Use Soft Skills to Solve Hard Challenges

Oct. 1, 2007
To satisfy customers, managers in the material handling industry deal with constantly changing requirements and increasingly tight deadlines. All this

To satisfy customers, managers in the material handling industry deal with constantly changing requirements and increasingly tight deadlines. All this while managing internal issues, from meeting safety specifications to working with countless vendors and ensuring smooth working order among employees.

As essential as technical expertise is to keeping an organization running smoothly are business skills—“soft skills” that are often most effective when dealing with your company’s hardest challenges.

To increase soft skills among material handlers, add comprehensive training in the following four business areas to enhance your current professional development program.

The ability to communicate effectively with customers and vendors leads to a better understanding of, and alignment with, business models. Solid communication skills, including listening skills, are essential for gathering customer and vendor requirements and managing changes. Different cultures, languages and time zones are some common barriers that get in the way of the efficient delivery of products and services. We tend to take communication for granted when we do it all day long, every day. However, we shouldn’t assume our messages are received the way in which we intend. For example, if you need material stored in a very specific manner, you should structure your instructions to the vendor so they’ll clearly understand your expectations. In other words, exercise clarity and a communication style specific to your recipient.

Critical Thinking and Problem Solving
Being able to think quickly and critically helps you recognize new opportunities for improvement and success. When inevitable problems arise, you’ll be able to identify the root causes and understand the implications associated with potential solutions. If you’re surprised by a customer’s new requirement, apply creative thinking tactics. One effective problem-solving technique is SCAMPER: “Substitute, Combine, Adapt, Magnify/ Modify, Put to other uses, Eliminate and Rearrange/Reverse.”* When applied properly, it’s an excellent model for the development of innovative ideas in change management. In some cases, you should think analytically to understand why current crises occurred, perhaps applying a SWOT— “Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, Threats”—analysis or a cause-and-effect diagram. Have you considered thinking through potential scenarios when determining which course of action to take mid-crisis? For instance, if option A versus option B is selected, what are the ramifications? Regardless of the method, critical thinking and problem solving are imperative skills.

Coaching and Mentoring
All too often, when employees walk out the door, they take their knowledge and expertise with them. Improved coaching and mentoring skills help your company ensure that knowledge is easily transferred between employees, and best practices remain among your team. When you take time to share knowledge and develop skills in others, you’re not the only one who can make decisions and be trusted to “get it done right.” How is coaching and mentoring best accomplished? The answer is simple: delegate. Set clear expectations. Guide performance. Provide feedback. Help people get better at what they do, and help broaden their skill sets.

Business is changing constantly. Material handling managers must face changing requirements from customers, adjust to regulatory mandates, and in all cases, respond quickly. Professionals in this industry must have the skills to assess the current situation and apply a vision for where they want to end up once the project is complete.

To transition from this “as is” state to the “to be” state, implement these effective change-management skills:

  • Adjust your mindset to be adaptable to change.
  • Accept, don’t reject, change.
  • Document the way things are using models, words and processes.
  • Possess the ability to articulate the future state and your vision.

Julie Zinn PMP, is director of the business-skills training program for ESI International, a global training firm headquartered in Washington. Since 1995, she has managed several ESI organizational development initiatives, such as corporate communications improvement, personnel reorganization and business process reengineering.

* The SCAMPER methodology is credited to Michael Michalko, author of Cracking Creativity: The Secrets of Creative Genius, 2001.