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Wendell Hiser’s team pulled together to improve productivity, customer satisfaction, and employee morale.

For Carlile Transportation Project Manager Wendell Hiser, Continuous Improvement isn’t just about implementing shiny new ideas—it’s the small details that matter the most.

“Coming from air freight and the military, where you have to do everything the same way every time—to me, this is just a normal thing. You learn quickly that you have to do things the same way every time—or the plane crashes. The stakes are that high.”

Hiser stepped into a new management role at Carlile’s Tacoma warehouse last summer. He’s worked in warehousing since high school, both before and after his stint in the U.S. Navy.

“I’ve kind of always worked in the same field—warehousing, air freight,” he said. “I took over air freight for Carlile at the end of 2012.”

But in August of last year, Carlile Vice President of Freight Operations John Armstrong asked Hiser to help manage the warehouse, specifically, one of the company’s accounts that had fallen behind. It wasn’t long before he began identifying ways the team could improve the operation.

“We were roughly 40 LTL carrier trailers behind, with a dwell time of between 10 and 15 days,” Hiser said. “Now, every warehouse has its struggles, but it was obvious to me what needed to be done to get us caught up. The first thing I told (Armstrong) was, ‘Yes, I’ll step up. But I want to own it, run it, and I’ll take responsibility for any changes we enact.”

Hiser smiles in his office while going through paperwork.

Improving on-time performance

“Because of labor shortages and historic increases in volume coming across our Tacoma dock, we were consistently missing our shipping and delivery schedule for our largest customer,” explained Krista Williams, Chief Operating Officer, Saltchuk Logistics. “Without adding any additional labor, (Hiser) worked with the Tacoma dock team to optimize their workflow, standardize processes, and immediately improve our on-time performance to exceed our customer expectations. I can’t stress enough how critical these improvements were in retaining Carlile’s largest customer and living up to our Carlile brand promise of exceptional customer service.”

Hiser began by sitting down with the warehouse’s various supervisors.

“I explained my vision, what we were going to do. I needed to get them to buy into what I was selling. They needed to have skin in the game. Together, we started really digging into the operation. Once we figured out what was going to work and what wasn’t, we were able to move forward together.”

His first change addressed the warehouse’s freight flow.

“One of the first things was, if it didn’t have to hit the floor—meaning if we weren’t storing it— we should be loading it directly from its origin to its next destination. We didn’t need to add any additional steps. That was the start of it—we had to get cleaned up first.

“We weren’t working efficiently, and the freight bottlenecked and caused backups. This was a quick fix, and we were able to get caught up within a couple of weeks while still receiving new trailers. Our dwell time is now down to less than two days.”

Once Hiser and the managers identified best-practice procedures, Hiser’s vision became one of cross-training every Carlile employee—an undertaking so detailed he built a “Work Matrix” to keep track of it all.

“The Work Matrix is a step-by-step checklist of how to perform every job, every task in the warehouse. Everyone’s job is detailed in the Matrix’s Work Instructions. When new employees come on board, it’s up to the supervisors and the leads to make sure that person is trained step-by-step on exactly how we do things here. I should be able to walk up to any employee who’s been ‘trained’ and ask them how to do their job, and they should be able to tell me exactly. We talk CI a lot at Carlile, but drilling it into the supervisors that it was their responsibility to make sure we were doing every job the same way every time was a crucial component.”

Hiser also enacted an Inventory Control Check in the warehouse.

“We started scanning the freight on the floor twice a week at night and rescanning the next morning. We were able to see in real-time what got missed. The supervisor would then go through and reconcile the report to ensure accuracy—a step previously done by upper management, but now pushes the Leads to be more responsible and increases visibility as to what supervisors are expected to do.”

Finally, the team has been working to create Work Instructions for every job in the group. Different than the Standard Operating Procedures, these instructions are step-by-step and detail how a particular job should be done.

“We’ve done more than 25 and are updating as things change or we find a better way of doing the job. These ensure that every employee is trained the same way, and the processes are standardized.”

Hiser walks away from the camera in a Carlile reflective jacket. A forklift navigates its way through the Carlile warehouse in the background.

Setting a standard for efficiency

Hiser is quick to credit the success of the Matrix and the ongoing improvement in warehouse operations at Carlile to his team.

“(Armstrong) believed in me enough to give me cart blanche in terms of being able to implement what I felt was necessary, but it was also the supervisors—it’s because of their work and their buy-in that we were able to make the improvements necessary to, in a sense, turn things around. The fires are out now. Now I’m down here picking at the small things.”

Ultimately, he said, it’s all about the customer experience at Carlile, and customer experience improves with consistency.

“We’ve seen—not only an increase in productivity and customer satisfaction—but also in employee morale. The supervisors now have more tools to help them measure and can supervise without doing the work. The employees have taken to the CI culture and see that it’s created an understanding and expectation of the work that needs to be done and how it is to be done.

“Especially in warehousing, if you do it the same way and it works, why wouldn’t you just teach everyone to do it the same way? That way, if there’s an issue, it stands out. That’s all we’re doing here—we’re training to a standard for efficiency. It might be a pain to get a CI plan in place, but once it’s in place, it’s easier.”

“This has quickly become a model of best practices for our other operational teams to benchmark and implement in other areas of our Carlile network,” Williams concluded. “That’s the magic of Continuous Improvement done correctly: one small improvement reveals the next opportunity, and over time it leads to massive transformation—not only for our processes but, more importantly, for our people.”

Click here to read more stories highlighting Saltchuk companies’ Continuous Improvement efforts.

Hilary Reeves

Hilary Reeves spent 10 years as a newspaper reporter and editor before joining the Saltchuk family of companies as a consultant. Since People of Saltchuk launched in 2014, Reeves has interviewed more than 200 Saltchuk employees from operating companies all over the world. Born in Tacoma, Washington, Reeves is a former president of both the collegiate and local professional chapters of the Society of Professional Journalists, a graduate of the Society’s Ted Scripps Leadership Institute, and a Toastmaster. When she’s not writing, she loves to read, ski, and practice the piano. She lives in West Seattle with her husband and two young daughters.