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HVACR Distribution Business: Creating a Training Program that Works

May 8, 2015
The first step in an effective training program is to define the distribution center’s operating procedures. Training sessions must engage the trainee. Any training should include real time exposure in the actual operating environment. 
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Training… Not the first word that comes to mind when you think of distribution center operations — retail, wholesale or otherwise.

But think about world-class distribution operations for more than just a moment, and it quickly becomes inarguable that no such successful distribution center functions without a training program for its associates at the least, and optimally its managers too.

Training programs cannot simply concentrate on the “how to” of a particular job function.  True, the most common (and necessary) training focus is the purely pragmatic — how to perform a specific job or jobs within a distribution center. However, both legislation and fiscal realities drive the need for training. This includes certification on the basics of specific equipment operation, and more general, but still critical, training in safe warehouse operations. 

Safe warehouse practices not only benefit the employees by reducing operating hazards, they help the warehouse operation by reducing the lost time and workers’ compensation costs.  Equipment operation training enhances the effectiveness of any associate utilizing mechanized equipment such as lift truck equipment.

OSHA requires a formal training program for all employees operating powered industrial trucks. With all these pressing reasons to train employees in more than just a few “how to” aspects of their daily work task, it becomes clear that an effective training program is worth the time to develop, implement and maintain.

The first step in an effective training program is to define the distribution center’s operating procedures. While this sounds obvious, many operations are sadly lacking in written standard operating procedures. Having well-documented procedures gives a training program a very important characteristic — consistency.

Regardless of who administers a training session, consistently documenting the process of instruction develops consistent performance on the warehouse floor. That documentation does not need to be limited to words on a page. If you are creating a training program for an existing operation, use video of the tasks that employees must learn.

Enlist line employees to create the video will help get them interested in the practices you are trying to teach. If the operation does not yet exist — a newly mechanized distribution center under construction — animation services simulating the tasks to be performed can be a great help in orienting new hires and existing employees alike as they are trained to work in their new environment.

Training sessions must engage the trainee. Handing a newly hired picker the trainee’s manual for picking might be a good idea as a prelude to their training class but cannot be the end of their training. You enhance the impact of training by introducing equipment they will be using in a classroom environment while discussing the elements of their job.

For example, by supplying an RF scan gun in training for an operation that utilizes RF technology, your trainee will be more involved in the training compared with a lecture session. By attaching that RF gun to a terminal emulator to simulate the scanning that will occur when on the warehouse floor, you have engaged the trainee even further. The more constructively active the trainees get in their sessions, the more effective the training.

Any training should include real time exposure in the actual operating environment.  Aside from completely engaging the employee, this closely supervised work time can answer questions that may not have come up in a classroom environment.

This time can be as simple as the new associate “buddying-up” with an experienced associate or supervisor or as organized as a pair of supervisors walking a new picking crew through the complete picking of an order and then assisting as the crew picks its first orders. The importance of this practicum is that it helps the trainee make the transition from classroom to the warehouse floor.

You should validate all training. While in the most mundane sense of the word, this means testing trainees to evaluate how much of the training they have retained, validation can take several forms. Software-based tests, incorporating videos or animations, with either simple one-word specific answers or multiple choice answers, can be created once and used to validate testing for the life of a training program.

For those most practically minded, the real-time exposure in the actual operating environment mentioned above is also effective to validate the classroom training. Finally, an understanding of the new employee’s effectiveness over time (the learning curve) is another way to gauge a training program’s effectiveness.

The complete training program should encompass operational, safety, and lift truck training in separate programs. Keeping these points in mind will enhance your chances for success:

  • Consistency: Each session must be consistent with those before and after it.
  • Focus: Maintain a focus on a discrete function in classroom and floor training.
  • Engage: All session should strive to actively engage the trainee.
  • Time: Real-time practicum should follow the classroom time.
  • Validation: Validate all training (and enhance the process when possible)

By keeping these characteristics in mind as you develop a training program, you can more easily attain and maintain successful world-class distribution operations and the competitive advantage that comes with it.

Bryan Jensen has 32 years of experience in retail and wholesale distribution, transportation and logistics and is a vice president and principal with St. Onge Co. in York, Pa., distribution center process improvement and training.  St. Onge Co. is a material handling and manufacturing consulting firm specializing in the planning, engineering and implementation of advanced material handling, information and control systems supporting logistics, manufacturing and distribution since 1983 ( Contact Bryan at 717/505-8016 or by e-mail at [email protected].