Insight, Training & Education

A Game of Warehousing: PARC’s Guide to Gamification

Panalpina, 2019
Panalpina, 2019

This PARC Insight by Maria Pia Caraccia and Katy Alice Huckle takes a closer look at the impact of game-playing on warehousing operations.

Let’s play a game.  Games are fun, aren’t they?  When we think of games we think of play, of free time.  We think of winning, of defeating our competitors with a stunning and ingenious performance, maybe even a clean-sweep.  Games mean activity, enjoyment.  Children learn an incalculable amount through games and play; entire fields of research are dedicated to understanding more about the link between learning and play.  The game is; let’s play games at work.

We don’t mean the Game-of-Thrones style office politics that go on between your managers.  We mean actual games with rules and players and prizes.

Chances are, you don’t play any, and if you do it is the occasional round of Candy Crush at your desk that you shouldn’t be playing anyway.

Gamification could be about to change that.

Gamification:  “the practice of making activities more like games in order to make them more interesting or enjoyable” (Cambridge University Press, 2019).

Sounds good, doesn’t it?  Most of us have to perform at least the occasional work tasks that make us yawn.  That weekly report, which just involves copy-pasting data from an Excel spreadsheet to a PowerPoint presentation; that inventory count, which is a clipboard and a pen and many hours spent just counting; and don’t get us started on filing papers (which, in a paperless society, should be a thing of the past, but somehow still hasn’t quite died a death just yet).  What if we could turn those into games in order to make them a bit more fun, promote a bit of healthy competition, and give the opportunity to win something if you do well?

Many companies try to make improvements to their processes (typically making things faster), but many employees inevitably end up doing the same thing every day. Gamification in the workplace is aimed at driving engagement and effective behaviours, improving productivity and enhancing capacity.

How does it work?  Simple really.  Rewards are made available for outstanding performance, which could be in the form of recognition or an actual physical prize.  Employees are encouraged to think “how can I beat my co-workers?” or perhaps, more healthily, “how can I help my team win this week?”

Critical to the success of gamification is measurement – companies and employees need to be able to keep track of who (or what) is winning.  This can be through anything from a printed scoreboard to a dedicated platform.  The key thing is to make performance visible across the field of play, so that competitors can keep track of one another and of their own success.

How is gamification different from regular incentives?

Incentives Gamification
Constant, ongoing and often timetabled Agile and flexible
Used to motivate individuals Uses rewards as one of the tools for motivation
Focused on improved performance Generates an intrinsic motivation related to the challenge itself – makes the activity fun
Often measured annually or quarterly Measured in real time
Usually individual Aimed at teams
(Strategic Synergy, 2019)

The beauty of gamification is that anyone can use it.  It really is as simple as defining the challenge, the rules of the game, and the reward, or prize.  Different businesses can define different challenges and frameworks for their individual needs, which makes sense as different types of employees will be motivated by different things. 

One aspect is critical though; in order to maintain engagement and continue to drive improvement, the games must not be allowed to stagnate.  The same game will get old after a while, so it is vital to introduce new rules, new challenges and new prizes.  In the best case, the prize won’t be guaranteed every time; gamification is at its strongest when the prize is not regularly awarded, but there is an element of chance involved.  Therefore the winners do not necessarily need to be rewarded every time; if instead they are rewarded every third, fifth or seventh time they win, their motivation will increase.  Randomizing the reward intensifies this effect.

To see evidence of this phenomenon, we only need look at a casino, where gamblers are hooked not on a guaranteed prize, but on the possibility of a prize, whose worth could range from peanuts to riches.  It is the possibility of a prize that keeps them slotting money into the machine; there is no guarantee.

Bringing it back to the warehouse.

Where is the link with supply chains?

We have some recent use cases that effectively demonstrate the impact of gamification on warehousing:

Game One:  Health and Safety in Brazil

Company:  Panalpina

Objective:  Deploying a new health, safety & environment (HSE) system throughout one country-level organisation

Players:  All staff

Duration:  One week

Before you start:  Create your own anonymous avatar and play the game through your avatar

How to play:  Take part in daily HSE-related challenges and quizzes to collect points, certain scores and winners will be awarded prizes

Prizes:  Award and recognition from Managing Director

Results:  Engaged over 300 participants throughout the national organisation with an extremely positive response from staff and increased awareness of HSE topics. The challenge and competition among departments and business units also improved staff participation.

Game Two:  The Perfect Forklift Experience

Company:  Heineken

Objective:  Reduce rate of damaged to forklift trucks (costing £90’000 annually) through operator-led maintenance

Players:  Forklift operators

Duration:  Ongoing

Before you start:  Cleaning and maintenance stations built, forklift trucks renovated and named after products, creating a sense of ownership amongst operators.

How to play:  Points-based maintenance leader board

Prizes:  Monthly and annual awards

Results:  95% reduction in annual maintenance costs

It is not difficult to see how gamification can be applied even further in the warehouse.  Every warehousing task, from picking inventory to pallet-truck driving to sending pallets out, can be gamified.  Traditionally these activities have tended towards the monotonous, and companies often struggle to motivate their staff and maintain engagement.  Gamification offers the opportunity to significantly improve motivation for better performances amongst employees.

But is it all fair and fun for all?  There are a number of potential issues that could arise when implanting a gamified approach.

The first is: will gamification be taken seriously?  Suddenly telling your staff that their job now involves playing games amongst each other may, for some, come across as childish.  Employees may see through the games and feel manipulated by their employer – dangling a carrot in front of someone doesn’t necessarily mean that they will jump for it.  For gamification to be successful it is critical that the games selected are appropriate for the target audience; generally they must be appropriate for the level of the target audience and not come across as childish.

The second challenge to using gamification is; why do we need it?  Not the games, but the jobs.  If a task is repetitive and simple, then it is primed for automation.  Automation can be applied to any work that is always the same; where no decision-making is required and there is a step-by-step process to be followed.  Robots can be purpose-built to always do the exact same activity, and they will never get bored.  However, automation is still prohibitively expensive and much slower to roll-out in most developed countries.  Whilst automating monotonous jobs may well be the future solution, currently it is not quite reality for many organisations and they are facing the issue of a demotivated workforce today.

Finally, where is the return on investment?  Unfortunately, many organisations struggle to understand benefits that aren’t financial or tangible.  Gamification has already been proven to better motivate employees and therefore improve productivity; but productivity is not generally measured as a financial KPI.  Despite the fact that the employees are core to any organisation, their engagement level and commitment to their role is often a lower priority than increase sales and profitability.  Gamification involves a cost to the organisation – new processes, prizes (even if it’s just a pizza) and other necessary costs, and there is no direct financial benefit from that investment.  However, there is very much an indirect benefit from a better motivated workforce, and raising awareness of the intangible benefits as well as the indirect impact on costs (fewer broken forklift trucks, for example) are the best way to answer the question of returns.

To sum up, gamification offers a range of potential benefits to organisations at very low risk; the worst outcome is that the game does not work and things return to normal.  The best outcome is that employees become far better motivated, engaged and committed to their tasks.  Productivity rises, waste is reduced, and people are happier to do their jobs.

Sounds good to us – when can we get started? Gamification’s Continuous Engagement Flow, Strategic Synergy, 2019:


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