and fewer entrants than retirees. To ensure our own survival, we need to attract the best of the next generation and make them want to be a part of our future. We need to learn new ways to communicate, we need to stimulate creative thinking in mundane job roles, and we need to motivate people who have a sense of entitlement we've never experienced in the past.
As Aldous Huxley said, "It's a brave new world."
Source: Logistics Institute
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