Wars Aren't Won on the Cheap

March 1, 2004
Wars Aren't Won on the Cheap To be effective, your fight against unmanagement has to start the moment you decide to install a new material handling system.

To be effective, your fight against unmanagement has to start the moment you decide to install a new material handling system. Then is the time to start explaining to everybody who will be working with the system just what it is expected to do and how they're expected to make it work. By everybody we mean vice president on down to sweeper. And each should be told what his specific responsibilities are.

Only one man I know could use the non-word "unmanagement" and make it work. Bernie Knill.

He wrote the lead paragraph, and anyone involved in updating a warehouse or distribution center would do well to take his advice. Many of those who read it when he first wrote it in the March 1962 edition of Material Handling Engineering were glad they did.

Technology has changed quite a bit in the 42 years since Bernie wrote his first editorial in MHE, but those sage instructions for making the stuff work are just as meaningful today. I reprinted a bit of his wisdom here not only to make a point, but to pay tribute. You'll find Bernie's last column for MHM on page 78 (Innovation). He's decided that the March 2004 edition will be a fitting milestone to mark the start of a full-time vacation.

If you're a Bernie fan, as I am, you've come to appreciate his insights into enlightened material handling management. I've had the pleasure of knowing him since he first hired me in 1980. Under his guidance I learned much about reporting on technology and the people who manage it. Although the paragraph excerpted above was written well before my time on staff, I couldn't have offered a more timely piece of advice to today's buyers of material handling equipment. Warehousing and distribution are still people-dependent arts. Logistics execution systems, poorly applied, will fail. Lift truck fleets with poorly trained and motivated operators will fail -- and will be dangerous while failing. The widely touted benefits of radio frequency identification (RFID) will fail to materialize unless you translate Wal-Mart's prescription to apply it in terms its users will appreciate.

Another lesson Bernie taught me is material handling won't work on the cheap. Shortcuts are paths to disaster. Both the suppliers and practitioners of warehousing and distribution are prone to bottom-line-induced blindness. On the supplier side, especially with all the mergers and acquisitions that have been going on in the material handling equipment and systems industries, some OEMs might be tempted to undercut competitors on price to stay competitive with these new giants of material handling. Stafford Sterner, president of SJF Material Handling, went on the record with us to offer his take on the situation.

"Too many companies have bought into the concept of foregoing profits in pursuit of market share, with the idea of becoming profitable once the competition is eliminated," he opined. "It's called 'buying a job,' meaning submitting a bid that allows for little or no profit."

The downside of that, he added, is that without profits, the OEM has no money to invest in research and development, capital expenditures or continuing education. Its growth is all on paper, and will disappear as soon as it runs out of money to buy jobs.

You, the buyer, could lose out by dealing with such poorly funded and trained suppliers. But you may also be prone to cutting corners yourself to get technology on the cheap. Lift trucks are a perfect example. One of the biggest problems lift truck OEMs face is when customers buy cheap, knockoff replacement parts to keep old vehicles on the job. When these rebuilt lift trucks fail dramatically as a result, productivity and safety suffer, and customers end up paying a much higher price than they would have by purchasing OEM-approved parts or even buying or leasing a new lift truck. The need for on-the-job education on both sides of the sales counter has only increased since Bernie Knill started his fight with material handling "unmanagement" more than four decades ago. MHM will continue the campaign.

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