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 warehouse leaders.
Part of this dynamic is helping workers to understand and embrace the technological changes that come into their work environment. Experience shows that companies receive the greatest payback from their technology investments when they carefully consider the impact these systems will have on the end users and plan for potential issues before a technology initiative goes live. These best practices are ideal to employ when implementing a voice system in a warehouse.
Voice is the most natural and intuitive of all data entry and order-management technologies. However, voice systems introduce complexities that organizations must carefully manage. One of the biggest challenges 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, these issues can be alleviated.
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, where hundreds of thousands of warehouse and distribution center employees now use voice every day to improve work. 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 actually, performance is always measured through the warehouse management system (WMS). What is different with a voice system is there is now yet another way to identify who handled what assignments, and how long they took to complete specific tasks.
With 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.
Sometimes employees may worry that using voice will make their jobs boring or force them to become isolated from coworkers. In the experience of most of our customers, 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.
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 on-the-job information. They can start, stop and configure the system as needed to work more efficiently and at their own pace.
As your 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. By the time of the actual deployment, this mindset should be well-established and understood by all.
Equally important, front-line employees need to understand the overarching reasons behind voice, not only from a business perspective (improved productivity, accuracy, and/or safety), but also from an individual user or human perspective. Companies need to clearly 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 that the voice system is based on the most natural form of human communication: listening and responding.
Luedde is manager, training and education with Vocollect Inc., Pittsburgh, and Miller is director, strategic consulting, sales and professional services.
Recommended tips and strategies for ensuring a smooth voice deployment:
Make sure your warehouse management system (WMS) is defining the optimum assignment order. Check with your WMS team to make sure it is fair and reasonable, based on best practices from years of other deployments around the world, tempered with the unique needs of your site.
Utilize voice data to identify additional training opportunities. Be sure to provide incremental recognition for performance improvements.
Analyze and understand your specific data. What works in another environment may not work for you. While looking at similar places may provide a guideline and some ideas, ultimately the system must meet your particular needs.
Train your operators to record their voice templates in a natural and realistic environment, preferably in their work area. This allows the system to create a realistic voice template. The more normally they speak, the better the system will work.
Encourage employees to voice their opinions about work flow and warehouse layout improvements. Their experience and insights can be extremely valuable in helping to improve ongoing operations.
Utilize your voice “champions” as vocal advocates for voice with their work team peers, and also as possible trainers when you expand your deployment to other sites.
Review employment contracts prior to the deployment to clarify performance measurement rules. Most labor union contracts have process improvement sections; if not, suggest adding one during the next negotiations.
Ensure that productivity measures are fair and reasonable. Do a risk/benefit analysis of the cost of increasing the productivity requirement, amid the extra physical stress demanded by a faster pace, and potential resulting medical concerns. Protecting worker health is a bottom-line issue.
DEMATIC REVOLUTIONIZES ORDER PICKING WITH VOICE+LASER SOLUTION
What’s the next generation of voice technology? Check out Dematic Corp.’s Voice+Laser trucks. The solution combines driverless trucks upgraded with industrial grade laser guidance and safety features with voice picking, to deliver the maximum picking productivity possible in manual warehouses.
In the typical case picking operation, there are opportunities to maximize productivity and accuracy; this is the most labor intensive task in the warehouse, one that has a major impact on customer satisfaction. The challenge is that during order picking, the warehouse staff is doing many tasks other than picking: getting a new shipping pallet, getting on and off a pallet truck, and taking the completed pallet to shipping.
Further optimization of the picker’s productivity can be obtained through the addition of voice picking technology. By leaving the pickers hands free, the picking action becomes faster with additional benefits in terms of ergonomics and accuracy. However this still leaves them doing a lot of travel as opposed to doing what they are meant to be doing: picking.
By eliminating the non-value added tasks associated with a typical case picking operation, Grand Rapids, MI-based Dematic says Voice+ Laser Trucks have the potential to double picking productivity, while retaining the flexibility of manual systems.
The Voice+ Laser Trucks solution upgrades pallet trucks to driverless operations using industrial grade laser guidance systems. At the start of an order, the Laser Truck delivers a new pallet directly to the picker, automatically moves with the Voice-equipped picker as they verbally confirm picks, and transports the completed pallet to shipping while the next Laser Truck brings a new pallet to the picker. The case picking productivity increases as operators are freed up to focus solely on picking.
Beyond maximizing picking productivity in manual warehouses, Laser Trucks deliver improved safety, energy efficiency and operational transparency. System flexibility is maintained. During peak periods, pickers with manual pallet trucks can work in conjunction with Laser Trucks+ to take up the additional throughput. Routing plans can be updated as requirements change and additional Laser Trucks+ can be added, and even transferred between sites.