Innovation The logistics industry is experimenting with gamification

What if your job were a game and, at the end of the game, the one who scores the most points with the smartest strategy is the winner? This approach is called gamification, and it is being tested in the logistics sector in various forms.

With “Pick-by-Watch”, pickers no longer get their orders from their hand-held computer or paper list but from the smartwatch on their wrist. (Photo: HandyGames)

What if your job were a game and in the end, the one who scores the most points with the smartest strategy and the best performance wins? Following this pattern, ergonomists, psychologists, designers and game developers are trying to change the way we work and learn. This approach is called gamification, and it is being tested in the logistics sector in various forms.

“There are industries where the pace of innovation is even slower than it is in logistics”, says Christopher Kassulke. “But not many. What we see in many logistics companies is still a far cry from Industry 4.0”. Order pickers grazing the warehouse with obsolete, user-unfriendly hand-held computers – or even paper and a clipboard: this is an alien world for Kassulke, who is used to work with the latest hardware and software trends. He is managing director of the game company HandyGames, which usually does what the name implies – programming games for smartphones. But HandyGames also uses its experience to advise companies in other industries. For example, HandyGames has developed a new picking system together with the intralogistics system company SSI Schäfer – where experience from game design flowed into the design concept. “Game thinking” or “gamification” – that is what experts call this approach to designing work environments that make people feel more comfortable and more motivated, and that lead to better performance. This is a promising approach to logistics with its many spheres of action, where rather monotonous but very demanding activities must be performed.

“Pick-By-Watch” is the name of the system HandyGames has developed, in which the order pickers no longer receive their orders from a hand-held computer or a paper list but on a smartwatch on their wrist. Graphic instructions guide them through the warehouse, and retrievals are no longer confirmed by complex numerical codes but by coloured, easily distinguishable symbols on the storage areas.

Gamification to reduce operating costs

It’s no gimmick but a contribution to competitive ability, says Kassulke: “If a high-bay warehouse is cheaper in Poland because the pickers are cheaper, then I have to counter it here with technology”. Smartwatch-controlled order picking also pays off when training new employees: “I can strap the watch to your wrist and for the sake of safety I’ll accompany you for the first five minutes – and that’s it. Anyone who has ever used a cell phone will catch on right away”.

Game developers know how to motivate users, says Kassulke: “We sell our games directly to the end customer, and if they are not satisfied, we feel it”. They can also advise companies on choosing suitable hardware. “Our developers constantly get hold of the latest equipment, even before they are on the market. And we know, for example, how to program a graphics-intensive application so that it does not drain the battery of the watch too quickly”.

Not every technological innovation proves itself in the warehouse

The most important step in choosing your technology, however, is to work with what people really want and like to use, says Kassulke – this avoids ill-advised investments in technology trends that are not necessarily successful in practice. Take data glasses, which display information in the field of view (vision picking) or audio systems that direct the order picker by voice command (voice picking). “If these are poorly made, it won’t take two days for them to drive their users crazy and be discarded. That is why we never let the pickers work alone in the beginning”.

Many entrepreneurs expect that their employees will enjoy their work more through gamification. But it is not quite that easy to foster motivation. An approach that was tried in different model projects was for order pickers to compete against each other in virtual team games – their job performance, such as error rate or picking speed, determined how good or bad their virtual football or Formula 1 team was. Hermes Germany, too, is moving towards virtual team gaming: As part of a pilot project, Digital Lab has already tested gamification elements on hand-held readers of Hermes couriers in various locations.

People enjoy the status that they achieve in the game

In principle, that works very well, says psychologist Michael Sailer, who carried out the pilot project Gamelog with industry partners at the LMU Munich. “People love competing against each other in games, they make a name for themselves within the application and enjoy this status – which is particularly good in areas where employee performance is not particularly visible”. But there is a risk that this effect could wear off: “Any computer game will eventually get boring if you do not constantly introduce new features or interactions with others”. This problem is also one of which Roman Rackwitz of the gamification agency Engaginglab is well aware: “You don’t change anything in the work process itself through the game. And if the game loses its appeal after three weeks and you’re back to your everyday life, it is easy to start feeling that you’ve been manipulated”.

Besides, employers are quickly suspected of merely wanting to urge on their employees to be more efficient and monitor their progress – for example, when employees get points for improving a time or achieving health goals, such as carrying a few less kilograms at a time, says Bernd Jaschinski-Schürmann from consulting firm Arvato Systems, which works with VW, among others: “Some works councils say that this is a means of covertly measuring performance”.

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Gamification requires a good atmosphere at work

That is why you have to discuss the possibilities with the works council openly and honestly, says Jaschinski-Schürmann. “Gamification is in principle ‘pro-employee’ – employees should have more fun at work. One should look for areas of application where all the participants receive an obvious advantage”. The focus should be on team spirit and not the individual employee.

Psychologist Sailer also recommends working with team scores rather than individual achievements: “Having teams compete with each other fosters team spirit – and you reduce the risk of individuals being defeated and becoming isolated”. Competition works well only if it is constructive and everyone has the same opportunities. And above all when there is a good atmosphere and a culture of trust in the company. “If there is already conflict between management and the employees, it will backfire”. Gamification could also improve the feedback culture in a company, Sailer believes, due to employees receiving feedback on their work faster, more often and more individually than a supervisor could manage.

“If you give a driver feedback about his driving style, it is inevitable that he will think about how to beat his scores”, says Rackwitz. “That is how our brain works”. He also sees great potential for innovation in these interactive gamification processes in the company. “Gaming is the opposite of efficiency and in logistics, all processes are geared for efficiency. That is why it can be very useful, for example, to set up a test circuit for a while, where employees have complete freedom as to how they achieve their results”.

Can rule breakers become innovation drivers?

It supports some people’s natural urge to look for short cuts, easier ways of doing things or tricks in the game – ways to beat the system. “There will always be those who want to bend and break the rules”, says Rackwitz. In your everyday working life, this leads to employees finding all sorts of ways to circumvent service instructions or exploit grey areas – but it can also be an innovation driver. “Very often, unconventional ways hide collective practical knowledge that is not readily available everywhere”.

Various providers gain very positive experiences from simulations in which employees re-enact work processes – for instance, for training purposes: “You can introduce the principle of chaotic storage, in which there is no longer any fixed shelving; instead, the computer constantly reassigns spaces”, says Ralph Stock of the game company Serious Games. “Then you let two teams compete against each other for a couple of weeks and see which warehouse is better – the conventional one or the chaotic one”.

A simulation was developed by Serious Games for the German automobile association ADAC, in which employees learn to manage the logistics of their breakdown-assistance vehicles. “We can map conventional logistics tasks entirely. This can also be used to assess applicants – for example to identify those who cannot perform the task at all”.

Do not leave innovation to innovation departments

But do the employees really enjoy re-enacting their everyday work? “Do you know who plays bus simulations in their free time? Bus drivers”, says Stock. “Farmers play agriculture simulations. And one of the most successful games ever, The Sims, simply re-enacts everyday life”. Computer games have been a part of everyday life for a long time – “more than 50% of the German population play games. People are constantly playing and they want to compare themselves in the game, they want social ranking in the game. That is why games like World of Warcraft are so successful”.

A game in the working environment should not be quite so successful, says Stock: “If employees also play in their spare time and thus gain work knowledge, that is a red rag for the works council. It wouldn’t be permitted to have an advantage by continuing training in my free time”.

Jaschinski-Schürmann is convinced that gamification will catch on in the long run. “There are more and more younger people in decision-making positions who have grown up with games and find it a good thing in itself. There will be no area left without gamification”.

“But if that only comes from an innovation department to which one has sent the lateral thinkers, it rarely pays off”, says Christopher Kassulke of HandyGames. “Management must give it their full support”. And cope with the speed that is an essential feature of the games industry where IT projects are not planned over years but over weeks; where development, delivery and constant improvement take place in rapid cycles.

After all, it is the innovation culture in a company that determines a gamification project’s chances of success.

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