I had never watched an episode of the popular television show “Undercover Boss,” but when I saw in a commercial that they were taking their cameras inside a warehouse, I decided to tune in. Sam Taylor, the CEO of Oriental Trading Company (OTC), posed as a new warehouse employee. OTC is the nation’s largest direct-to-consumer retailer of party supplies. Direct-to-consumer distribution centers (DCs) require a high volume of unit picks, unlike most other DCs that specialize in case and pallet picking.
I watched the show as a logistician. Initially, I was impressed. This was a highly-automated warehouse with miles of conveyors, advanced sortation systems, and pack stations.
The first task Sam is given is to pick oversize items that are too large for their conveyors. Sam is directed by a voice recognition system, Lucas Systems’ Jennifer solution, to the correct slot where he picks the item, confirms the pick verbally to the Jennifer system, and puts the item on the cart. Voice recognition is a proven hands-free technology that can speed picking.
But the Jennifer system was giving commands at such a high rate that it sounded like gibberish to me. I had no idea these systems could be cranked up to such a ridiculous pace. Sam was overwhelmed by the system, as any new employee would be.
The pace violates a key axiom of fair labor practices. The goal of a fair labor management system is to get employees to work at a steady pace consistently throughout the course of the day. Engineered labor standards are developed to ensure that if a picker works efficiently and steadily, they can hit their goal for the day. Often companies will give bonuses to workers if they can work faster than the standard pace. OTC has a bonus structure. However, it appeared to me that the standard pace developed by OTC was not based on engineered labor standards.
Sam next gets to work as a truck loader. The trucks were floor loaded to ensure the trailer space was fully utilized. This is hot, physical work. It can also be dangerous. People that work this job are particularly apt to get back injuries because they are constantly stooping to put items on the floor and stretching to stack items near the ceiling. Sam actually had to jump to put items on top of the stack he was building.
The other thing that contributes to injuries is that a truck loader does not know the weight of the package he is about to lift. One package might weigh 5 pounds, the next 50 pounds. If the loader knew a package was heavy, he could prepare his muscles for that movement and the task would be safer.
The ergonomics involved in loading these trucks was terrible, but so is the ergonomics of every floor loading environment I have ever seen. The CEO spent some time talking to Andrew, his mentor for this task. Andrew had worked in this department for years and was a middle-aged man. I was amazed; Andrew is clearly a force of nature.
When their shift is over, Andrew invites Sam to shoot pool. On the way out they pass through the break room. Sam sees coolers full of sports drinks, but they’re locked. Providing these drinks to workers used to be standard practice, but the company stopped because of financial difficulties. The warehouse is based in Omaha. It is summer and most warehouses, including this one, do not have air conditioning. At his next stop, a pack station, an employee named Kim tells Sam that she fainted once. She brings her own water bottle since the company cut back on drinks.
At the end of the show, the CEO does the big reveal to the employees he worked with. He is not really a warehouse temp, he is the CEO of the company. The policy on sports drinks will change. He will put in more ceiling fans to cool the warehouse. He also increases the base pay for truck loaders because he realizes the job is especially demanding. He lavishes tens of thousands of dollars on the workers he interacted with so that viewers will feel good about him and his company.
But perhaps the most significant policy change he announces is requiring every corporate manager to spend a week a year working in the warehouse to get an idea about the work environment. I can’t help but think that if this policy had been in place all along, some of the glaring weaknesses he was exposed to would have been corrected long ago.