How to future-proof your warehouse during the ‘in between’

It goes without saying that most, if not all, families have been negatively affected by this crisis.

But what about your work family?  How are they doing emotionally? Are they ready to return? Will their skills be rusty and need a refresher course? What happens if they can’t or won’t return, especially ahead of the holiday season? Where will your team find new and highly-skilled workers in the event of the latter?

If you’re in the business of warehousing, then these questions have likely been weighing on your mind for months.

Here’s what you need to know in order to not only prepare for the next wave of COVID-19, but also for the peak season wave that is just around the corner. Make use of smart, considerate change management initiatives while endeavoring to keep your personnel safe ahead of the holidays.

The new normal in your warehouse

You and your team have been with ‘new normal’ for some time now.  Perhaps your warehouse is taking extra precautions when it comes to receiving a shipment and mandating that all dock employees use hand sanitizers, gloves, and face shields.

Of course, and knowing that this is the case, your entire team likely took weeks readying your warehouse for a ramp up in operations. Warehouses all over the world are making use of visual markers and Lean-inspired ‘lanes’ wherein employees can see what six to twelve feet of distance looks like to adjust their behavior accordingly.

Many warehouses and DCs are posting personnel at entrances and other high-use areas (i.e., breakrooms and bathrooms) to monitor automated temperature checkpoints and record any personnel feeling ill or unwell. Many have gone so far as to implement Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) guidelines, which suggest that all surfaces be wiped down both before and after a shift as well as at various stages throughout one’s time on the job with a solution that is no less than 70 percent alcohol.

But this can’t really be the ‘new normal’, right?

Well, and in managing employee expectations as well as trying to reassure already anxious warehouse team leads, the answer for the time being should be a resounding ‘YES!’.

As has been noted before there is no better time than the present to assess how well your internal processes are performing and to take a step back in this possible calm before the storm to get your warehouse lean and ready for the inevitable ‘next’ crisis.

What you have to do now

Now, it should be noted that whether another wave of COVID-19 occurs is beside the point as there will be another crisis. Perhaps it will not be in the form of a virus-driven pandemic, but, and if history has taught supply chain managers and logistics leaders anything: Another crisis will occur and cause costly disruptions both upstream and downstream to one’s operations.

With threats looming large both within and across an organization, what is the GM supposed to do?

Why not let a crisis lead to a better way of doing business

This begins by immediately assessing how the warehouse is currently operating in a crisis scenario and completing a new risk analysis matrix. This tool can help decision makers think through the possible consequences of certain crises and the likelihood of those situations coming to fruition.

Next, consider redesigning your value stream, partnering with a greater number of 3PLs, or otherwise diversifying your risk across a larger geographic area.  This best practice is more common in the financial world where investors and portfolio managers inherently know to never sink all of their client’s assets into one stock or bond. Thus, it is imperative that GMs and operations managers start to think of their supply chain inputs and outputs like a big bank account since, well, that is ultimately what they are at the end of the day!

In keeping with this idea of asset and resource protection, it is the well-advised firm that invests in its human capital during times of recovery and ahead of the next storm.

Your team is back on track – what’s next?

With your team back in the warehouse and productivity once again at pre-pandemic levels, it is time to create a few contingency plans around the inevitable next crisis. This starts with taking quick preventive actions around diversifying your upstream and downstream suppliers and 3PLs. Once this is complied with, and especially heading into the peak shipping season, GMs should start to build up their safety stock levels as well begin a new round of onboarding or re-boarding temporary holiday workers.

Unlike hiring drives in the past, however, this year will prove exceptionally fraught for human resource business partners (HRBPs). They will need to not only backfill positions for those workers unable to return to the warehouse, but also train those who are unfamiliar with fulfillment as quickly, safely, and effectively as possible. Thus, and during this post-pandemic-slash-pre-peak period, it is paramount that operations managers, training specialists, and HRBPs work together in order to review, revise, and update any outdated or obsolete training materials.

Another best practice that has emerged from this most recent crisis is employee sharing. This is similar to cross-training employees, but goes well beyond simply providing employees with more skills and, instead, offers personnel the opportunity to work in partner organizations throughout the supply chain. The benefits of this practice not only leave employees feeling empowered, but ensures there are no bottlenecks into, or out of, the warehouse by focusing on velocity from supplier to shipper.

Long-term or riding the next wave

Again, and as has been made clear, crises come and crises go, but it is those firms that plan and prepare ahead of time that survive.

In looking to the future, it is strongly recommended that warehouse GMs make ready all members of their organization. In other words, well-intentioned executives often forget to put in place structures that help grow their firm’s leadership potential through the introduction and implementation of centers of excellence and strategic development.

What’s more, in thinking through other probable COVID-like scenarios and how to overcome them in the future, CEOs should also empower their training staff to develop stress tests to collect and codify optimal response measures taken during such scenarios in the form of contingency plans or playbooks.  Not only will this keep operations managers and personnel at the ready, but it will also help generate new ideas to mitigate the consequences of unforeseen events well into the future.

CTC 19

While many in the industry are used to calls to action, this crisis demands a much more comprehensive approach when bringing employees back into a potentially hazardous workplace. Thus, it is our recommendation that the warehouse in question implements a call-to-communicate. This approach will see two-way dialogue occurring between warehouse associates and the front office ahead of any change initiative or new workplace safety protocols.

In order to jumpstart these discussions, it is imperative that the workplace already be well on its way toward implementing re-boarding or new associate onboarding measures to ensure safety procedures are at the forefront of every associate’s mind.