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Automation Fits Famous Footwear

May 1, 1996
Related Topics: Featured Article
One of the great challenges for human resources departments in large, decentralized corporations is finding ways to help managers at remote locations improve their employees' productivity. In the case of Madison, Wisconsin-based Famous Footwear, productivity means selling shoes—a heckuva lot of shoes! To meet that goal, the company innovated automated HR functions to improve productivity and ensure its managers' operational consistency in 1992.

Famous Footwear's transition occurred in the midst of an aggressive national expansion. Four years ago, it had 400 stores with annual sales of approximately $300 million. By the end of 1995, the company had grown to 800 stores in 44 states with annual sales of $733 million. To put this accomplishment in perspective, during a time when many retailers have had flat or declining sales, Famous Footwear opened an average of one new store every three days for three years in a row.

High standards apply to employees and footwear.
The company's remarkable growth has been achieved by following a two-fold strategy. First, it focuses on delivering high-quality products at affordable prices to its target market (or as the company slogan says, "brandname shoes for less for the entire family").

Equally critical, Famous Footwear's management places a premium on hiring, training and retaining a success-oriented, highly motivated workforce. Earl B. Fischer, vice president of information services says, "By filling jobs with the right people at the right time and ensuring the work schedule for every shift is complete, we effectively increase the volume of shoe sales per hour and per transaction."

With only 15 human resources professionals (14 of whom are located in the home office) to serve more than 8,500 employees scattered throughout 44 states, the HR department continually looks for ways to improve efficiencies. A major part of its success can be attributed to the department's decision to automate the flow of information and services throughout the enterprise.

The automation strategy began to take shape when Famous Footwear's information services (IS) group installed in each store NCR 7057 PCs that tied into an IBM AS/400 in the home office. This computer network enabled field offices to have immediate access to updated information in the home office. As the benefits of using technology to automate inventory management at the point of sale reverberated throughout the company, the HR staff recognized the corporate advantages that could be achieved by automating a variety of HR functions.

The HR automation effort was tied to Famous Footwear's business objectives from the start. "Our primary criterion for choosing HR software," says Jan Hardyman, director of employee relations and benefits, "was to make a significant impact on the business." After extensive evaluation of multiple automation approaches, HR management chose a suite of HR and communications application software products developed by Park City Group in Park City, Utah. Components of the ActionManager family of business operations automation solutions implemented by Famous Footwear included Interactive Tutor, a computer-based training tool; CheckUp, which automates skills appraisal by making it possible to measure employee proficiency with interval testing; ReadyReference, an online reference that provides easy access to corporate policy and procedure bases; ActionMail, electronic mail software designed to map organizational infrastructure; ActionForm, which supports electronic forms and streamlines such paper-based processes as pay changes and employee reviews; and SmartHire, a smart-screening tool for the initial interview process.

"Automation helps in terms of consistency of message. It helps when 800 stores are doing the same things in the same way in the same time frame," says Hardyman.

Skills assessment aids training.
People who are the best at what they do sometimes appear to accomplish great things with little sign of effort; however, appearances can be deceiving. For example, when you see basketball superstar Michael Jordan leap from the baseline and glide above his fellow players to stuff the ball in a resounding "dunk," you don't see the thousands of hours he spent practicing his craft as a child in North Carolina. One of the key ways in which Famous Footwear is leveraging information technology is by creating a training and skills assessment course behind the scenes that will train its sales associates to be stars on the court.

To meet the unique needs of sales managers and sales associates scattered across the country, the HR department developed a training program that profits from a strategic mix of computer-based training, instructional videos and traditional one-on-one methods. The training schedule is arranged so each new employee uses the Interactive Tutor training module before going out onto the floor for personal sales training.

Famous Footwear also uses a training program for new assistant managers. "We have a 2+2 rule whereby after the training has taken place, we give the associates two weeks to assimilate that knowledge and be able to apply it on the job," says Jones. "At that point, they take a computer-based skill assessment. If the skill assessment points to a problem area, we give the trainees another two weeks to become more capable at performing the skill."

At that point, the store manager administers a demonstrated skill feedback test to make sure the assistant manager can answer specific job-related questions and actually can perform the desired tasks while being observed. The goal is to ensure a manager can say, without any qualification, that the person whose skills are being evaluated can perform all the required tasks according to the company's expectations.

Automated systems speed the paperwork trail.
Some of the greatest gains in HR efficiency have come from software tools that operate company-wide as opposed to those designed specifically for the HR area. Combining the electronic forms application with the e-mail system, for example, dramatically decreased paperwork.

"With the old system, it would take from three days to a week to get new-hire paperwork in the mail from a state such as South Carolina to the home office in Wisconsin," says Hardyman. "Then payroll would key in data such as name, social security number and deductions, and a few days later the paper package would arrive in human resources. We would pull out the benefits section, add pertinent information and then pass the package along. We have moved to a much more efficient process.

A key way Famous Footware is leveraging information technology is by creating a training and skills assesment course to train its sales associates to be stars in the court.

"With ActionForm and ActionMail, we usually can access new-hire information on the same day paperwork is filled out. This saves paying the cost of an overnight service or waiting the time it takes for a package to come by regular mail."

Hardyman adds, "The system now is set up to operate by what we call management by exception whereby the only new-hire paperwork we look at is for people who don't complete the initial benefits paperwork application. We receive a one-page exception report every Wednesday that lists the outstanding benefit forms needed."

Famous Footwear has implemented the multi-module ActionManager system over a four-year schedule. The final component, Smart Hire, has been in testing and is scheduled to be operational in all stores by June.

"It provides the interviewer with probe questions so that if the applicant answers a question differently from the response the company is looking for, it provides questions for the manager to ask which will probe the possible reasons for the response," says Jones.

Clearly, Jones is excited about the positive impact automation has had on the multiple HR processes at Famous Footwear. However, she cautions others not to look at automation as the panacea to cure all their problems. "You must have reasonable expectations as to what the software will do for you," says Jones. "Even with a highly automated HR system such as ours, some of the problems you have in areas such as compliance aren't going to disappear completely."

Personnel Journal, May 1996, Vol. 75, No. 5, pp. 132-133.

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