In search of self-motivated workers

Tom Bauer, vice president and director of logistics and engineering and support services divisions for logistics and professional services firm SoBran Inc. (www.sobran-inc.com) has no problem pointing to the benefits of training. Reduced error rates for basic warehouse processing, safety awareness and a reduction of lost productivity because of safety come instantly to mind. Doing the job right is only part of the equation; you also need the right people. On this, Bauer is equally quick with comments.

SoBran counts the National Institutes of Health (NIH), U.S. Government Services Agency and the U.S. Navy among its customers. If that sounds demanding, consider that SoBran's role for the NIH includes managing food and bedding and all the supplies needed to support over 10,000 animals. It can even involve transporting the animals themselves. And, as Bauer describes it, NIH "bends over backwards" to do what's right for the animals.

At the Navy's Jacksonville facility, SoBran develops the bill of materials and transports and manages those materials—including operating bonded storerooms.

In short, Bauer says, you operate with consistency and to standards. SoBran (and Bauer) are firm believers in ISO 9001, the quality standard which requires documenting processes and measuring performance against those metrics. So, Bauer says he has to hire the right people—people with appropriate skills, motivation and a willingness to follow the specifications laid out for SoBran's operations.

SoBran gathers performance data daily. Anything that falls outside established parameters is evaluated.

Given the nature of the work SoBran does and its attitudes about metrics, it shouldn't be a surprise that the company is thorough in its hiring process. Speaking about the Jacksonville operation, Bauer says, "We were among the first people who actually took background checks and drug screening seriously." As an early adopter, has it been difficult for SoBran to find and hire qualified people? Not in most cases, says Bauer.

In Jacksonville, for example, Bauer notes there are plenty of highly qualified, highly motivated ex-military people available. He has more applicants than he has jobs, and these are people who can pass muster on qualifications, background and drug testing.

The fallout rate for applicants may be a little higher, but Bauer says when So-Bran took over one operation, only three of the 81 people already in place didn't measure up. They either couldn't pass the background check, the drug test or both. The job and the wages aren't a barrier, Bauer reassures. He says SoBran pays well for warehouse workers.

Budgets are critical says Bauer. With the possible exception of the U.S. Department of Defense, the government departmentshe works with are under significant-pressure to do more with less. In that way, they are little different from commercial groups. Does that affect the way he structures SoBran's logistics work force? Asked if many of the workers are part-time, Bauer says the only part-time jobs are there for a reason. The quality of the work suffers dramatically when the consistency of the workforce changes daily, says Bauer. Most of So-Bran's workers are the breadwinners for their families, he points out.

Screening applicants, hiring the right people and measuring everything don't guarantee continued high levels of performance. Bauer is a strong believer in training. Though he doesn't offer a figure on SoBran's spending for training, either in total or per employee, he says it's enough to provide plenty of training for those who want to take advantage of it. And those who do typically grow and prosper with the company and rise to the top.

Bauer admits training is required under the ISO certification program. SoBran must complete a training plan for each individual employee. But training is more a part of the culture than ISO compliance might imply. Bauer says SoBran doesn't force people into training and it doesn't force promotions on them. On the other hand, Bauer says it's also important-to advise workers if what they want to do is realistic for them.

Training isn't a substitute for basic skills and qualifications, and Bauer says SoBran isn't looking to provide training for remedial skills. "We try not to employ anyone who's weak in the job they're already doing," says Bauer, but SoBran does provide some training to strengthen weak areas. That can involve more technical skills or training to move into supervision.

From Bauer's perspective, doing more with less doesn't include compromising on quality. Working more efficiently means the same person can do more things in an hour without feeling stress because he or she is worried about doing it right every time. Proper screening for skills and motivation on the front end, clear standards and metrics and plenty of training ensure that happens.

Bauer concludes with a personal opinion that the average employee doesn't care how much money he's making for his firm; he cares that he's doing his job well, that he's appreciated and, in fact, whether he's satisfied and wants to come back to work the next day. "I have to give him procedures so that he increases efficiency, but as far as efficiency for efficiency's sake, he could care less. The short answer is, it's the manager's job to make sure that his and her employees want to come back to work the next day." From that shared understanding, he continues, you allow the workers to proceed at their own pace. Barnesby's strategy can work in Singapore or Cincinnati, but first you have to deal with another problem that faces logistics in nearly every local operation worldwide: Logistics has low visibility and prestige as a career choice.

Maria McIntyre discovered the truth in this observation right in her own backyard. The retired head of the Council of Supply Chain Management Professionals (CSCMP) (www.cscmp.org) devoted her career to raising the boardroom perceptions of the value of logistics while helping its practitioners to increase their level of professionalism. Shortly after retirement, McIntyre has found herself facing new challenges as she helps promote logistics careers and develop skills on a grassroots level.

In suburban Chicago, McIntyre has joined a number of business executives and economic development types who are doing volunteer work with a local community college to define and address the need for logistics skills. In an effort to provide growth opportunities in the community, the group looks at what skills might be needed and how the local education system might address them. Whether it is technical skills, a foreign language or logistics, says McIntyre, the question being raised is, "How do you get skills up to par?"

Looking at the local needs, the small contingent of logistics professionals learned that logistics has an image problem. This is quite a different environment than the senior management level McIntyre was accustomed to dealing with at CSCMP. Companies may recognize a need for supply chain management expertise among managers and executives, but when it comes to hiring for logistics positions at a local level, very little appears to have been done to raise the level of awareness of warehousing, distribution and logistics careers.

Twelve time zones away at the Hong Kong Polytechnic University (www.polyu.edu.hk), John Liu, head of the Department of Logistics, is addressing the gap in logistics and supply chain skills. Despite the region's long standing as a global gateway, many people still identify logistics primarily with maritime operations. Liu and his small department are attempting to develop a broader logistics curriculum by producing graduates with the supply chain skills needed for the region today.

The Hong Kong Logistics Association's (www.hkla.org.hk) Anthony Wong is also working in the local business-community and government circles to develop an understanding of the role of logistics and supply chain management. Both organizations are partnering with universities and officials inside China to develop logistics courses.

While educators ramp up efforts to provide more qualified managers for logistics, TNT's (www.tnt.com) Ambrose Linn and DHL's (www.dhl.com) Mark Ting indicate similar experiences finding talent at all levels. Hong Kong is a very competitive market, and there are new companies coming into the region trying to tap the small pool of talent. One way these new entrants find workers is to offer more money, which tends to inflate the general wage level for everyone. TNT and DHL counter some of this with benefits, training and other incentives for employees.

Eko Prasetio, manager of operations for BDP Indonesia, reports a drop in employee turnover following introduction of programs to enhance employee skills. These differ substantially from broad efforts like Six Sigma or certification under ISO 9001, though they may be part of the effort to achieve corporate goals in either or both areas. The grassroots efforts require some translation or cultural filters. Concepts such as a sense of urgency, so critical to logistics, can have different meanings in different countries, notes BDP's Barnesby. This is one area where the shared understanding of the corporate goals or culture among local management is critical. Those local leaders can adjust the message to fit the local culture and achieve the desired goal. That's a lot different from word-forword translations of policies or directives.

As Prasetio points out, you can find yourself creating a corporate culture that is very different from those around it. "We promote open communications with no hierarchical barriers. Everyone is addressed by his or her first name, without the traditional 'Pak' or 'Ibu' [roughly, sir and madam], which continue to be used throughout Indonesian society."

The consistent message from Chicago to China is that logistics skills and knowledge of supply chain concepts are needed at all levels and in all locations. Training for those skills may require a joint effort with local schools and colleges as well as some basic public relations work to reinforce the value and importance of logistics careers. And success at the operations level will depend on local management to translate corporate goals and culture for the local workforce and create an environment that will support those goals.

Hide comments

Comments

  • Allowed HTML tags: <em> <strong> <blockquote> <br> <p>

Plain text

  • No HTML tags allowed.
  • Web page addresses and e-mail addresses turn into links automatically.
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.
Publish