Sustaining a Successful Voice Deployment

July 1, 2009
Drawn from Vocollect's ongoing white paper series, this article shares insights and best practices gained from thousands of implementations.

Yesterday's tired approaches are simply inadequate for today's world where supply chain organizations are struggling mightily to squeeze as much profit and performance out of their operations as possible. These overwhelming expectations create many challenges — and opportunities — for distribution center and warehouse leaders. Their ability to inspire and enable their workforces to achieve peak performance gets tested on an hourly basis.

Part of this leadership dynamic is helping workers to understand and embrace the technological changes that come into the work environment. Experience shows that companies receive the greatest payback from their technology investments when they carefully consider the impact these systems have on the end users — frontline DC and warehouse employees — and plan for potential issues before the system goes live. These best practices are ideal for implementing a voice system.

Warehouses and DCs across the globe rely on voice to improve productivity, increase accuracy and reduce operational expenses. Voice is well established in more than 40 developed countries as an alternative to labor-intensive technologies.

Here's how it works: Assignments for selection, replenishment, putaway and inventory moves are generated by a WMS and transmitted via a wireless network to a wearable or mounted computer. That device translates the assignment data into verbal commands conveyed through a worker's headset, directing the worker to an aisle or section of the warehouse and a specific slot or pick location. The worker then verifies his or her action by speaking a check digit or quantity.

Voice is the most natural and intuitive of all data entry and order-management technologies because speech is one of the first skills people learn. However, like any technological innovation, voice systems introduce complexities that organizations must carefully manage. One of the biggest challenges DC and warehouse leaders face is anticipating and addressing employee concerns, which can range from productivity and safety to worries about stress, boredom and isolation. With careful planning, each of these issues can be alleviated.

Acknowledge Concerns

Stress is a natural result of the learning process. However, as people gain proficiency with a new tool or task, stress recedes. We have found this to be the case with voice. While any new system has a learning curve, workers quickly become comfortable using voice as a work process improvement tool.

Studies have shown that human anxiety escalates when workers know they are being tracked or monitored. Sometimes, employees may perceive an increased level of scrutiny that voice will enable. They should be assured that performance is measured through the WMS. What is different with a voice system is there is now another way to identify who handled what assignments and how long they took to complete specific tasks.

That said, it is important to clarify that tasks are being tracked, not employee behaviors. Workers need to understand that voice does not change the essential nature of their work; it is merely a different and more effective medium for communicating the steps to get the job done.

Employees may worry that using voice will make their jobs boring or force them to become isolated from coworkers. But voice actually decreases boredom while improving speed and accuracy. Most workers will feel more engaged with the job because they can now interact with the work flow by providing input, making queries or redirecting their work. Because voice is responsive and engaging, workers stay alert.

Contrary to popular belief, using voice does not isolate employees or prevent them from speaking with one another. In fact, voice puts workers in control of their own devices. If they need to speak with someone on the floor, they can simply put the device into sleep mode with a quick voice command. When they're ready to resume work, they can wake it up with another command. These simple voice commands make it easy for employees to communicate among themselves and then return to their assignments.

Like a dedicated personal assistant, the voice system is controlled by employees, providing them with on-time, on-demand access to information. They can start, stop and configure the system as needed to work more efficiently and at their own pace.

As employees gain comfort and proficiency with the system, they can speed up the pace and volume of the voice dialogue. While management typically determines the language or languages in which instructions will be provided, workers can determine the language in which they want to speak back and, in many cases, whether they want to hear a male or female voice. For non-native speakers, the ability to hear instructions in their first language gives them equal opportunity to excel, regardless of their English proficiency.

Present the Big Picture

More productive operations grow and flourish; less productive ones lose business. That, of course, is the reason for investing in new performance tools in the first place. The leadership challenge for voice is in getting employees to see the real win-win performance benefits that voice enables. As with any change effort, companies need to clearly communicate to all stakeholders that the voice deployment is the new way of doing business — not an experiment. By the time of the actual deployment, this mindset should be well established and understood by all.

Equally important, frontline employees need to understand the reasons behind voice, not only from a business perspective (improved productivity, accuracy and/or safety) but also from a human perspective. Companies need to convey the message that voice will make people's daily jobs easier and increase their efficiency. Workers also need to know the game plan for implementation and what labor and management expectations are for team and individual performance.

It's not unusual for employees to raise issues at the start of a voice deployment. Therefore, organizations should anticipate typical questions and concerns and address them in advance as much as possible. Many initial concerns can be alleviated by emphasizing the voice system is based on the most natural form of human communication: listening and responding.

Explain to employees that using voice to perform their work is no different than using a cell phone with a Bluetooth earpiece or listening to a navigation system in a car. This will help them see how verbal communication allows them to focus visually and mentally on the task at hand, making the work more efficient, easier and safer.

Involve and Empower

One of the keys to implementing a successful launch is to give people as much ownership of the effort as possible so they become more empowered and determined to succeed. That requires regular and consistent exchange of information throughout the implementation process. Good communication also can help curtail gossip and rumors and minimize the chance that employees will develop the wrong set of expectations.

Floor supervisors are critical links in any voice implementation project. It's imperative that they are fully on board and present a consistent attitude of support on the front line. If they are not unified, employees will notice, and that can derail any change effort.

Supervisors should be offered an appropriate management forum to voice their opinions so the entire management team can be aware of issues and objections and work to overcome them. The end goal is to send a consistent message to the workforce.

In addition, long before the deployment goes live, the organization needs to line up enthusiastic employee champions to communicate their support for the project to fellow team members. One strategy is to identify key users in each work group and bring them in early in the planning stages. Make them part of the decision to go with voice, let them have a vote in the system selection process and involve them in planning and execution. Ask for their ongoing feedback, and try to implement at least some of their ideas.

Armed with information about the system and how it will make their own jobs easier, these lead employees can become evangelists within their teams. As the system is implemented, these key workers also will be among those who work most closely with the system, so they are likely to have the best ideas on how to make the system run at peak performance.

Proper education and training are crucial in helping ensure employees remain engaged and confident. No matter how heavy the workload, frontline employees need adequate time for focused training. The same goes for supervisors, who also must be well trained on the voice management software. The more comfortable they are, the more ways they will find to innovate and recognize good performance. They'll also be armed with the information they need to implement training.

Make Performance Pay

Especially in economically uncertain times, maximizing worker and team productivity is of paramount concern to both labor and management. The stronger the productivity payback voice can deliver, the bigger the benefit to the operation. Because of performance improvements through voice, companies often will raise their productivity targets. As this is done, it's important not to overwork employees. Further, wherever possible, consider integrating incentive programs to address the “What's in it for me?” question and ensure balance and equity on all sides of the worker/management team.

Of course, what motivates one employee won't necessarily motivate another. And, what drives one implementation might be different from what drives another one. But everyone — both individually and collectively — has a stake in making the organization as productive as possible so that jobs and incentive plans are maintained. If an employee incentive program is already in place, explain that the voice system will provide an extremely fair measurement of performance. This is a good selling point for labor union leaders, for whom equity in measurement systems is of paramount concern.

One way to engage and motivate employees is to start a team chart of productivity metrics before voice and after voice so improvements are visible to all. For example, if you track injuries related to order selection, it likely could be a candidate for chart entry in the future. If you can reduce sprains and back injuries thanks to voice, why not point it out as an advantage?

Supervisors also can create team celebrations for improvement built around productivity milestones. Further, if you don't yet have an employee incentive program, now is a good time to consider starting one. Employees will care more about doing a good job when they gain some personal benefit from their extra effort. Such a program provides them with positive reinforcement for a job well done.

Reap the Rewards

Measuring performance is a corporate-driven activity that takes into account many job variables. Standards are typically already in place prior to a voice deployment. Where voice can help is in providing data as one aspect of performance. As productivity and accuracy increase, voice helps management more consistently forecast the workload. And, improved forecasting leads to more accurate staffing levels and a more consistent workforce.

The potential of voice to deliver a positive return on investment is further magnified through its ability to help protect worker health and safety. Anyone who has crossed an aisle while viewing a screen on a handheld device and had a close call or worse, a painful collision, can attest to the value of voice. Voice provides a hands-free/eyes-free approach to DC and warehouse work that is a major improvement over many other types of handheld devices. With voice, employees are more alert and focused on the task at hand and aren't visually distracted. Moreover, with both hands available, workers are in a better position to lift and handle materials.

A Strategic Focus

A voice system is a win-win for both the company and its workers. Voice makes the job easier and the organization more competitive. It also can help improve employee morale and job satisfaction through better and more accurate incentive programs and the ability to recognize top performers.

But even the best work process tools can fail if companies neglect to address the human factors before, during and after deployment. Identifying key barriers and implementing strategies to address them will help maximize long-term value and return on investment. Adopting a strategic, people-focused approach will optimize the potential benefits of voice and provide a critical competitive edge for the future.

Chris Luedde is manager of training and education, and Mike Miller is director of strategic consulting, sales and professional services at Vocollect. This article is based on a series of reports released by Vocollect. Visit the company's Web site at

A Behind-the-Head Headset for Voice System Workers

Vocollect's new headset for voice system workers, the SR-15, is designed for employees performing fast-paced mobile tasks who cannot wear typical over-the-head headset models due to hairstyle, religious headwear or comfort issues.

SR-15 gently positions itself on the ears with very little force. It is adjustable for either right or left ear. The SR-15 is designed to operate with Vocollect-manufactured voice devices and handheld mobile computing devices from certain Vocollect-affiliated device manufacturers.

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