Clark’s Story – Idea Pipeline

Role: Shop Foreman II

“No, I don’t have a photographic memory.”

I was tired of getting that question from new colleagues though what really annoyed me was hearing managers talk about my “magical” ability to know where everything is and when something in the warehouse workflow wasn’t quite right.  I wanted to tell this new guy and others, I know details about this stuff because I work hard, pay attention and read up on industry trends.  I wanted to say those things, but I knew it would only lead to more questions and requests to help others “learn the ropes.”  I was not in the mood. I’m proud of the work I do.  I’ve worked my way up to foreman, and since then I’ve been burned too many times putting in extra effort trying to make sure management sees me as a company guy, a go getter, willing to do more including coming up with ways to keep problems from happening in the first place.

Sometimes management would come right out and say they wanted to hear innovative, new ideas from employees like me.  But in the end, it was all talk.  They’d go to great lengths meeting employees one-on-one or in small groups asking us to share what works well and how we could improve warehouse operations. A foreman from the night shift and I would offer lots of suggestions. Managers would write down our ideas and with each innovation came more and more predictability that nothing would come from our efforts.  None of our ideas were ever implemented.  Heck, even when I wrote out the details for ideas that seemed truly promising and easily doable, it was as if my suggestions were lost to the Bermuda Triangle.  Without any thanks or sometimes any response at all, my suggestions just quietly went somewhere to die.

Oh, but wait, one of my ideas did turn out to be a real success.  Unfortunately, I’d shared it with a snake of a manager who outright stole my suggestion and made it look like his own!   I’d recommended management keep their eyes on how lithium ion batteries might benefit the company. Their upfront costs were not insignificant, but when compared with traditional lead acid units used to power warehouse vehicles, we could see greater productivity and big savings.  Turns out I was on to something.  A big career boost for me, right?!  Yeah no. That thieving, reptilian boss got a promotion.  All I got was a new boss; one I’d have to train on the quirky ways this warehouse operates vs. others in the organization.  Even thinking about it now brings a bitter taste that could ruin a meal from even the best new food truck.

It required a long hike with my buddy and our two big dogs one weekend to shake off the helpless feeling of ever again advancing at work. That’s not like me, but that’s where I was.

Not long after that hike, I got a message from HR.  I work in forklifts and Red Wings, not in a cubicle with a computer.  I was glad IT had made our company email available online.  The note from HR said the company did not want to lose their “top performers.”  They were proud of the work we’d done during the upheaval of Covid-19 and had a new tool they wanted all us essential workers in the warehouses to test drive.  It was called Idea Pipeline.  Supposedly this new web application was going to “increase transparency” and ultimately “reduce turnover.”  The pandemic had not helped in our ability to maintain consistent staffing and if transparency could translate into continuity from shift to shift and warehouse to warehouse, I was all for that.  Though already suffering from company application fatigue and knowing this was just one more web tool for which to forget my password, the folks in HR were trying something new.  I appreciated the effort that went into a risk like that.

Idea Pipeline was active from my smart phone even from the picnic tables outside our building. With new login credentials, I’m sure I forgot to write down, I saw the responsive design of the application come to life even on that small phone screen.

I saw the home page for the platform and my enthusiasm dwindled.  It looked easy to use, but it appeared to be some sort of electronic suggestion box, not unlike the real one that looked like some manager’s desperate attempt to “hear from employees.”  My history with suggestions for the company impeded my willingness to try even this new, easy-enough Idea Pipeline tool.

Then I remembered a recent hike with friends. I’d mentioned that in the past few months a colleague and I had felt like more was coming back as returns to the warehouse than was departing.   I had an idea that just might change the direction of that trend.  The solution wouldn’t come from an even more efficient warehouse, it would come from more proactive interaction with our actual customers.  That one idea to help better empower prospective buyers in their decision making ended up being about a 5-mile, uphill discussion.  I didn’t even notice the familiar pain in my calves as the back and forth brainstorming of some cool and some crazy ideas made my original concept even more inspiring.  If my company didn’t want what my creativity and experience could bring to help enact meaningful change, maybe a competitor would.  It was shortly after that hike; my curiosity got the best of me.  I opened the application and noticed suggestions made in Idea Pipeline weren’t becoming some sort of passive take it or leave it opinions.  In fact, when a concept or detailed suggestion was in Idea Pipeline, it truly came alive.  We could give a simple “like” or comment and even advocate for ideas we felt worth pursuing.  In fact, I saw one idea about the use of robotics in our east coast warehouse that seemed so innovative, it compelled me to comment. Before I knew it, there from that picnic bench, I was collaborating on Idea Pipeline with other warehouse colleagues and employees from other departments around the country; all spawned by that single idea submitted by an employee like me.  I liked the way that common purpose felt.  I again started to like the way I felt about my job.

Later that week, after reading more suggestions and providing more feedback, I was ready to share the idea my friends and I had discussed on our hike.  During a break back out in the calm of that same picnic table, I submitted my idea to Idea Pipeline.  It was the first time in a long time I’d been excited at work and even a little nervous, feeling open to the kind of scrutiny this idea, my idea, could face.  My break was almost over and still no sign of anyone liking my suggestion, let alone interested in advancing its requirements.  I must have checked on the status of my submission in Idea Pipeline ten times that night.  Still nothing.  Why did I think this experience would be any different from others?

The next morning, I parked my car at the far end of the warehouse parking lot, so I could get in my daily “pretend exercise.”  It’s during that typical morning stroll to the warehouse I check my work email to see if any surprises are waiting for me.  I didn’t see single surprise.  I saw three!  Three people I didn’t know had responded to my Idea Pipeline submission.  All three had questions and wanted to hear more.  My idea was active and had sparked real interest!  Over the next few days, I took some of my shift-planning time and devoted it to collaborating on the idea with all kinds of colleagues through Idea Pipeline.  I even decided it was worth asking my manager if he’d had a chance to see my idea and included a link to my Idea Pipeline suggestion.  Friday before leaving work I noticed he’d not only commented with questions and additional suggestions for my idea, he’d said something I’d not heard in years, “Thanks, Clark. It’s ideas like yours that help us compete in the changing landscape of this industry.”

Not bad for a guy motivated to do good work even though he’s definitely no wizard.