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Managing Change in Your Workforce When Updating Supply Chain Technology

Unless you’ve got a completely automated warehouse full of robots, your employees are still your biggest asset. Too many organizations assume that when it’s time to roll out their new supply chain technology, their workforce will embrace the software and run with it, no questions asked. Unfortunately, they’re always wrong. In fact, not adequately preparing your associates for how a new WMS, TMS, or LMS will work is a big reason these supply chain software implementations fail.

As simple as introducing a new technology solution to your workforce may sound, it takes a lot of time, effort, and planning to make it successful. It’s human nature to dislike workplace change because it disrupts our ability to do our jobs the way we’re used to doing them. Because of this, it’s essential to build your change management strategies into your implementation project plan to ensure your new technology solution can achieve the success you expect. Let’s look at how to make this happen.

A Helpful Framework: The 8-Step Process for Leading Change
Many in HR roles are likely familiar with Dr. John Kotter and his 8-Step Process for Leading Change. This framework is relevant for any type of change management initiative and provides supply chain professionals with a helpful guide for mapping out a solid communications strategy.

  1. Create a sense of urgency
    Make it clear why acting now—and not six months from now—is vital to the success of the project and the company at a high level. No one will get too excited about having to learn a new system if they don’t understand why it’s necessary. Revisit the rationale for the technology that you laid out in your business case. It may be that without a new or upgraded system your company can’t ship orders fast enough to keep up with the competition. Or perhaps the vendor of your existing software has announced end of life and will soon cease to support the solution. Either way, managing information is critical to your business, and technology is a vital tool for the success of your warehouse operations—and likely your bottom line. After all, if your business can’t compete effectively and loses revenue, there will be fewer jobs to be had in the long run. 
  2. Build a guiding coalition
    Every employee team has natural leaders who emerge as spokespeople and can voice the concerns of others—even when they’re not technically in a management role. Identify these champions and get them to understand the value of the system chosen so they can share their enthusiasm with peers and generate excitement about the project. If this doesn’t happen, these same people may reject the new technology and vocalize their displeasure to the broader group, leading to resistance.
  3. Form a strategic vision and initiatives
    Develop a vision statement for how the new solution will improve daily life for each role in the warehouse. In addition, show how it will improve your company’s ability to meet its customer commitments. Discuss benefits in a way that will get heads nodding among associates. If they can understand how the solution will help them, they’ll have more reason to support the change. The other component here is communicating the ‘how.’ Vision statements are great, but it’s also necessary to outline the concrete activities that will need to occur to give life to the vision and get employees directly involved.  
  4. Enlist a volunteer army
    By the time a go-live rolls around, your IT department may feel the solution is a minor course correction; but what associates in the workforce feel is a fundamental shift in how things are done. This is because the IT team has likely been working on the project for months and has become well versed in its benefits. On the flip side, the people who will use your technology day in and day out are often only given a couple hours of training usually within two weeks of go-live, making them feel like an afterthought in the process and potentially increasing their frustration.

    The best way to handle this common scenario is to involve associates early in the project. They need to understand why the change is happening, so they can get on board. There should be a sense of shared system ownership between the management team and the associates. When people aren’t involved early enough they will naturally resist the new technology and want to revert to previous norms, which will slow your ability to achieve ROI. Involve as many associates as possible during the testing process.

  5. Enable action by removing barriers
    Empowering your associates to act is crucial to their acceptance of the new system. Not only does this include hands-on training with the new application(s), but it also means establishing an environment that encourages and rewards open communication and feedback from the people who carry out warehouse activities every day. Their experience makes them invaluable resources during your implementation project as they will have suggestions for better ways to design their part of the operations.
  6. Generate short-term wins
    Once the solution is up and running, seek examples of how processes are running better than they were before the change. Is picking or receiving more efficient? Can cycle counts be done with fewer steps? Highlight these situations for associates so they feel all their work in learning the new system has been worthwhile. 
  7. Sustain acceleration
    The open communications you established earlier in this process will continue to pay dividends throughout the go-live and beyond as associates become more comfortable with the technology. Encourage them to continue to alert management when they see new ways to use the system. Be receptive to ideas and reward them.
  8. Institute change
    As the new system continues to become a part of your operations and culture, continue to ensure the team is using the system correctly, highlight successes publicly, and watch for continuous improvement opportunities that will enable you to keep up with the latest features and functions available for your system(s). Ideally, you’ll be able to institute a regular cadence (e.g., quarterly) for determining how to adjust processes for optimal performance.

A Case Study
The management team at one facility we worked with did no advance work to communicate the upcoming adoption of a Labor Management System (LMS) to the workforce. In fact, they instructed the engineers collecting data on the floor to tell associates they were building inspectors. Once management felt comfortable with the technology configuration, they attempted to roll out the LMS. There was significant resistance from associates. Despite the success the solution would ultimately achieve throughout the rest of the organization’s network, this particular facility continued to struggle even years after thier initial go-live.

At the second facility in the network, the management team fully invested in a change management plan. They involved associates in all processes related to implementing the LMS, including monthly update meetings with the warehouse, development of preferred methods, and review of configuration data. Following the Kotter change model, they implemented recommendations from the floor early in the process and made sure management fully supported the changes, especially those that came directly from associates. Ultimately, they reduced their cost per case handling from $0.22 to $0.185, a 19 percent cost reduction. The improved relationship between management and associates also led to improvements in turnover, which dropped from 15 to 20 new hires every two weeks to 15 to 20 new hires every six months. 

Jump Start Your Change Management Strategy with 4SIGHT
Whether you’re implementing a WMS, TMS, or LMS, or working on a warehouse redesign, it’s critical to consider the change management strategy for your workforce in your plan. 4SIGHT experts have years of experience in this area: We’ve seen the success stories when companies help their associates embrace the concept of new technology early in the project. We’ve also seen the trouble that can arise when organizations decide to forego this step. 

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