It has been 2 months or so now since I left my job at Swisslog. For those that see me on a regular basis, this is no great surprise, but I have been reluctant to write about it. Partly the words have not quite been there to describe my motivation and some of the mixed feelings I have had.
Educational is the best single descriptor I have been able to come up with to describe my time at Swisslog. I strongly feel that education as a result is always a positive thing, but the inputs to that education can be positive or negative. Swisslog provided its fair share of negative items to learn from. There is no reason to list their faults because I believe that many of them are inherent to the larger company structure and the industry as a whole.
Like myself, the material handling industry is going through a transition. 20 years ago, “logistics” was all about getting physical products from point A to point B so they could be sold. It was a generally simple affair with large warehouses that would stock up on products to gloss over the variances that occurred in supply and demand. But as the retail model worked to trim costs and players like Target and Walmart became national retailers, the trick to making their operations more efficient was to reduce the inventory both in their stores and in their warehouses. “Just in time” delivery became the watchword.
I will state as a fact that while logistics still needs people to move physical objects from point A to point B, success in the industry is no longer a matter of atoms and molecules, it is one of bits and bytes. In order to efficiently run a nationwide or global company efficiently, you must know where everything is at any given moment and move it around reliably and efficiently.
The logistics industry is now a software industry. And the business strategies and operations of a software company are different than a manufacturing company.
Unfortunately, I think the big players in the industry, Swisslog being one of them, have failed to realize that. Maybe they do intellectually, but not instinctively. Conveyors, cranes, robotics are becoming more and more commoditized and will continue to do so. Software is the area where companies can show distinction. But that requires a change in mindset of the companies. And it means a change in the way a company handles its projects, employees, and business model. Sadly, I did not see Swisslog do that in my tenure.
Reinventing itself is a challenging thing for any company to do. I have my doubts if it is possible once a company has reached a certain size and attained a certain level of inertia. It will be the small, nimble companies that will eat their lunch. Unfortunately, for a software person, the need for change was obvious, but not supported by the business. This was frustrating to say the least.
I learned many things not to do. I believe my philosophy for managing people was solidified from theory into practice. I was forced to work outside my box of purely technical topics and found that I was good at a broader range of topics. All of these were good lessons to learn. But it was time to move on.
I am looking forward to doing better at 3M.