Example — Warehouse Gridlock!
It was 8:00am on the first day of my monthly consulting visit to this Southern California distribution center. I walked in and found the DC manager almost panicked. “The warehouse has filled the receiving docks with product and is beginning to receive on the loading dock. If this continues the warehouse we will go into gridlock. Then no stores will get their orders!”
With daily deliveries to over 200 stores this was a serious situation. Fortunately the immediate crisis was soon averted but the broader system problem remained — buyers didn’t plan purchases and deliveries with the warehouse people. The result could be the sudden arrival of fifteen truckloads at already full docks. Then the receiving clerk, reluctant to tell the drivers (with loads of fresh food) to go away, diverts the trucks to shipping, leading to gridlock.
Communications between Buyers and warehouseman are rarely good. Buyers see themselves as special people and their suppliers want to keep it that way. If you sell meat to a company with 200 supermarkets you will do what it takes to keep that company’s buyer ordering your brand. You’ll do what makes that buyer feel like a king.
Being human, the buyer will soon begin to believe that is true, that he is very special. The lowly receiving clerk, having tried to talk with the buyer before and been rebuffed, soon gives up on directly solving his problem and takes the bureaucratic solution of going up the chain of command, working through channels. The clerk calls his supervisor who calls his superintendent who calls the manager who calls the director who calls the SVP who calls his EVP who talks across to the marketing EVP who tells his VP to talk with the buyer. Going up and back down the chain of command takes time, messages get distorted and none of those people, except the receiving clerk, actually has the problem. The clerk is the only one truly motivated by those fifteen extra trucks. (Of course once the problem expands and the warehouse starts to lock up, the warehouse manager has a problem — but that’s not the immediate issue.)
Ideally a problem should stay with the person who has it. In this warehouse we needed to create a situation where the buyer and clerk jointly plan purchases and deliveries. That means the buyer has to see the clerk as a peer and the clerk has to see the buyer as approachable, i.e. they have to have a personal business relationship. They need to feel that they are on the same ship. The buyer doesn’t have a problem, but the receiving clerk needs the buyer’s help to solve his dock problem.
Middle managers also have to change their cultural norms
We had to help the reluctant buyer talk with the clerk and help the clerk to see that his role included calling the buyer, whom he had never met and only rarely talked to by phone. We coached middle managers to let go of their traditional roles in the chain of command. They needed to know of the major boundary crossing — the clerk talking to the buyer — but learn how to stand back and not take the problem away from the clerk. This was difficult for managers who largely defined who they were by their ability to take on others’ problems.
New broad vistas
Though this seems like a small problem it was an excellent illustration of a company-wide issue that showed itself in many areas, and frustrated people at every level. Like most cultural issues, solving this particular problem led to curing the broader cancer. Once the management team understood the clerk/buyer problem they realized it was just the tip of the iceberg. They launched a process of exploring wider implications throughout the company. It took time, ruffled many feathers, and induced much self-reflection, but eventually built a more efficient, less frustrating, more cooperative workplace.
Who has the problem? A Second Example
It was the monthly meeting of the Transportation Department where the director, managers and supervisors discussed the culture — relationships, communications and involvement. Each person shared what he or she had done to involve his or her people in the previous four weeks.
Ted, a senior supervisor from fleet maintenance said that the drivers were frustrated by the 30 minutes delay they had at the start of the shift. “It is a long walk from where they parked to the trucks and then they have to wait for the trucks to be fueled, oiled and checked out. They are anxious to get on the road.” Ted was emphatic about the drivers’ frustration, “We are always looking for ways to involve people more in solving their own problems. Since the drivers are so frustrated I’d like to see if some of them might be interested in working on what they could do to make things better. What do you think?” Ted asked the group.
Darlene, the director of transportation, thought it was a good idea, but Joe, the fleet maintenance manager, and most significantly Ted’s boss, cautioned, “Changing parking and maintenance procedures is complicated. It involves insurance liability issues and other departments. It’s not really something the driver should do.”
The group reminded Joe that he had agreed that the person closest to the problem should be involved in solving it. As they discuss this issue further it was obvious they all understood that they as managers were not the ones closest to the problem; the drivers were, so they should be solving it.
Joe thew one more challenge to driver involvement, “Yes but with 400 drivers that half hour cost the company a lot of money. That’s a company problem.”
I tried to connect to Joe but keep Ted in the picture by asking him, “Let’s put a rough number on this and see if it is worth looking into. You have 400 drivers. Are they each delayed a half hour a day?”
Ted, “On average that’s about right.”
“And what is the driver cost with benefits, overhead, etc.? Would you guess about $50-$60 an hour? Let’s say $50? How many days a week are we talking?”
Ted “Six on average.”
I wrote on the board and said, “So we can set a rough cost is 400 x $50 x 6 × 52 × 0.5 or about $1/2 million a year.”
Joe interjected again, “Well you couldn’t really say that. The drivers would probably do something else with that half hour. It wouldn’t go directly to savings.”
I asked, “But even if only a fraction did, would it be worth having the drivers look into it?”
Joe said “Yes” and with that the group agreed that Ted should work with the drivers. After the meeting, Ted asked me if he could call and discuss next steps. He thought a small driver group would be keen to work on this and he could help them get underway.
Ted didn’t call.
Just before the next month’s meeting started, I asked Ted why he hadn’t called. Ted said that his boss Joe didn’t really like the idea. I decided to let the issue sit. One of the rules of culture changes to go where there is support, not push where there is resistance.
Two meetings later Joe proudly described how he was working on the parking issue and driver delays. It was clearly difficult for Joe to see that he could solve the problem and engage drivers at the same time. He was so used to taking responsibility on by himself. Using Joe’s announcement as an opportunity, I invited the group to discuss once again the goal of culture change and the need to keep the person with the problem engaged in the solution. During this discussion I could see that Joe was thinking hard. From his expression I could tell he was slowly recognizing that he didn’t need to work directly on the problem, but could still keep it under control simply by being involved in the project’s development. With Darlene’s gentle prompting, Ted was now able to regain control of the process with the drivers while Joe learned a little more about defining a problem and about letting go.
This was the beginning of a real culture change in that large division. Decision-making and involvement was pushed down to the level where there was the most energy for solving the problem — with the people who had it, not with their managers — who didn’t.
Another Example. Who Had the Problem at Continental Airlines?
This is from an old The Wall Street Journal article.
“At a Houston meeting in late 1994, with Continental teetering on the brink of a third bankruptcy, eight major creditors began yelling at him (Mr. Brennenman, the then CEO) — at which point he headed for the door, announcing that he was going home to watch television. “They were screaming. ‘How could you do that?’ Mr. Brennenman recalls. “I just told them they were the ones with the problem, not me. The first step in problem solving is figuring out who’s got the problem.” Continental ended up with breathing room, and within 14 months those creditors were all repaid in full.”
cc 135 — © Barry Phegan, Ph.D.