The Company Hostage

The company had a very old ASRS, Automated Storage and Retrieval System to store the majority of it’s finished product inventory.  We were in transition as the company had gone into receivership and was run by an investment corporation that was trying to keep overall costs as low as possible while they prayed and searched for a buyer.  The system was so old that in the era of CD drives it still used floppy disc to operate the system that was, to say the least, fragile.  It could freeze up due to trouble reading a dirty license plate or from a loud sneeze or other inexplicable reason and have to be rebooted.

The cost to upgrade was enough that our benevolent keepers felt hiding their heads in the sand and ignoring the problem would magically make it stop hurting the bottom line but it was every time the ASRS was down.  It interfered with production in that when you can’t put the product into storage you can’t keep packaging it and when you can’t retrieve product to ship you can’t invoice.  In addition, a lot of overtime was spent on having workers move and stack product anywhere they could in the facility so the packaging of the product could continue but that also led to inventory issues of lost and misplaced product which became a nightmare for our production scheduler. 

Our keepers also didn’t see how over time the leadership on-site had surrendered its authority and through attrition and neglect, there was only a handful of employees left who not only knew how to operate the ASRS but how to keep it going and no one in management noticed the pending issue or thought to make plans for rectifying the situation because they were too busy putting out fires or pointing fingers at one another. 

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Things had actually been moving along pretty well during the last few weeks with only a few minor hiccups of the ASRS and word the company may have found a new owner but on this particular warm sunny afternoon, a few employees were caught smoking a joint in the back of the shipping building.  Marijuana was not yet legal in any form in any state and in accordance with the company zero tolerance policy, they were terminated on the spot. The problem was of the five caught smoking, three were ASRS operators which was more than half the staff as well half the only people who could operate the system.  

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The “IT” really hit the fan, of course, during the graveyard shift after they had forced swing shift for four hours, allowable by contract no one else showed up to operate the ASRS.  Management hadn’t realized that there was no one else available that had been trained to operate the system.  They had screwed-up royally and were behind the eight ball.  No communication or verification nothing but an all night long battle of survival as pallets of product were stacked five high down corridors, hallways any open space was fair game as production had to pack out the product already produced within a specific time frame.  The company in a word had been taken, hostage.

The ASRS operators still available were refusing over time even the forced four hours and the union was standing up for them pointing out the safety issues of working all the extra hours and demanding the return of the fired workers while not allowing the training of any additional ASRS personnel keeping the company hostage.  After a few days of keeping on their game face, and saying everything was all right the company quietly began to negotiate an end to the hostage situation along with dealing with the backlog of the finished product all over the facility.  The deal eventually worked out after hours of negotiating brought back all the terminated employees, they all had to attend drug and alcohol rehabilitation, were on a one-year probation for drug use, had to train additional employees and management as well as document procedures on the ASRS while the company promised and began the painful process of upgrading the system to twenty-first century technology.

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This is a lesson that was not cheap.  The overtime alone to count inventory and to get all the finished product into the ASRS system was ridiculous and it took weeks to get shipping and invoicing back to normal.  A binder was created with all the information needed so that even a caveman could operate the ASRS and the cost of the upgrade was hovering at $One Million.  This all could have been avoided and not an issue if upper management kept their eye on the big picture and allowed their supervisors and managers to do their job of training and documenting training but they had no experience in manufacturing and were lost in all the complexities of an aging system and ancient techniques while trying to meet the demands of today.

As I’ve said many times you reap what you sow.  You don’t have to be a boss hogs taskmaster but you must hold people accountable for their actions after a thorough explanation of the rules, expectations, and consequences.  You are in charge of your realm of the kingdom that makes up the company so RUN IT!  Be proactive, do a yearly hazard inspection, check emergency gear, create a safety committee, do your walk and be on the floor 80% of the time so you know what’s going on and what your workers are dealing with.  For more tips and ideas on leadership or if you have questions please don’t hesitate to contact me.

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