Can Putting FUN Your Environment Make a Process More Effective?

Work and fun are like oil and water.  No matter how hard you stir them together, they always separate from each other.  At work, we need to be professional, focused, and serious in following our processes.  Does FUN make us more productive or effective?

I was engaged to improve a shipping process that would basically create a formula to tell the shipping team which orders to pick and pack.  Sounds simple, right?  The biggest problem was that boxes were packed based on the customer’s status (platinum, gold, silver, bronze).  A customer’s status was determined by the total sales volume for the previous year.  There was a manual work around put in place to support this new program.  A member of the shipping team would look at all the orders coming in and manually sort them into piles for each customer status.

The solution was to have the system prioritize orders by the customer’s status, stop printing out orders as they came in for shipment, and have shipping team members print pick/pack orders on demand instead of having a printer spew out reams of paper that would be sorted into piles.  A touch screen was put in place to make printing pick/pack orders on demand easier for the Shipping team members.  When they were ready to start a new pick/pack order, a Shipping team member would stop by the touch screen, touch a single button on the screen, and the next prioritized order in the queue would be printed.  The shipping team member would complete the pick/pack order and bring it to the appropriate shipping station (FEDEX, USPS, UPS, or DHL).  A quick scan of the pick/pack order bar code and the shipping label would be printed.

Removing the manual process of printing orders and sorting them into piles was eliminated, hours were saved by not having to manually sort, and team members were freed up to handle shipping more pick/pack orders.  The overall impact was that the cycle time to ship a platinum customer’s order was reduced by 50%.  Awesome!  Then we got the bad news – after one month the cycle time returned to the previous level.  Something had gone wrong in the process and system.  We needed to investigate.

The IT team went back to the warehouse to perform a GEMBA.   We stayed out of the Shipping team’s way, watched throughout the day as they interacted with the system and avoided making any comments to them by letting them we wanted to see how it works first before answering any questions or making suggestions.  We timed the system response time.  The response time was exactly as it was a month ago. The printers were also timed and we discovered they were printing faster than a month ago.  We were confused.  There didn’t seem to be a system solution that would get the cycle time reduced.  It wasn’t until we sat down with the shipping team at lunch and answered a few questions on the system that we noticed something we had not seen before.  They were bored.  Well you’re not paid to have fun, right?  The IT team thought they could try to figure out a better process by pick packing a few orders themselves.  After 3 hours of picking and packing orders, they to missed the previous cycle time targets and quickly got bored.

The next morning, the IT team had a debrief on the issue.  We thoughtfully went through the process metrics and results.  We double checked the timings and system performance.  Finally, someone that was with my team in the warehouse said, “It’s just a boring job.”  “Well you are not paid to have fun,” was the response.  But one thing was clear, in our efforts to streamline the process we forgot about the environment the Shipping team was working in and how important that environment was to the effectiveness process.

We sat down with the shipping team’s leadership and had a great conversation on how to make the environment better.  Leadership let us know the team had been asking for the ability to play music.  The shipping team was not allowed to have ear buds or head phones playing music because they would not be able to hear the fork lifts and other equipment operating around them.  We had some funding and put in speakers around the warehouse for playing music.  The entire shipping team didn’t have the same taste in music.  The music they liked ranged from soft jazz all the way to slasher heavy metal.

We then made it a contest.  The team member that can pack/pick the most items for shipping could then select the music channel. That got a lot of excitement.  My team created a simple change to the touch screen.  We added 3 boxes to the screen that indicated the top 3 team members and the total number of items that team member picked/packed.  When the pick/pack order was scanned to print the shipping label, the count of items on that pick/pack order would be added to the team members daily total.  The screen was constantly being updated by either hitting refresh or hitting the button to print a new pick/pack order.

There was quite the competition to get control over the music.  Every hour the shipping team lead would huddle the team together and announce the winner.  The music station would change to the winner’s choice of music station.  The result?  Cycle times went down – way down!

We spent a lot of time with the shipping team focused on improving the environment.  Music was the first thing we accomplished but we also made other changes.  We added a 72-inch HD TV that was set to ESPN to get sports scores throughout the day.  Shipping team members could wear jeans and didn’t have to wear a standard uniform.  After these changes were implemented you could see and feel the change in the Shipping team.  They were less bored and more positive.

The result was we could reduce the cycle time by 70%. It was at this point we figured it out. The work environment does matter. We all need the right environment to operate the most effectively as we can.