Make Me ... Please

Aug. 1, 2002
Here's why some like Wal-Mart play the Big Gorilla when it comes to making them invest in the latest technology.
Make Me … Please

That’s what many retail suppliers are telling Wal-Mart, said Randy Salley, vice president of merchandising systems at Wal-Mart Stores Inc., in his presentation at the recent Retail Show in Chicago. Imagine that! Representatives of these suppliers won’t subscribe to new technology, in this case UCCnet, a repository of product information, unless Wal-Mart acts like the Big Gorilla and forces them.

We in the business press often chastise companies for playing the bully. Apparently, however, managers secretly want someone else to make decisions for them.

One interpretation of this is that the bosses of these managers have piled so many tasks on their backs that it takes an outsider to help prioritize the burdens.

Another interpretation is managers fear making a costly decision without the CYA explanation of “he made me do it.”

This is not a healthy business attitude or method of operation. How much further along in productivity and efficiency could many industries be if they took a more assertive approach and didn’t wait to be told what to do?

For Wal-Mart, out of 18,000 suppliers, about 10 are using UCCnet with the company. Twenty-one more companies are in various stages of testing this technology. Thirty-one out of 18,000 — those aren’t good numbers for a data transmission standard that offers a way for trading partners to simultaneously distribute accurate information on product to multiple members of a supply chain. The UCCnet standard should reduce data entry costs and the costs associated with such logistic errors as bad purchase orders, returned shipments and multiple item definitions.

The UCC Foundation had hoped to have 600 subscribers by now. So far, only about 100 have signed up.

Obviously there’s a problem. Salley concurred in his presentation that the retail industry faces several challenges when it comes to implementing newer material handling technologies.

Notice I said newer, not the latest. RFID, which has been around for some years and is a common technology in other industries, is still primarily in the discussion stages for the retail industry! There are a few pilot installations. But few retailers seem willing to take the risk. As many of you know, RFID is a contactless way to automatically collect product, transaction, time, place and other information quickly and without human error.

Everyone knows it’s a good idea, said Salley. But there’s a commitment phobia. He says 80 percent of the resistance is due to lack of leadership.

Executives should take note.

Salley closed his presentation, attended by many Wal-Mart suppliers, with the comment that most of them were behind when it comes to implementing technology. That statement can be applied to many material handling applications.

It’s a sad commentary on any industry when they throw up their collective hands and say “make me do it.” But they’re not alone. Such attitudes are not as prevalent in other industries, but there are “refuseniks” in every business.

What about your company? How many of you are hampered by a lack of leadership or, just as seriously, risk-averse management?

Management by submission is a cop-out. Any technology you employ should have a direct benefit to your bottom line as well as your gorilla’s. If you are waiting for a customer to tell you what your priorities are, stop. Instead, do your homework and make a case to the gorilla in your company’s executive suite.

Leslie Langnau, senior technical editor, [email protected]