Take time to smell the V-belts

By Joe Limbaugh, Motion Industries

Perhaps the best part of the supply-chain world is the variety of projects that at times don’t seem to connect but in the end rely upon one another to achieve maximum overall value. Not unlike a jigsaw puzzle, the supply chain demands that you have all of the pieces to be able to see the total picture. It is exciting to watch our supply-chain team leaders prioritize projects, sort through data, study analytics and tally their “wins.” Their enthusiasm for what they do is contagious, and I find myself moving quickly from one topic to the next, going from, “Look at how many garbage trucks our sustainability program prevented from going to the landfill” to “I am working on a new KPI chart and would like your input.”  For me, the challenges become finding a balance between the theoretical and the practical, recommending the right investments, keeping motivation at the optimum level, and finding time to think and reflect. 

Having spent 30 or so years holding various field positions, I have a deep appreciation (and respect) for our associates who actually touch our product. True, there is a lot of important work that happens in our offices…we cannot be successful without it. But the right balance, in my view, occurs when you combine both elements – those that touch the product and those that don’t. I have learned that the best way to stay connected is to take time to smell the v-belts.

I’m fortunate that here in Birmingham, the Southeast distribution center is on our corporate campus.  Three flights of stairs and two building additions away sits 128,000 square feet of warehouse, containing a wide array of power transmission products. There are 4,600 feet of conveyors and 94 associates who “make it happen” each and every day. Shortly after relocating to Birmingham, I discovered a hallway that connects the warehouse and the main building. A doorway opens onto the second floor where the belts are stocked.

Initially, my walks through the Birmingham warehouse were meant as a way for me to get some exercise in the afternoon and arrange my thoughts. Plus, there is something about the smell of the v-belts that I find comforting. I am sure that it goes back to the late 1980s, when I transferred to East Peoria, IL. The assignment was to last three, maybe four years. But 13 years and three promotions later, my family and I were still there. As can happen when you avail yourself to change, everything that at first seemed so foreign became the new normal. The building in Peoria was about 8,500 square feet, and during the hot and still Midwestern summer months, the metal building would warm and the smell of the v-belts would permeate the offices. Like an industrial scented candle, you could almost mark the months by the smell of the rubber. Those were great years for me. I learned a lot about our industry, our market, the management process, and myself. 

As my walks through the Birmingham DC became more routine, our associates got used to seeing me, and something wonderful began to happen. At first, my greetings were met with kind and polite responses and I would keep walking. Those responses changed into small discussions, and then these stretched into conversations. Not only did I get to know our associates, but also I began to learn a lot about what we do well in our distribution centers and what we could improve upon. As varied as supply chain itself, the topics ranged from workstations, tote return conveyors, and janitorial issues to microwave ovens in the break room, and so much more. These exchanges caused me to remember how critical input from everyone – especially those who are actually doing the work – really is. The challenge for me became navigating these waters by involving the right level of supervision, because there could be multiple levels of supervision between me and the associate to whom I was speaking. We have a great management structure in place, so I needed to be sure to lead by example and encourage the right chain of command. (Admittedly, I am not always good at this, but I am trying to get better.)

Three years after relocating, I still take time to smell the v-belts. However, what was at first intended to be a way to take a breather has become a highly important and visible communication mechanism. I actually look forward to seeing the familiar faces and miss them when I don’t. 

Finding time as a supply chain leader to pause and reflect is as challenging as driving out cost. But I encourage you to develop a way to routinely do so. It will be good for you personally and professionally, and you might discover some hidden gems along the way.

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Comments

  • Joe, Great perspective on the basics of how Motion became #1 in the Industry, and more importantly, how we can stay there. I'm looking forward to the next installment.

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