Managing the Critical Role of the Warehouse Supervisor

Training needs evolve as warehouse supervisors take on increasingly complex supervisory functions.

This article describes the changing role of warehouse supervisors, their competencies, job requirements, and training needs. It presents five key takeaways for managers. The data stems from an original research project conducted by the authors and funded by the former Council of Logistics Management, now the Council of Supply Chain Management Professionals. The project represented, at the time, the largest grant in the history of the Council and was completed in 1999.

Photo: Dries

The warehouse is a core logistics activity, one that cannot be entirely automated away-at least not in the near future. Warehouse employees’ jobs are changing to incorporate more duties once associated with other logistics activities, especially purchasing, inventory control, and customer service. Specifically, warehouse supervisors need detailed knowledge of operating tasks along with significant management skills. Warehouse supervisors’ jobs now span organizational levels and are critical to the performance of the logistics and warehouse operation.

These changes alter the way firms hire, train, and develop warehouse supervisors. They demand more education, better training, and frequently updated training for the people who take these critical jobs. What firms once neglected or left to chance must now be managed carefully so that these critical members of the logistics team can deliver effective, efficient warehouse performance. These are the people who oversee operations “on the ground.”

To better understand these changes, the authors undertook a multifunctional, multi-organizational job classification study, the first of its kind. In this study, the researchers took a sample of logistics jobs and established a baseline for evaluating job changes in the future as well as for current job requirements and training needs. Through interviews and additional surveys the authors attempted to put the job classification findings into a broader context. This article focuses on the growth and development of one job family-warehouse supervisors.

The article is divided into two parts. The first part features the methodology used in the study, a summary of the key findings and takeaways, and a description of warehouse supervisors, their competencies, job requirements, and training needs. The second part discusses five key findings to consider when developing a training approach. It concludes with a summary of the recommendations.

Common Metric Questionnaire (CMQ)

To gather data, the Common Metric Questionnaire (CMQ), a descriptive survey of logistics human resources practice, was used along with formal and informal interviews. From 43 logistics organizations, 632 responses to the Common Metric Questionnaire (CMQ) were received. The sample was a selected convenience sample and the 43 organizations included manufacturers, asset-based third parties, non-asset-based third parties, retailers, and financial institutions. Companies ranged in size from 15 to more than 100,000 employees. The researchers visited 65 sites in 20 states to gather data. They also conducted 35 formal interviews with top managers and more than 200 informal interviews with managers, supervisors, and operating employees. Also, 192 companies responded to the descriptive newsletter sent to them by the researchers.

CMQ: Description and Administration

The CMQ boasts a validation database of over 100,000 observations on 8,000 job families. The CMQ is comprised of more than 3,000 items, although each subject was likely to address only a subset of that total. Responses to the CMQ reveal critical knowledge and skills for job performance, the frequency with which these skills are used, and the ways in which skills and knowledge were obtained. The responses also show job activities, such as attending meetings, lifting heavy objects, and interacting with people inside and outside the firm. These results fall into four domains, 80 dimensions, and 17 second-order factors. This detailed questionnaire helps determine competencies, job requirements, and training needs for each job family in the analysis. Questionnaire items also cover demographics, job basics, and knowledge requirements.

The CMQ is rarely used in academic research because of its length and the potential impact on response rates, however, it addresses issues identified in the literature as critical: identifying and recruiting the right people and finding and identifying the right training.[1] The information it generates allows a firm to build better training systems, lower human resources costs through better recruiting and retention, and lower operating costs with better-prepared employees.[2] The information is vital to organizations of many sizes, including small businesses.[3] The CMQ gives managers the depth of information they need to make good decisions and helps them create legally defensible job descriptions with only four or five observations per job classification.

Data Analysis

The data were analyzed using the Common Metric System (CMS), a proprietary system coupled with the CMQ. CMS clusters the data into job families based on the responses the researchers selected for inclusion in the analysis. Initially, seven a priori job families or clusters were identified: senior management, logistics information systems, warehousing, material and inventory control, transportation, purchasing, and customer service. Three researchers assigned each response to these fields with a first-time classification inter-rater correlation of 0.95. Researchers then worked with the exception responses to reach consensus, ultimately producing an inter-rater correlation of 1.00.

The pre-classified responses were then put in a cluster analysis by job family. A job was retained in a classification only if its joint correlation with the other responses was 0.70 or higher. In this way, researchers were able to classify all 632 observations into 22 job families: one for broad responsibility senior management, two for logistics information systems; six for warehousing, four for transportation, two for purchasing, three for customer service, and four for material and inventory control.

Researchers also interviewed the subjects of this analysis extensively. This helped to put the statistical analysis into an organizational context and allowed the researchers to interpret CMQ scores.

Job Description

Warehouse supervisors work in the difficult middle. They must understand and often do the work of operating and clerical employees, but also perform management tasks. These jobs are complex, calling for frequent decisions and almost constant activity. They supervise up to 60 employees, frequently attend meetings to help with human resources decisions, and chair meetings to schedule work, resolve conflicts, and informally exchange information.

Warehouse supervisors must know everything pertaining to the warehouse operating and clerical jobs. They need high level supervisory skills, training skills, and interpersonal skills. They also need to know about supplier and customer procedures that may affect warehouse operations.

Photo: William Picard

Competencies

Understand and apply warehouse and inventory control procedures in accordance with company policy. All warehouse employees are required to possess this competency, but warehouse supervisors must have a significantly higher understanding of the company’s policies and procedures as they train operating employees and coordinate their work. They must know everything the operating and clerical employees have to know, including the proper functioning of correctly calibrated equipment and data entry procedures.

Use supervisory skills to coordinate the flow of goods through receiving, stowage, order picking, and shipping. Though it seems obvious that supervision is central to supervisory jobs, the number of true supervisory jobs in logistics is declining. If supervision is seen as the personal oversight of the work of another, logistics supervisory jobs are diminishing rapidly in number and growing in span of control. Supervisors must understand performance appraisal, motivation, communications, and meeting management. Since they frequently chair meetings attended by their subordinates, they must understand how to use meetings for training, conveying and gathering information, and gaining consensus. They must also understand how to run a meeting so that employees do not feel their time has been wasted.

Finally, warehouse supervisors must understand how to run a safe, efficient warehouse operation. The goods must flow through quickly to meet customer and client demands while ensuring employees’ safety. Helping people in warehouses avoid injury is a major task, one with implications for the personal welfare of the employees and the financial welfare of the firm.

Apply knowledge of supplier and customer procedures to improving warehouse operations. Supplier and customer logistics policies and procedures can affect a warehouse operation dramatically. Warehouse supervisors must understand those procedures and policies well enough to understand the effects on their own operations. How well the firm adapts to these requirements may have significant customer service implications that could determine whether or not a customer stays with them. Also, efficiency and effectiveness of warehouse operations may be affected profoundly.

Communicate effectively with fellow supervisors, other employees, and managers to achieve short and long-term goals. This is a minor modification of the operating employees’ competency and applies to every logistics employee because of the interactive nature of the work. Logisticians do not work alone, but a supervisor’s job performance is especially dependent on the work of others.

Incorporate all the competencies required of warehouse operating employees and clerical employees. To train others in a job, supervisors must know what the others know and what they do not know. Supervisors not only need the same competencies as operating and clerical employees, they need these competencies at a higher level than the people who work for them.

Job Requirements

Warehouse supervisors’ jobs require supervisory skills, self-management skills, equipment operation, the knowledge base of all the employees they supervise, and a thorough understanding of the overall supply chain. The list of required job skills and knowledge is long for this job family, but that is because this is one of the most complex jobs in logistics.

Training Needs

Warehouse supervisors’ equipment training needs are extensive because they oversee and train operating and clerical employees in the use of a broad range of equipment. An important addition to this list is the understanding of the correct functioning of properly calibrated equipment. A training specialist interviewed in the course of this research pointed out that employees are often blamed for incidents caused by poorly set up or incorrectly calibrated equipment. Supervisors are generally assigned to give this training because as long-term employees they are the ones in the organization who ought to know how the machinery is supposed to work.

Supervisors require the same physical skills as the people who work for them, although they probably do not use those skills as often. More critically, they need to understand these skills, especially safe lifting and handling.

The level and range of interpersonal skills increases dramatically for warehouse supervisors compared to operating and clerical employees. With as many as 60 employees working directly or indirectly for them, supervisors assume major human resources duties including performance appraisal, motivation, and chairing meetings. Many managers and supervisors do performance appraisal poorly because they do not know how and because they hate the process of telling someone exactly where they stand. Much of the reluctance to carry out the process correctly comes from ignorance. This is a significant training need.

Another need is for training on how to train operating and clerical employees, which supervisors must do on an almost daily basis. Training should also play a role in their performance appraisal.

The knowledge base required of supervisors is broad. They play a significant role in creating gender-neutral and non-discriminatory work environments and constantly affect the attitudes of the employees who work for them. The critical needs cover the technical and interpersonal skills that help develop supervisors in their current jobs and prepare them for promotion.

Key Takeaways for Managers

First, warehouse training tends to be unstructured and informal. Reliance on unstructured, informal, on-the-job experience (OJE) as the centerpiece for training invites high turnover, poor execution of procedures, and low morale.

Second, warehouse supervisors work in managerial and operating arenas simultaneously. Consequently, their training should contain operational and managerial components.

Third, key training needs for growth and development include stress management at the operating level, training as trainers at all levels, and training in conducting meetings.

Fourth, long-term programmatic training and development should begin at the operating level. Firms with systematic training programs for operating employees, supervisors, and managers have low turnover, capable supervisors, and savvy managers. The result is improved time-to-competence, more effective problem resolution, higher productivity, and lower damage rates.

Fifth, potential sources and partners for training are unrealized and underutilized. Training should be offered to employees through a variety of sources, including community colleges, universities, training firms, Web-based training, associations, and consulting firms. No one source is likely to provide everything, but properly blended, the training can become part of the work life of employees at all levels.

Conclusion

Warehouse supervisors are responsible for assuring that warehouse processes are consistent. Through their direction, their subordinates develop and carry out action plans designed to achieve this goal. Competence in this job is based primarily on each individual’s interpersonal skills and technical abilities. As with the other job families, warehouse supervisors acquire most of their knowledge through on-the-job experience.

Without significant investment in actual on-the-job training (OJT) vs. the traditional on-the-job experience (OJE), the optimization of the warehousing process is highly unlikely. More likely is an increase in stress due to the flattening of the organization and the increased speed of the environment due to globalization and technological advances.

Training should focus primarily on two areas. First, focus on the best use of computer resources to optimize the warehousing process and the exchange of information. Second, focus on identifying interpersonal weaknesses and developing programs that will strengthen or eliminate the areas of weakness.

While it can be expensive, training should be a non-negotiable item for the future well-being of the organization’s warehousing area. Without it, a number of weak links will develop and slow the output to a trickle of its potential. Costs can be minimized by choosing the right source of training and the right content to suit each job and each person and creating a series of partnerships that benefit the logistics organization, the employees, and the training partners. Those who adopt these necessities will become the leaders in their increasingly global environments.

Some of these key takeaways may seem obvious but they are often the subject of lip service, not practice. Every manager knows these things should be done, but most firms do not practice them. Key decision-makers see training and development as costs, not as investments.

In conclusion, these changes or lack of changes translate directly to the bottom line of the organization. On the one hand, goods not handled correctly must be replaced with no additional compensation while poor or unstable delivery times lose customers. On the other hand, zero defects and on time delivery produce loyalty and higher profits, a distinct competitive advantage.

Note: There is extensive literature on job analysis, training needs assessment, and training systems. An extensive review of that literature is beyond the scope of this paper.


[1] Helen Palmer, Will Valet. “Job Analysis: Targeting Needed Skills,” Employment Relations Today, 28, no. 3, (2001): 85-92.

[2] Hank Riehl. “Managing with Skills,” Ivey Business Quarterly, 62, no. 4, (1998/7): 50-4. Ibid, Palmer, Valet.

[3] William Keogh, Angela Mulvie, Sarah Cooper. “The Identification and Application of Knowledge Capital Within Small Firms,” Journal of Small Business and Enterprise Development, 12, no. 1, (2005): 76-91.

Authors of the article
David McMahon, PhD
David McMahon, PhD, , is an associate professor of marketing in the Graziadio School at Pepperdine University. Dr. McMahon's research interests are in the areas of services, logistics, and ethics. He is co-author of one book and his research has been published in several academic journals including the Journal of Marketing Theory and Practice and The Journal of Business and Economics Research as well as a number of conference proceedings.
Jeffery Periatt, PhD
Jeffery Periatt, PhD, , is an associate professor in the Department of Marketing at Auburn University Montgomery. Dr. Periatt received his DBA from Mississippi State University. He has served on the Selma Institute for Supply Management, and the Central Alabama Association for Operations Management boards. His research interests include psychology and supply chain management. Dr. Periatt co-authored the book, Growth and Development of Logistics Personnel, helped develop the CLM Toolbox, and has co-authored a number of articles published in the Journal of Personal Selling and Sales Management, Journal of Business & Economic Research, and the Reference Services Review.
Jon Carr, PhD
Jon Carr, PhD, , is an associate professor of management at the University of Southern Mississippi, where he teaches and conducts research in organizational behavior, human resources management, and entrepreneurship. In addition, he serves as a Research Associate with the Workplace Learning and Performance Center at the University of Southern Mississippi where his activities have been focused on technology-based workforce training requirements and the development of competency models for human resources development.
Stephen A. LeMay, PhD
Stephen A. LeMay, PhD, , is an associate professor of marketing at Dalton State College. He is also Professor Emeritus of Marketing and Logistics at Mississippi State University. Dr. LeMay received his bachelor's degree in magazine journalism from Northwestern University; his MBA in operations management from the University of Tennessee, Knoxville; and his doctorate in transportation and logistics from the University of Tennessee, Knoxville. His work has appeared in many academic journals and trade publications. He has co-authored three books on logistics and supply chains.
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