Disabled Workers Enhance DC’s Productivity

Retailers came to the inaugural Supply Chain Summit with varied expectations and objectives. Some wanted to learn more about RFID applications; others were seeking strategies for building better partnerships across the global supply chain or to mitigate risks and manage exceptions. It’s probably safe to say that none came expecting to be personally motivated and inspired—yet that is precisely what happened in what proved to be the most memorable session.

During “Social Responsibility and Superior Performance,” Randy Lewis, Walgreens’ senior VP, distribution and logistics, described the unexpected rewards of staffing Walgreens’ distribution centers with handicapped workers.

At its recently opened Anderson, S.C., distribution center (DC), one-third of the 600-person work force has severe cognitive disabilities. Although Walgreens has employed disabled workers in other DCs, there was typically a segregation of responsibilities, and those with handicaps were not expected to perform at the same level and were not compensated at the same level as non-handicapped workers.

The Anderson DC adopted an entirely different approach, one of total inclusiveness, where all employees doing a job have the same performance requirements and receive the same pay.

“Everyone has a job to do, and everyone does it well,” said Lewis. “When we decided to hire people with severe cognitive disabilities and integrate them fully into our work force, we expected some challenges and problems. What we didn’t expect was the impact this inclusiveness model would have on our culture and the attitudes of all our people.

“If you visit our Anderson DC, you’ll immediately be struck by the change in the atmosphere there compared to other DCs. Everybody helps one another. There is no ‘them’ or ‘us’; everyone focuses on what we can do together.”

Walgreens invested $100 million in automation at the Anderson DC, where technology and process accommodations enable a group of people to perform tasks that would otherwise be impossible for them.

For instance, a computer screen with order picking and processing information had 14 function keys and far too much information to be easily understood. Walgreens replaced the complex screen and keyboard with a touchscreen display that consolidated all the detailed information into three or four very simple pictures.

“What we discovered is that this simplification didn’t just help the people with disabilities, it helped everyone do a better job,” stated Lewis.

Picking and order fulfillment in a Walgreens’ DC is much more complex than in most retail DCs. For the most part, workers are picking “eaches,” and 96% of the items leave the DC from broken cases. Further complicating the process of picking onesies and twosies is the fact that 95% of all the merchandise in Walgreens’ stores is processed through its DCs.

Lewis shared numerous stories detailing the dedication, work ethics and reliability of Walgreens’ handicapped work force. Disabled associates rarely miss a day of work, and when they are on the job, they are completely dedicated to putting forth their best efforts. He described a young man who has no ability to add or subtract, but who can accurately process 600 pieces an hour when the Walgreens’ expectation is for workers to process 400 per hour.

“Deep down, most of us think disabled people cannot do the job,” admitted Lewis. “However, they can, and we’re lucky to have them on our team. By 2010, we hope to have hired 1,000 workers with disabilities and, by 2015, we hope that number is 3,000 workers.”

In addition to continuing to recruit handicapped workers for its DCs, Walgreens is committed to helping other companies do the same. To make the process easier for other retailers, Lewis has pledged to answer any questions and share openly all the information and insights Walgreens has gained. Visit www.walgreensoutreach.com for detailed facts and contacts.