The Greatest Motivational Force of Them All

Sept. 1, 2010
Material handling and logistics begins and ends with people.

School is back in session, and for many kids that means exercising that part of their brain that had atrophied by writing the inevitable “how I spent my summer vacation” essay. I no longer have to answer to English teachers (not that there's anything wrong with English teachers; in fact, I was one myself back at the dawn of my career), but here's my summer vacation report anyway, based on the theme: “How cross-docking earned me recognition as a Kentucky Colonel.”

Back in July, I chaperoned a group of high school and college age kids on a mission trip down to the Appalachia region of eastern Kentucky, one of the poorest areas of the country (“poor” in the financial sense, at least, but certainly not poor in spirit).

The first assignment my group undertook was to assist at a county donation center, similar to a Goodwill store but organized and run by local citizens and volunteers.

Picture, if you will, this logistics challenge: A 53-foot-trailer, cubed out to the absolute max, filled with donated goods stacked on top of each other, crammed into every nook and cranny imaginable. Although the warehouse had basic material handling equipment (i.e., pallet jacks), we were unable to utilize any of it since nothing was actually stacked on a pallet. There's a great article this month (see Design Unit Loads for the Road) that discusses best practices in designing unit loads; whoever loaded that truck avoided every single one of those best practices.

Our job was straight out of a logistics handbook: unload donated goods from the trailer and move them to two smaller trucks (each truck going to a different destination within the county), or else to a staging area within the warehouse, where the goods would be processed and ultimately moved into the retail store at the front of the building. We had no shipping list to work off of, no RFID readers to track the goods as they were removed from the trailer, no wireless communication devices (other than my BlackBerry, which frequently lost its signal since we were up in the mountains), and none of the other basic goods and services we write about in the pages of MH&L.

What we did have was a dozen or so eager teenagers, none of whom had ever unloaded a truck before, but all of whom shared the same vital quality: They were there to help. They were motivated to do a good job because it was the right thing to do. It's the same spirit that propels groups like the American Logistics Aid Network (ALAN), but on a smaller scale. Our mission was a simple one: Unload a truck and move its contents quickly and efficiently.

After a few early rounds of experimentation, including a few near-misses (a couple of particularly enthusiastic carpet-carrying boys almost blind-sided a lamp-toting girl), we established a cross-docking cadence that sent every kid into the trailer with a specific target in mind (clothes, small furniture, toys, etc.), as well as a specific destination for that target (Truck A, Truck B or the warehouse). The kids never missed a beat. There was nothing I could have said or promised or threatened that would've gotten those kids to work any harder than they were already working because their motivation came from within and it extended outward.

As it so happened, there was a Kentucky state representative making the rounds and visiting the donation center, and he was so impressed with the cheerful work ethic of the kids that he took down all of our names and as a result we were all commissioned into the Honorable Order of Kentucky Colonels, which is “the highest honor awarded by the Commonwealth of Kentucky. Some famous Kentucky Colonels include Winston Churchill, Lyndon B. Johnson, John Glenn, George Clooney and Elvis Presley.

Now, I'm no Churchill or LBJ, and you can see by my photo that I'm not even a George Clooney, but I'm honored all the same to be recognized — not for my material handling and logistics proficiency, but simply for gathering a group of kids together who were willing, in their own ways, to do something meaningful for people they'd probably never see again. And when you get right down to it, that's pretty much the same spirit that characterizes the transportation and warehousing workers throughout this country, who undertake nothing less than the efficient movement and storage of goods each and every day.