Build Corporate-Wide Supply Chain Systems Ownership

July 1, 2001
The best WMS implementation, launched without strong management involvement and formal operator conditioning and training, will only enable the warehouse to do things badly faster.

Build Corporate-Wide Supply Chain Systems Ownership

The best WMS implementation, launched without strong management involvement and formal operator conditioning and training, will only enable the warehouse to do things badly faster.

by John Hill

Several years ago, the chief operating officer of a major electronics firm called to ask if I might be able to stop by one of the firm's warehouses to sniff out the reasons for a significant drop in productivity. Three months earlier, with great fanfare, the firm had turned the key on a superbly engineered warehouse management system (WMS). Throughout testing and after start-up, the WMS had met each of the firm's expectations for functionality and performance. But something went wrong.

Five minutes into a tour of the warehouse a few days later, the problem quickly surfaced. A number of operators were not using the system to request or execute tasks. Worse yet, some were using the WMS to request tasks but not to complete them.

When asked "Why?", operator alibis ranged from "It takes too long" to "The boss said that we could enter the data after we get this shipment out." "The Boss" turned out to be the new warehouse manager, a grizzly, dirty-fingernailed veteran who had joined the firm two months after WMS installation. His perspective was straightforward: "The warehouse mission is to keep the goods moving. I'm not going to turn my handlers into a bunch of clerks! They can enter the data after we meet our shipping commitments." As you might expect, "The Boss" was replaced within a few days of the visit and productivity soon returned to expected levels.

Thankfully, the foregoing scenario is increasingly rare. Nonetheless, the messages implied bear repeating at the outset and throughout the course of every supply chain systems program. Properly (or improperly) constructed, implemented and utilized, the system will affect not only all components of your organization but also your trading community and market position. Accordingly, it is critical that the program has broad endorsement and support throughout its life cycle.

Appreciate your culture

Historically, realization of the benefits of supply chain integration has not been so much technology constrained as it has been stymied by the inability of management to build ownership and proactive support throughout the organization. Although the rationale for pursuing supply chain excellence is clear, launching the initiative generally is driven by changes in business strategy that carry significant implications for the corporate culture.

Such changes cannot be undertaken without considering their effect on your people (from the CEO to the fellow loading trucks at a remote warehouse) or, indeed, their readiness to assimilate and take ownership of the changes. Clearly, some people are likely to balk, oftentimes those who have mastered the status quo for a number of years and see change as a threat. How do you gain their endorsement and support, and where do you begin?

Let's look at some of the steps you should consider in setting the stage for a successful WMS implementation. The table (in issue) presents a high-level roadmap that begins well before project approval. It assumes that you have done your homework and are persuaded that an investment in a WMS makes sense. Note that the groups and titles indicated vary from company to company.

Other ownership strategies

The table entries are representative but not exhaustive. Some additional thoughts for building organizational ownership include:

Risk management

A recommended approach involves reviewing the functional specification with IS, financial and warehouse operating personnel to identify what could possibly go wrong -- and the development of appropriate back-up procedures. Step through every system element; determine the probability of problems and the cost of resolution.

At the end of the process, you'll have a document that details what might go wrong, solution cost and whether the risk warrants an additional investment.

Important byproducts of the process are increased corporate-wide program support and a plan that permits continued facility operation in the event of minor problems or a major system failure.

Data collection equipment selection

After narrowing the options for bar code scanning, voice data entry and RF communications hardware to those best suited to their needs, a number of prospective WMS users have turned final equipment selection over to the workforce -- that is, to the people who will actually be using it. The results have been uniformly positive. The process not only builds program ownership among employees, but it also reduces or eliminates downstream equipment complaints.

The "walk through”

After completing the WMS functional requirements document, consider development of a WMS "walk through." Use the specification to script WMS tasks for all warehouse personnel. Use props to designate system components (e.g., RF terminals, bar code labels and readers, printers, etc.) and their locations. The "walk through" is a role-playing session that runs operators through a typical day with the WMS -- receiving, storage, picking, order consolidation, truck loading, shipping -- the entire process.

In addition to being an effective preliminary training device, the "walk through" normally reveals procedural flaws -- rarely dramatic, but fine points that, if modified, can improve system performance. Most changes may involve system equipment location and the integration of physical and data entry tasks rather than information processing. Changes should be made to the requirements document and implemented during development and before the system is shipped to the site.

System testing

System functionality and performance testing are fundamental to surprise-avoidance. Test plans should be prepared in parallel with system development and executed as development milestones are completed. Communications interfaces should be fully tested, and the completed package run through its paces prior to release for delivery to the site. On-site functional, reliability and performance testing should be performed by workers --neither by the WMS supplier nor operating management.


Most suppliers now advocate a train-the-trainer approach that places responsibility for operator training in the hands of your supervisory personnel. While this approach makes sense for a number of reasons, it is important that you work with the supplier to ensure that training manuals and handbooks are tailored to your application, your site and your workers.

Further, members of your project team as well as the supplier should be available as resources during operator training sessions.

Finally, trainers and training material should be regularly reviewed after the system is operating to ensure that they continue to reflect the actual situation. This is particularly important as new personnel are brought on-board.


Everyone in the organization must see a WMS not only as a new system, but also as a new business strategy aimed at improving the company's market position. Management sends the wrong message when their support is superficial, with little or no involvement in the implementation and training process. Two things can then happen:

• Those who have mastered the status quo may not only resist, but also be hostile to the changes.

• The people who have to shoulder the weight of system implementation may be forced to skip or scrimp on critical tasks in order to meet the start-up date established by absentee management.

Once installed, if the performance of the WMS is flawed, it will only serve to fuel workforce reluctance to embrace it.

When management is involved throughout selection, implementation, training and start-up, the WMS is more likely to be viewed as a positive change in business strategy that benefits the entire organization.

About the author

John M. Hill is a principal of eSYNC International and member of its board of directors. He has more than 30 years in material handling, warehousing and distribution management systems. He is a pioneer and authority on automatic data collection and a seasoned systems analyst and strategist.

His record includes data collection and T/WMS solution development for firms in many industries, including aerospace, appliance, automotive, basic metals, consumer goods, electronics, food and medical products.

Hill is a co-founder of AIM, the Automatic Identification Manufacturers trade association, and was first chairman, ANSI MH-10 Technical Committee on Unit Load Bar Coding.

He is a former president of the Material Handling Institute Inc. (MHI) and the Material Handling Education Foundation Inc., as well as co-founder of MHI's Logistics Execution Systems group. Hill is currently a member of the Board of Governors of the Material Handling Industry of America. Contact him at (831) 722-9806 or e-mail him at [email protected].