It was 8:00am on the first day of my monthly visit to our client’s distribution center. I walked in and immediately found the DC manager who exclaimed, “The warehouse has filled the receiving docks with product and is beginning to receive on the loading dock. If this continues the warehouse we will go into gridlock. Then no stores will get their orders!”

With daily deliveries to 200 stores this was a serious situation. Fortunately the crisis was averted but the system problem remained — buyers don’t plan purchases and deliveries with the warehouse people. The result can be a sudden arrival of fifteen truckloads at full docks. The receiving clerk can’t refuse the drivers with truckloads of fresh food. He diverts the trucks to shipping. This soon leads to gridlock.

The Underlying Problem — Poor Relationships

Communications between buyers and the warehouse are rarely good. Buyers see themselves as royalty and their suppliers want to keep them feeling that way. If you sell meat to a company with 200 supermarkets you will do what it takes to keep that buyer ordering your brand of hamburgers. You will treat him as royalty and soon the buyer will believe it. The warehouse receiving clerk, having tried to talk with the buyer before and been rebuffed, soon gives up on directly solving his problem. They take the bureaucratic solution, going up the chain of command.

The clerk calls her supervisor who calls her superintendent who calls the manager who calls the director who calls the SVP who calls his EVP who talks across to the marketing EVP who tells his VP to talk with the buyer. Going up and back down the chain of command takes time. Messages get distorted and only the receiving clerk, actually has the problem. The clerk is the only one truly motivated by those fifteen extra truckloads. Only later, if the problem expands and the warehouse starts to lock up, does the warehouse manager have a problem.

Keep any problem with the person who has it. That person is both motivated and has the best information about the problem. Here we needed to create a situation where the buyer and receiving clerk could jointly plan purchases and deliveries. That means the buyer has to see the clerk as a peer. The clerk has to see the buyer as approachable They must have a productive relationship and communicate well with each other They need to see that they are in the same boat. The buyer thinks he doesn’t have a problem, but the receiving clerk needs the buyer’s help to solve his dock problem.

Middle Managers Also Had to Change

The middle managers had rethink their traditional roles in the chain of command. They had to be informed of the major boundary crossing—the clerk talking to the buyer—but understand how not to get involved and not take the problem away from the clerk. This was a major struggle for some, who largely defined themselves by their ability to take on other’s problems.

Once we clearly understood who had the problem we initiated a process where people from many levels and areas re-considered their role. They became aware of how they inadvertently undermined problem solving. They learned ways to keep problems where they belonged and where they could be solved simply and quickly before growing into disasters.

Don’t Take Problems — Do Support Solutions!

John, the manager of a Southern California regional warehouse with several hundred employees wanted his managers to discuss their problems and ideas with him. He knew that by asking questions, not making statements or giving answers, his managers would welcome these discussions. This would maintain their creativity and responsibility.

John was there for his managers. He was dependable without creating dependency. Here are a few of the many questions John developed:

  • “Can you describe what happened?”
  • “Tell me more about the problem. . . . . . . . . What’s behind that?”
  • “Whose problem is it?”
  • “Who else is affected by this problem? . . . . . .How could you involve them?”
  • “Do we know what the problem costs us?”
  • “What will solving it save us? (What is the value added?)”
  • “How does this fit with our long-range plans?”
  • “What can I do to help you move this along?”
  • “When will you get back to me about your progress?”

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