It’s All in the Approach

Feb 14, 2007 9:16 PM  By

Being a supervisor in a fast-paced distribution center is a lot like being an airline pilot: Success is all in the approach.

Let’s take a look at the parallel nature of airline pilots and logistics supervisors:

Good landings begin early – with a good preflight inspection
Pilots do not like surprises when they are in the air. Leaking fuel lines, brake fittings, and oxygen valves are just some of the many things they look for before they even start the engines. They want to make sure the flight begins under the best of circumstances.

Warehouse supervisors need to look for their leaks too. For example: What volume of work is anticipated for the shift? Is my projected headcount appropriate? Do I have the right people with the right skills plugged into each work area? Will I be able to provide them with good working equipment to do their jobs? Do I have any other potential barriers to my success, such as congested aisles or poor employee motivation? Supervisors should not expect good results at the end of the shift if their preparation is bad.

A well-built aircraft will practically fly itself
Aviators really appreciate aircraft that are easy to fly. It’s quite exhausting to fly an aircraft that has not been properly trimmed for flight. And if the flight is a lengthy one, it is a huge relief to pilots to have a functioning autopilot system that will handle much of the workload.

Unfortunately, supervisors in warehousing and distribution have their hands full throughout their entire shift – they don’t have an autopilot system they can turn on. One of the reasons supervisors are so heavily loaded is because they typically don’t have well-trained, motivated employees. As a result, a lot of the supervisor’s time and attention is spent keeping those employees on track. It is imperative that supervisors receive focused management training on how to build a core group of skilled and dedicated associates.

Aircraft can often fly much faster than they should
When an aircraft is late getting off the gate at an airport terminal, you might hear the pilot say something like “Well, folks we got a late push-back off the gate, so we’ll try to pick up some time in the air.” Question: If they can push the throttles forward a little and get more speed, why don’t they always do that? Why fly slow when you can fly fast? The answer, of course, lies in safety. The pilot has to maintain certain distances from other aircraft to avoid mishaps, and he also has to navigate around weather. There is never a guarantee that pilots can go faster, so they don’t advertise it. Furthermore, they have to consider how much more fuel it takes to run the engines “wide open.” It is a costly decision to fly faster, since it eats more fuel, and fuel is not cheap.

Logistics supervisors have many of the same things to consider. For example, even if an associate can operate at a much faster pace, is it advisable for him to do so? Is quality compromised at an excessively fast pace? Is safety jeopardized for that person or the employees nearby? What about exhaustion? Will the associate become overly fatigued early in the shift and become unproductive later on? How well a supervisor manages the pace of his employees is a key factor in producing a successful outcome.

Response time is critical
When things go wrong in a flight, they go from bad to worse pretty fast if the pilot doesn’t respond quickly. Pilots are trained (and evaluated) over and over and over again so they know how to (1) recognize a problem, (2) react quickly and isolate the problem so that it doesn’t cause further problems, and (3) resolve it by restoring the systems functionality or finding a suitable manner in which to overcome the system failure – finding a work-around solution.

What happens if a supervisor isn’t trained to recognize a problem? Well, the answer is obvious: The problem will continue and will likely cause significantly more trouble. If associates in one work area are underperforming for even a short period of time, for instance, they could cause huge workflow problems in other related work areas. The supervisor needs to react quickly to avoid a serious backup that could take hours to overcome. Can the problem be isolated to a person or a group of people? What can be done to restore the flow? Supervisors must be trained and evaluated regularly so they can avoid costly management mistakes.

Sometimes one has to declare an emergency
Occasionally a pilot gets into a situation that requires him to declare an emergency. Such a declaration does not remove the danger of the situation – it merely advises people on the ground of the circumstances the pilot is facing. Sometimes ground personnel can offer verbal assistance, but in the end, the pilot is still very much responsible for handling the situation.

Like an airline pilot, a logistics supervisor must know when a situation has reached a point where he must alert a senior supervisor or a site manager. While it is possible that the supervisor could receive some advice from his senior about what to do, the outcome still falls squarely on the supervisor’s shoulders. Communicating urgent issues early will minimize the shock factor and will provide senior leadership with the information needed to make crucial business decisions.

Every airline pilot has a first officer to assist
Flying the airplane, monitoring the flight and engine instruments, communicating with the air traffic controllers: There are a lot of things to do and a lot of decisions to be made when piloting a large aircraft. Aviators don’t try to do everything themselves; they have a well-qualified colleague sitting next to them to share the work load and to collaborate with when tough decisions need to be made.

Warehouse and distribution supervisors don’t usually have the “luxury” of having a colleague alongside them to share the load. They typically have to tackle it all themselves. That said, well-trained supervisors know how to tap all the resources available to them so that they can make the most informed decisions. Supervisors should not overlook the fact that someone in leadership, typically someone within telephone range, has probably faced a situation similar to the one they are experiencing right now, and the benefit of their experience could be helpful. Network, network, network.

To sum it up, good pilots and good logistics supervisors have a lot in common – they have been very well trained for the task, they know their environment, they pay close attention to detail, they communicate well, and they collaborate with their peers. Remember, whether you are looking to land an aircraft or supervise a team of associates in a fact-paced distribution center, your success is determined by the things you do every step of the way. Success does not just come down to the last minutes; it’s all in the approach.

Michael Droske is director of training for Long Grove, IL-based consultancy Tom Zosel Associates.