CSCMP’s New England Roundtable recently visited Walgreens’ New England distribution center near Hartford, Connecticut. Following a presentation by Scott Sylvester, the Distribution Center Manager, we received a tour of this highly-automated facility. The material handling systems in the DC are truly an amazing piece of engineering.
However, even more amazing, is Walgreens’ track record in productively employing people with disabilities at this facility and a similar one located in South Carolina.
Walgreens made a corporate commitment that over a third of the workforce at this facility would have physical or cognitive disabilities. All team members are paid the same amount and have the same benefits package. The state is not paying any subsidies for employing people with disabilities.
But this is not charity; it’s business. Team members with disabilities are held to the same work standards as all other employees.
How do they accomplish this?
- The systems are designed to help people with various challenges. For example, there are computers at the workstations with highly visual diagrams of the work that needs to be accomplished. There are red/yellow/green lights and simple icons on the PCs that show whether labor productivity is on target. There is clever error proofing built into their pick-to-light systems. There are switches that could be thrown to call for a manager if a problem comes up. These accommodations, however, benefit everyone.
- If you match the right person to the right job, disabilities can become abilities, or even super abilities. For example, folks with certain types of compulsive disorders have the ability to pay great attention to detail. There are jobs that require this level of attention.
- There is no “us and them.” They preach this and live it. For example, only the Career Outreach Coordinator knows which team members have disabilities. The managers don’t need to know unless a worker is not performing as expected. If that happens, the appropriate manager is informed so that they are better equipped to coach that employee. Scott mentioned that working in this environment makes you largely blind to disabilities. For the most part, he only becomes aware of workers with disabilities when groups like ours come in to tour the facility. In short, “this is a culture, not a program. Programs have a beginning and an end.”
- The management team reviews everyone’s performance every two weeks. Questions like “What is going on with Scott?” get raised. “He was struggling. Did the coaching work?”
- If applicants need help filling out a job form, they can ask for assistance and get it.
- They have a partner that specializes in training people with disabilities. The partner has a training program that lasts nine weeks where potential hires are trained in job readiness, interpersonal skills, and similar work skills. There is no cost for this program. Many of the graduates then move into a nine week program where they learn how to do the actual work they will be doing. These folks are paid similar to temps. The DC has a large training room with the actual machines and workstations they will be using in the DC. Trainees that successfully graduate from this program then go on the standard nine week probationary program. Clearly, having the right partner is critical to success.
- Think about transportation issues. Because this is a big facility employing a lot of people, they were able to encourage local governments to add them as a bus stop.
- When you approach this kind of a program in a big way, accommodations are surprisingly inexpensive. Their average accommodation costs them less than $500 per person.
- Early hires should be “Rock Stars; they should have a great attitude; that type of person sells the program.” Nevertheless, even with rock stars, you will need to face a worker’s fears with education. And managers will never have all the answers. They will become “experts” through experience.
- Finally, never give in on holding everyone accountable. Don’t relax your standards.
What have the results been?
- 40 percent of their employees have disclosed to them that they have a disability. They believe they also have people working for who have a disability but have not disclosed that fact.
- Many of the team members with disabilities value their jobs far more than the typical employee. It gave some a chance to contribute and be recognized, something that, sadly, had been missing for much of their lives. There is significantly lower turnover than average at this facility; folks are less likely to call in sick; there is better adherence to safety standards and processes (if you say “you have to walk between these lines,” employees do it); and when teams are needed for continuous improvement exercises, there is never a lack of volunteers.
- Based on the automation, the facility was designed to be 20 percent more productive than older DCs. They have met their productivity targets. This productivity is not being achieved at the cost of accuracy.
- It has increased the leadership skills of their managers. It is easy for a manager to think that a worker is just not trying. At this facility, based on this work force, that is not the assumption. Managers consequently become much more adept at trying to understand how employees think, what motivates them, and how to communicate clearly.
For me, this tour and what I learned was inspirational. Walgreens just became my pharmacy of choice.