If your company has ever been slammed by waves of ongoing mergers and acquisitions, new competitors, regulatory change, and emerging technologies, you understand the challenge an uncertain future presents. One way that leading operators are “future proofing” their supply chains in the face of such change is by building a culture of frontline empowerment and innovation. This is, according to experts, a culture well suited to expectations of the millennial generation.
An important starting point in this process, according to Richard Sherman, author of Supply Chain Transformation: Practical Roadmap to Best Practice Results, is understanding the definition of innovation: make changes in something established, especially by introducing new methods, ideas, or products. He points out that people can make the mistake of thinking of innovation only in terms of disruptive change that it is instituted at a higher level in the organization, rather than in more modest innovations at the warehouse level that can help orders get stacked with a little more stability or loaded more quickly by reducing travel distance or touches.
For Sherman, the way to build that culture is through a focus on communication and creation of a common vision, in conjunction with an emphasis on professional development and skills. He points out that unless employees feel empowered, they are unlikely to step forward with great ideas.
When this employee focus is combined with analysis of what is going on in the world and best practices, these can be used to create organizational energy around innovation. “The ultimate goal is a company where innovation is “built in,” rather than “bolted on”- where it is instinctive for every individual, and intrinsic to the organization itself,” write Gary Hamel and Nancy A. Tennant, in The 5 Requirements of a Truly Innovative Company.
Some of their tips include:
- Knowing how to distinguish between “ingrained beliefs” and “immutable laws” in order to challenge practices that do not add value. In warehouses where there has been limited exposure to other methods, there is typically no shortage of ingrained beliefs to be challenged.
- Identifying new opportunities that are already emerging elsewhere to implement at your location. “To be an innovator,” the authors write, “you don’t need a crystal ball: you need a wide-angle lens.” At the warehouse level, common ways to uncover best practices elsewhere include reading trade publications or visiting different facilities. Take advantage of tours at trade conferences or elsewhere. The Canadian Material Handling & Distribution Society, for example, provides regular warehouse tours to its members.
- Identifying “unarticulated” needs. Customers, both internal and external, come with their own beliefs, and so beyond listening to their concerns, it may be more instructive to observe the process and identify sources of frustration or waste. Being an innovator requires a relentless curiosity.
“If your company is really serious about building an innovation engine,” Hamel and Tennant conclude, “then it needs to upgrade everyone’s innovation skills, agree on what counts as innovation, establish comprehensive metrics, hold leaders accountable for innovation, and retool its management processes so they foster innovation everywhere, all the time. These can’t be isolated initiatives; they must work in harmony.”