Manager and Operator Communication

What Warehouse Managers Can Learn From Their Forklift Operators

Sep 30, 2016
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Your operators can tell you a lot about your warehouse operation. And poor managers -- at the least the ones that have a top-down disposition -- don’t listen to their workers. But it is at their peril. Good leaders listen and “serve” their workers.

Research shows that when a manager act as a “servant” to their employees, it’s good for business. The research, published in the Academy of Management Journal in 2014, found measurable increases in job performance and employee retention. Employees feel valued and give back to the company when their managers create a culture of trust, caring, cooperation, fairness and empathy.

And what is the easiest way to do that? Start by listening to your employees. In the warehouse that, of course is your material handling operators.

The people who work for and around you in your warehouse are part of your efficiency mechanism.They see daily operational details that you don’t, because they are on the ground up close and personal with each pick and each pallet.

Most of them also want to be heard, because when they are listened to by you, and you implement their best ideas, their jobs get easier and are more fulfilling.  In some warehouses, workers seldom get an opportunity to have their opinions and observations heard.

To that end, here are six issues your operators wish you would look at and consider in your warehouse facility. Check these ideas against your own team and see if they resonate in your facility.  

1. Everyone should be trained. Operators have been trained so they conduct their duties in a professional manner, mixing safety with maximum efficiency. The problem is that when employees and pedestrian visitors transit through the warehouse, without respecting safety rules and with no understanding of the caution required to be safe, it creates a dangerous scenario for both them and for operators. To prevent accidents - and to ensure your workers’ safety - be sure to take aside everyone who is untrained and brief them on safety procedures before they enter your warehouse.

2.  Recognize the pros. Operators take pride in their work. Operating a forklift is not an easy task. They want to recognized for their skill and their professionalism. Whether it’s an occasional encouraging word from their manager or more formal recognition, they appreciate being recognized for good and safe work.

3. Remedy those that aren’t professional. Operators also want those workers who fall short of safety, professionalism and efficiency to be brought into line or removed. They want their coworkers to raise their level of work to a high team standard, and for everyone to be held to account. That could mean conducting extra productivity audits or even administering additional drug tests. Your operators have engaged in hours of training and they have earned their certification well. They are proud of their achievements and consider it worthwhile for the safety of everyone in the warehouse. Putting someone who doesn’t operate at the same level in the operator position is disrespectful and dangerous to everyone. Ferret out the under-performers and replace them or train them into good practices so the warehouse team can win together.

4. We love new forklifts, but not because they are shiny. Lift truck operators will almost never turn down the opportunity to drive a brand new forklift with that new lift truck smell. Upgrading equipment has many more practical benefits than might seem apparent. Access to new forklifts means access to new and updated technology. New trucks offer new efficiencies as well as higher productivity. For the operator, the frustration factor is massively lowered if they don’t have to worry about the operational capability or shortcoming of an older truck. They just do their job and the truck becomes a fitted tool, as opposed to an encumbrance (at least in the case of older less reliable equipment).  New forklifts mean additional safety features that are higher quality. They mean less maintenance, less downtime and decreased frustration for the operators that drive them. Investing in new trucks is an investment in your operator team.

5.  Harmonize pallets and forklifts.  Lift truck operators really don’t like pallets that hang over racking. They get frustrated when they have to wait for other fork trucks to clear an aisle because the racking configuration is a poor match for the forklifts being used. The rack salesperson and the lift-truck salesperson should be working together to ensure that your warehouse is well-planned out. Or use a materials handling dealer that can understands both.

6. Light our way. Overhead lighting in a warehouse is a must. That said perfect ambiance may not always be possible in every corner of a warehouse facility, however operating in poor lighting conditions because of damaged or broken lights is not safe. These should be fixed as soon as possible. Operating a forklift in dim or inconsistent lighting conditions can be dangerous and increases operator stress. Moving a pallet to and from a 30-foot rack is not an easy task in poor lighting conditions. Light operator workspace for maximum safety and efficiency.

What actions warehouse managers can take

Conduct interviews with your operators and see if any of these six common concerns and issues are on the minds of your warehouse team. There will be other things that your workers will want you to know. Some will be valuable, others less so. (You be the judge.) If your warehouse operation could be more efficient, better run, or safer, your employees will be able to tell you. They may have solutions you have not thought about or have ideas that can remedy issues without massive investment. Sometimes small actions create big results.

Talk with your team as a whole, engage with them privately one on one, and optionally institute anonymous communication methods for employee tips, so that you can listen to what they have to say. What you hear back will be insightful, valuable and even surprising. And your operators will feel heard and appreciated. That, in the end, will result in higher job satisfaction, a better place to work and maximized safety and efficiency in your warehouse.

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