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Leveraging “Teach”nology: Improving DC Productivity through Personnel Observation & Coaching

As a supply chain systems implementation professional, I know the value of applying the right technology to increase efficiency. However, I also know how common it is for companies to overlook or under-utilize their workforce in the quest to make their operations more productive. Given how pervasive technology is throughout supply chain operations, we sometimes forget that people are often the source of untapped savings. We tend to forget that taking the time to improve our people, leveraging our “teach”nology, can create significant gains with little capital expenditure.

Recently, one of my clients in the foodservice business reaped strong rewards with a “low-tech, high-teach” initiative. Faced with an underperforming distribution center, the client brought in a new DC management team, giving them a clear mandate for improvement and an 18-month timeline for accomplishing it.

The new management team immediately installed an observation and coaching program whereby the supervisors conducted two coaching observations, and a follow-up interview, every day with each associate. By the 18-month deadline, with no changes to the DC processes, material handling, information technology or layout, the facility achieved a 40% productivity improvement. The only change implemented by the new management was a regimen of disciplined and regular observation, coaching and follow-up. As a result, the operation rose from the bottom of the DC network productivity scale to the top five. With their gains solidified, management was able to reduce the coaching sessions to one per day while maintaining their improved productivity.

What does it take to implement an observation and coaching program that “sticks”?

The first key is for your coaching supervisor to take the time to fully understand the “best practice” for the process being reviewed. It’s important for the coach to observe the process on the floor, in the associate’s work environment, preferably during peak activity. Flow charts and whiteboards don’t cut it for truly understanding the process. As important, all work should be observed for at least a complete cycle. If the cycle times are short, it’s helpful to observe multiple cycles.

Along with truly understanding the process, the coach must be able to effectively communicate deviations from best practice in a positive manner. The best way to accomplish this communication is through a review session off the floor, immediately following the observation. This session should be conducted privately in a quiet setting with no distractions. Done properly, the review should take no more than 15 minutes. For optimal results, the coach should begin by pointing out one or two positive behaviors he/she witnessed during the observation. Next the coach can point out any gaps in the process best-practice, along with any suggestions for improvements. Finally, the associate should be given the opportunity to provide feedback and make recommendations for any process or environment changes that may help him/her improve performance. Be sure to provide the associate with a copy of the feedback report for future reference.

Without question a properly executed observation and coaching program requires a significant investment of time, but this commitment will pay off in associate and DC performance improvements. And as a side benefit, you will likely see more effective communication – and a stronger working relationship – between your associates and supervisors.

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