Ready to be Different?

It’s not just the products you make or distribute. It’s not just your high-tech equipment. It’s the people that make or break your operation.

A company is only as good as its people, and an industry is only as good as its leaders. In any trade, including material handling, it’s the leaders that ignite change, that turn ideas into action.

Agents of change are getting harder to come by, however, and in just a few years, they will be nearly gone. You only have to look at the numbers to see what I mean.

By 2010, half of all companies will lose half of their senior managers, according to RHR International, an executive development firm based in Wood Dale, Ill. Worse, three out of four companies believe their current managers won’t be able to step up and take charge.

The “brain drain”—the mass exodus of talent that will inevitably occur as more executives reach retirement age—has already started, and it will only get worse.

When the dust settles, there will be a world of difference between the new leaders and those of yesterday. The companies lucky enough to have the best of the best will be the ones that welcomed the change.

For an example, consider Hong Kong native Melinda Mui, corporate director of supply chain at the Provincial Health Services Authority (PHSA) in British Columbia. Though she currently works as an executive logistician, it was material handling—the nittygritty of moving goods—that first established Mui’s career. She started working in healthcare but was later drawn to materials management.

“I had the opportunity to meet with many different companies and enjoyed the challenge of standardizing processes to serve different needs,” says Mui. That passion led her to take on warehouse manager and distribution supervisor roles at several hospitals in the Vancouver area.

At the time, few women were working in warehouses, much less running them. But, Mui used her distinctiveness to set her apart. “Women often have the ability to see the big picture,” she says. “The ability to find the problem in the process by looking at the big picture is a good quality to have in this industry.” Moreover, Mui’s ability to build relationships went a long way with customers and employees.

By 1997, she had risen through the ranks to become director of logistics operations at the Children’s and Women’s Health Center (C&W) and was faced with one of her toughest challenges.

To help control escalating distribution costs, C&W consolidated the hospital’s medical- supply warehousing activities with those of nearby Richmond General Hospital under a single warehouse run by C&W’s logistics operations department. That meant much higher volumes had to be distributed from a modest, non-expandable 12,000-sq ft warehouse.

Using the material handling knowledge she gained early in her career, Mui selected and helped install a horizontal carousel system from Remstar International that increased throughput by 500%, storage density by 50% and inventory turns by 40%. Four carousels with 50 carriers and two pick-to-light towers stored 70% of the warehouse’s SKUs. Previously, workers had been picking manually from racks using paper pick lists.

“We didn’t have enough floor space available to house all the existing and new SKUs on shelves and racks, especially in the volumes required,” recalls Mui. “I estimate that continuing with just shelf and rack storage, had room been available, would have required about 50% more floor space.” In the end, not an inch of space had to be added.

What can we learn from Mui’s story?

It’s quite simple, really. Embrace different perspectives. Encourage passion in your workforce. Don’t make assumptions based on old-world ideas.

If given a chance, the person you least suspect can guide your operation through the talent crisis and solve your most difficult material handling challenges along the way. One person can make a world of difference. It’s time to listen.

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