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Essential Skills for Warehouse Managers

A skills toolbox to help move your company—and career—forward

Warehousing Inquiry

warehouse manager in a pallet rack aisle

It’s demanding to manage a warehouse, distribution, plant floor, manufacturing or order processing facility.

There are time constraints, labor shortages, long hours, and demands from both customers and management. The phone rings a lot with all kinds of issues. For warehouse managers, today’s age of rapid e-commerce order fulfillment, rising customer expectations, new technologies and regulatory issues have made the job more complex than ever. What specific skill sets should you cultivate as a manager?

Focus on what matters

It’s just fact: you can’t control all aspects of a busy warehouse (or anything else). You are pulled in many directions simultaneously, and the ability to focus on the most important tasks at the right time is something that you can develop to become a great career asset. There are good books on the subject of prioritization, including Gary Keller’s The One Thing, which teaches that there is typically one thing that can either solve other issues or make them easier to solve.

Cultivate a good team

In warehousing and distribution, one of the most pressing issues is labor and a lack of it, particularly in many markets where new eCommerce or omnichannel distribution competitors are stressing the labor pool. Hiring good people is harder than ever.

Labor stress was the #6 most pressing issue for warehouse managers in the 2017 Logistics Management Survey. The ability to hire, train and retain quality people is critical. Are your management and employee relations skills as honed as your functional ones? As a manager, you’ll find that everything tends to fall into place better when your team is satisfied—and not inclined to leave you for fifty cent an hour raise.

Related: Can your DC  Thrive in a Tight Labor Market

Your ability to train and develop everyone from line side order pickers to assistant managers will dictate your success. Don’t be afraid to develop a team concept and accept that people on the line know more than you do. If they believe that you are listening and engaged, they will make your job easier. Listen to them and help them produce. It’s probably the most productive (and most difficult) thing on this list.

Communicate effectively

In many facilities, you may face a language barrier. If for instance, a large percentage of your labor force are Spanish speaking, have you made efforts to improve your skills? Even without language barriers, you should cultivate communications skills. Your workers will tend to be younger and less inclined to respond to phone calls than they are texts. Make sure you can clearly understand their concerns, and that they can understand your requirements.

Understand the relevant technology

You don’t have to be a computer geek, but you need to understand technology to succeed.

There was a day when warehouse managers simply had to be able to ensure the flow of goods manually. These days, most operations are utilizing WMS, ERP, and mobile technology to run their operations. They use voice and light directed picking systems, warehouse control systems, safety software, barcode systems, automated equipment and more. Even if you don’t use these systems daily yourself (except perhaps for reporting), you should keep up to date on the ways your people use them. You must understand the process and software solutions your team uses.

Beyond that, to move forward in your career, you should be in touch with potential future solutions and potential new technologies like robotics, blockchain systems, drones, voice systems and more. Technology solutions are moving quickly and you should be aware of them. Make friends with your IT department. They can help you in many ways.

Identify and partner with good vendor partners

You’ll be solicited by salespeople from every type of provider—probably quite often—in a distribution management job. It can wear you out and consume lots of time you don’t always have, but sometimes those calls are worth taking.

You won’t have time to speak with everyone, but you should find ways to engage with a supplier who can make your life easier or improve your company’s performance when the opportunity strikes. When you take these calls, listen for people who get to the point and offer value up front. Finding someone who can help you define new processes that deliver results is a quick ticket to promotion. That means that you should take that cold call from the latest packaging, material handling, consultant or maintenance salesperson once in a while, even if you’re satisfied with your current condition. That call might save you big money or help you solve a difficult problem. It might help make you aware of new ideas or technologies you can put to good use.

Look for vendors who have a problem-solving mindset, and who don’t try to pitch you low prices from the start. Saving money is fine, but improving processes is lots better. These are the vendors who can truly add value for your company and your career. Management might not remember 5% saved on purchase price, but everyone appreciates long term quality and problem solving.

Rely on and utilize the right metrics

If you are running a tight ship and things are getting done, you should be able to express that success with numbers. This goes beyond the typical late shipment or error rates that most every warehouse operation utilizes. You should have metrics on the deep dive numbers that can prove you’re providing real value.

See a guide to warehouse performance indicators

Deep-dive numbers not only help you prove performance to management—they help you improve the operation. These might include putaway rates, short picks, returns process, labor efficiency, storage effectiveness, and safety. You don’t have to be a statistician to do this, but you should cultivate reporting systems that help you get there. Also, see “5 Key Warehouse Performance Metrics” for more ideas.

Engage in skills training, conferences and networking opportunities

Take the opportunity to join organizations such as WERC (the warehousing education and research council), which puts you in touch with people who do this for a living and face the same issues you do. Particularly if you have an active local chapter, it can be invaluable. Conferences are available on a range of topics, including reverse logistics,  omnichannel & ecommerce distribution, parcel shipping & handling, cold supply chain, and more. Other worthwhile groups and conferences exist, including ProMat, Pack Expo, and safety organizations. There are sometimes industry-specific groups for various types of companies as well.

Many of these shows feature breakout sessions, informative keynotes and extensive exhibit floors where you can find new ideas and connect with leading vendors.

If you find yourself at Modex 2018 in Atlanta, make sure and visit the Cisco-Eagle booth.

Finding ways to add value is what it’s all about

In your journey to improve your company, you’ll often find chances to enhance your career along the way. It’s a win-win for you and your company if you can learn, increase and increase your value.

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Scott Stone is Cisco-Eagle's Vice President of Marketing with more than thirty years of experience in material handling, warehousing and industrial operations. His work is published in multiple industry journals an websites on a variety of warehousing topics. He writes about automation, warehousing, safety, manufacturing and other areas of concern for industrial operations and those who operate them.

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