Warehousing, especially third-party logistics (3PL) warehousing, is an extremely dynamic environment. Seasonal shifts, supply chain factors, labor factors, customer attrition/addition, etc. can all have major impacts on operations within a warehouse. At a foundational level, the ultimate hedge against uncertainty are rock solid processes. But where do these processes live? Is it Jim, the GM, that “knows all the ins and outs?” Or is it Carol, the floor lead, that “can tell you where every client’s products are in every square inch of the warehouse?” The problem in both cases is that these core processes can live in certain individuals brains and not be known to anyone else—something called “tribal knowledge.”
The Problem with Tribal Knowledge
Tribal knowledge often gets overlooked in warehouses because let’s face it—it’s great to know you can rely on certain individuals to carry the torch in certain scenarios. That being said, tribal knowledge also poses an outsized risk to any 3PL’s business. What happens when those team members leave the company, get sick, or are moved to different divisions/locations within the company? When they’re gone, so too is their knowledge.
Tribal knowledge can also take the form of “protective measures.” Ever hear someone say: “oohhh yea, that’s gonna be a job for Sally, she’s the only one that knows how to do that?” Turns out, maybe Sally is hiding that process because the process really isn’t the best, but Sally feels her job is threatened by a new process being put in place.
In both scenarios, tribal knowledge can become massive time and revenue sucks in an industry where time and revenue are of the utmost importance.
So it’s clear that processes need to be documented: check. But what if you don’t even have a handle on your processes in the first place? The best place to start is at the ground level with onboarding (this applies to both customers and employees). Processes should be simple, concise, and easy to interpret across the entire organization. One exercise that warehouses can go through is a “mock onboarding” or walking through an onboarding schedule as if you or a member of your team were a new hire and/or new customer. Walk around with a voice recorder or note pad to transcribe all of the information given. From there you can begin to build the beginnings of a process document(s).
In addition to ease of interpretation, process documentation should also only cover the common denominators within the warehouse. Specific customers, industries, seasons, verticals, etc. will all dictate different processes, but those should come in the form of standard operating procedures (SOPs) based on those specific factors. The purpose of the broader, general process documentation is to ensure that there is a foundational system of record for the organization at large. If you get too specific with clients and projects, you run the risk of overcomplicating the process document(s).
With the base process document in place, the next step is to determine a cadence for update. As mentioned, warehousing is incredibly dynamic. While processes should look to hedge against this variability, there will ultimately come a point where certain processes become outdated. By setting a cadence for update, you can at least know that processes are being refined/confirmed on a semi-regular basis.
This responsibility should be a shared one, with all relevant departments and stakeholders involved in the review process. The goal again should be that processes are agreed upon and understood across the organization to avoid any ambiguity come crunch time.
While process documentation won’t be the silver bullet to hedge against uncertainty, it will certainly help. Begin with understanding where tribal knowledge lives, understand everyday processes, document them in a shared location, and consistently review them.