Finding your voice

Voice-directed work can provide a serious boost to productivity, accuracy, safety and job satisfaction in distribution centers. How do you get the best results when implementing the technology? It helps to simultaneously plan for the people side of a voice deployment.

You can take many approaches to address the human factor of the equation in voice deployment. But you should start by involving front-line and union management up front.

Why? Because they give supervisors the necessary background and training so that they can teach employees the new skills. And they actively elicit and consider employee feedback early on, recognizing that front-line workers are closest to the work.

If you overlook crucial people issues, any new type of implementation can run up against employee resistance, union roadblocks, training inefficiencies and delayed ROI. This can in turn damage employee trust, destroy management credibility and waste financial resources.

The deployment approach and internal issues with voice-directed technology can vary greatly between countries, companies, DCs, and workers. But there are general guidelines that companies can follow in order to avoid potential “people” issues. Here are 11 tips to help make your voice deployment a success.

  1. Identify a project champion

    Developing a voice implementation team typically starts with identifying a champion — someone to spearhead the project. This leader must be someone who understands the strategic benefits of voice and has the cross-functional authority and responsibility to manage the installation, training and deployment.

    The champion should also be an effective communicator who is not only respected by DC personnel, but also has the ear of the executive management team.

  2. Create an implementation team

    You absolutely need a cross-functional approach when deploying voice. In addition to having a high-level voice champion, an ideal team includes the DC operations director or manager, the IT director, local IT support, logistics personnel and trainers.

    Regardless of the size and scope of the deployment, the voice supplier should provide extensive service and support options to address client needs.

  3. Recruit front-line supervisors

    Involve supervisors from every shift in the implementation and rollout to ensure the entire DC operation is represented, which is important in gaining employee acceptance.

    Not only do supervisors have the ability to “sell” the concept of voice to their employees, they are also the ideal people to train workers on how to use the new system.

    Make sure to involve front-line supervisors early, because most DC personnel involved with monitoring production are not inherently pro-voice. Often, they believe that the changes will not benefit their production, and because of this, they may make it difficult for voice providers to train the trainers.

  4. Involve end-users in the process

    Organizations can face employee resistance in any change effort, including a voice deployment. Employees can fear losing their jobs, worry about safety issues, or it could simply be resistance to change in general.

    To counter this resistance, internal champions should be influential employees who adapt to change easily and can talk up the benefits of voice to their peers. When you recruit workforce opinion leaders and convince them that voice will allow them to do their jobs more easily and accurately, the word will naturally spread.

  5. Get support from the human resources department

    Although human resources professionals are not typically heavily involved in voice implementations, it’s wise to keep the corporate HR staff apprised of the implementation. You want to determine early on if they have any services that can help smooth the transition to voice.

    Potential areas of HR involvement include train-the-trainer efforts, as well as assistance with change management. Especially in large multinational corporations, the HR operation has lots of tools and tactics for helping employees with change. HR should also understand the many health and safety benefits of voice.

  6. Collaborate with union representatives

    In unionized companies, it’s crucial to involve union representatives early in the process to gain their support and commitment to voice. Typically, unions will have the same concerns about safety, change and job loss as employees.

    You must address those safety concerns up front to assure them that employees will not lose their jobs because of increased efficiencies, and that production credits won’t be lost in the transition from paper to voice.

    If unions and employees do not receive adequate communication, they may fill their information gaps with erroneous perceptions instead of the facts.

  7. Communicate early and often with employees

    Once you’ve put together your implementation team, it’s time to start informing employees about the changes that are on the way.

    Associated Wholesale Grocers, a large grocery wholesaler, uses our Vocollect Voice in seven DCs. Richard B. Vastine, Jr., corporate director of industrial engineering, says two people-related issues contributed to its success: 1) the company had buy-in from the operations people early-on and, 2) employees readily accepted the new system. It also helped quite a bit that the company did a lot of up-front advertising to alert DC teams to the upcoming changes and prepare employees for the change, Vastine says.

  8. Teach employees using a train-the-trainer approach

    Once your employees are aware of the changes created by a voice deployment, you can begin to train them on using the system. Just make sure there are enough trainers in place to roll out the training in a timely fashion.

  9. Partner with your voice provider

    The best voice suppliers have proven expertise with voice deployments and experience with many installations. Providers should have a time-tested methodology that incorporates many tools and processes to help companies with their implementations.

    These services can include posters, DVD training materials, quick reference cards, and other items to communicate the upcoming change to employees, as well as training programs packaged to meet specific customer requirements.

  10. Train managers/supervisors on how to use voice data as a management tool

    Managers and supervisors will also need training on how to maximize the use of the new voice technology, since these systems provide real-time productivity data that allows supervisors to proactively manage workflow.

    If productivity is lagging in certain areas, use system information to reassign workers and track performance. This allows DC leaders to make better decisions about how to use and reassign labor throughout the shift.

  11. Reward and reinforce performance improvements

    Many companies have in the past been frustrated by their inability to orchestrate fully equitable incentive programs because they didn’t have accurate individual employee performance data. Voice-directed work enables you to change this situation by helping you measure, monitor and reward employee productivity.

Because companies can track employees from assignment to assignment, as well as from task to task, they are better able to monitor employee progress, share improvement data with them and create performance incentives.

Establishing a cross-functional implementation team, anticipating employee, union and supervisor resistance, and communicating the change well in advance will lay the groundwork for voice success. And once you’ve settled on a system, on-site peer training and rewarding employees for adopting the new system can help you realize the promise and potential of voice more quickly.

Larry Sweeney is cofounder/vice president of product management of Vocollect (, a Pittsburgh-based voice-directed technology provider.