Automating Your Warehouse? Don’t Leave Culture Behind

With labor costs on the rise, labor availability on the decline, and increased demand for quicker, better service, warehouse automation is becoming an operational imperative for optimizing talent and meeting the needs of the modern consumer. These automation solutions can take many forms, including systems such as warehouse management systems (WMS), material handling equipment enhancements like automated storage and retrieval systems (ASRS), or goods-to-person picking. These solutions can either supplement human labor productivity or replace it altogether.

No matter the magnitude of automation’s role, a distribution center’s (DC) ability to operate efficiently and as intended depends on a strong working culture. After all, culture is everywhere; it shows up in the way that employees think, act, and behave. A strong cultural foundation has a direct impact on employee engagement. When employees are disengaged, they have up to 37 percent higher absenteeism rates, 49 percent more accidents, and 60 percent more errors and defects.

Automation might initially be seen as a threat to jobs and therefore DC culture; in reality, it presents a meaningful opportunity. When properly implemented and managed, automation drives both productivity and positive cultural change. In this blog, we explore four essential culture drivers that can maximize your automation ROI and make automation a complement to your culture.

  1. Vision and Values: Set a vision

Management needs to have a well-defined vision for the facility and communicate it clearly with the workforce. Effective communication doesn’t have to be overly formal, but it does need to be authentic for employees to feel included and engaged. They need to hear what the vision is and how individuals will be included alongside automation in the transformation. Additionally, it’s important that leaders manage expectations. After all, automation is a long-term play; most distribution centers don’t achieve automation’s full value until three years after implementation.

  1. Communications: Message clearly

Companies that implement automation successfully make sure their workforce is fully engaged throughout the process. Employees need to be transparently informed about the impact automation will have on their roles, with an emphasis on the benefits. The workforce will likely be excited to learn of fewer weekend shifts, less mandatory overtime, and easier social distancing. One study showed that up to 40 percent of workers were worried that they would lose their job to automation. This fear is not fully unfounded; in the U.S. it is expected that 39 to 79 million jobs may be replaced by AI and automation by 2030. Resistance from fear of job loss is sure to dampen the expected outcomes of the implementation; therefore, it’s important to stress the benefits to employees who will remain employed alongside the automation.

Automation needs to match employee tasks, so it’s important to explain new solutions to employees in terms of the activities they replace. Employees are most open to adopting automation when it helps them complete activities that are physically demanding or repetitive, such as lifting heavy objects, bending down, or moving carts. In messaging about automation, emphasize the strenuous or tedious tasks the new solution will eliminate from their job description.

The messaging needs to be able to move in both directions. Employee feedback is critical to gauging how the transformation is going. Mechanisms to receive formal and informal feedback allow leadership to identify barriers to adoption, uncover concerns and fears, and work through problems directly with employees.

  1. Capability: Train your associates

To achieve maximum value from an automation investment, some workers may need to be upskilled.   Unfortunately many workers feel their current training offerings are insufficient and do not lead to growth in skills or opportunity. Any training done in relation to the transformation should be considerate of the employee base and address the various learning styles and needs of the workforce.

While usually unintentional, it is common for there to be significant skill gaps between associates working on the day and night shifts. This inevitably leads to hidden tensions between workers of different shifts and variation in how the same operation is performed across shifts. Orienting your training around automation transformation is an opportunity to more closely align workers’ skill sets, standardize processes, and mitigate cultural disparities across shifts.

The stereotype that older workers are resistant to being trained on new technologies is almost always just that: a stereotype. In fact, it is usually the older workers who are the first to acknowledge that they need to embrace technology to remain relevant. Unfortunately, studies show that these workers usually receive the least support for learning and development.

  1. Leadership: Select and equip your management team

Finally, management needs the proper skills to oversee automated operations, and must be fully aligned on the approach to messaging throughout the DC. The right people in leadership are just as important as associates’ readiness to adopt change.  

The skills required of a supervisor overseeing a mostly manual facility and one overseeing a DC with ASRS-type automation are very different. In a manual operation, supervisors need to coach to a certain pace to achieve throughput targets, while understanding that workers will often be out of sight as they move through the warehouse. In a highly automated facility, workers tend to be more stationary while inventory moves to them, so coaching needs to take a different tone. Otherwise, employees will feel they’re being constantly watched.

Additionally, supervisors need to be more technologically capable so they can navigate and troubleshoot the systems that control the automation. Wave planning or the use of order streaming usually involve different strategies based on the type of automation. And after completing an automation transformation, management should be able to leverage the new technology to reallocate its best workers to more complex and interesting jobs, increasing satisfaction and retention.

A positive culture and automation are possible and powerful

As we’ve explored in this blog, automation and culture are two essential and mutually reinforcing elements in your DC. Therefore, it’s important to identify and mitigate any cultural blockers early on in your automation transformation. Culture will naturally change as a result of something new; it is how that change is managed that determines if the result is positive or negative. Evolving culture intentionally—toward one that embraces change and learning—is critical to getting ahead of the conversation and realizing the full potential of both automation and your people. By leaning into vision and values, communications, capability, and leadership, you can lay a strong cultural foundation for automation success.