Episode 10: Mountain Leverage Uses Voice-Enabled Technology Data to Disrupt the Supply Chain
Adam Honig: Hello and welcome to Make it. Move it. Sell it. On this podcast, I talk with company leaders about how they’re modernizing the business of making, moving, selling products, and of course, having fun along the way. I’m your host, Adam Honig, the CEO of Spiro.ai. We make amazing AI software for companies in the supply chain, but we are not talking about that today. Instead, today we’re talking with Alex Reneman, president of Mountain Leverage, the hands-free, eye-free company. And what that basically means is for distribution centers and other areas like manufacturing, they use voice-enabled workflow technology to help them be more productive. Alex, welcome to the show.
Alex Reneman: Thanks Adam, appreciate you having me on.
Adam Honig: Yeah, great to be here. Tell us a little bit about voice-enabled workflow technology, what the heck does that mean?
Alex Reneman: It’s a mouthful, literally, right? So really what we’re talking about is taking voice and applying it in a way… we all grew up in some kind of voice exchange, so we were taught our first things in how to do this and do that and what not to do. And so what this really is taking that kind of natural interface and applying it into a work process. And so, for instance, you can look at a warehouse where somebody today is maybe picking using a scan gun or even potentially a piece of paper that tells them to go where the product is and how much to get. And then that’s ultimately gonna get shipped to your house or to another distribution center or whatever it is, but instead of the worker looking at the device or at the paper, we actually voice enable. So we say go to aisle 15 and pick up three cans of beans or whatever slot it is, and get this item. When they get there, part of the beauty of this is their hands are free, and their eyes are free, so it’s a safety issue that if they’re driving a forklift or anything like that, they’re not looking at a screen. And once they get there, they don’t take their eyes off the work. When they get to the right location, they’re looking at the location the whole time. They’re grabbing the product, they’re putting it away, and they’re moving on to the next thing as opposed to interacting with a device. Or maybe they’re shifting focus, grabbing out the wrong bin, even if they scan the right bin. There are all kinds of things like that. So really, it’s a back and forth conversation from the system to the user and then back to the user. And then that data gets updated to whatever host system’s running that workflow.
Adam Honig: So I’m kind of hearing Siri, but for people who are in a distribution center, like hey Adam, go pick this thing and put it over there. And sort of a way to keep your hands busy, which a lot of these guys, and it’s mostly guys I would say, are dealing with in a distribution center or a factory floor or something like that.
Alex Reneman: It is like that. So it’s surprising the diversity in a warehouse, you’d be shocked. It’s all kinds of walks of life, ages and everything. But I’ll tell you what’s interesting, Siri, Google Voice, all those guys have gotten a lot better, but man, if you had to use that for an 8 to 10-hour shift or whatever, you would want to throw your head through the brick wall. So it’s a little bit different from a technology perspective based on accuracy. So you’re not going to repeat yourself a ton, and it’s not very wordy. I mean you don’t wanna have a long conversation on the way to pick an item, right? It’s kind of quick, but it helps pace the work. So yeah, obviously when you hear about productivity and accuracy, it is great for the company. So the customer themself loves that, it’s just a way for them to save money and make sure they’re being accurate. But from a worker’s perspective, the worker satisfaction, those jobs are tough. They’re demanding physically and also they can be kind of mind-numbing. And when you have something that can help pace you in a great way, and you can even put gamification around it if you wanna do that. But worker satisfaction goes up on this stuff, and that’s really important in today’s job market.
Adam Honig: Yeah, I can imagine. In talking with people, I’m hearing turnover has gotten really high in a lot of these facilities. And so I would imagine even from a training perspective, this kind of solution might be very helpful to people.
Alex Reneman: For sure. I mean obviously, if you have somebody who knows about all the function keys and various things on a scanner or whatever else, then those people can translate pretty well from site to site, but it’s ramp-up time. So with voice, you walk in, and again, we’ve all been using that interface from day one, and it’s a pretty simple process for sure.
Adam Honig: Yeah, so sometimes people have trouble listening as we know, but how do they experience the solution? Are they wearing a headset or is it talking over a speaker or how does that happen?
Alex Reneman: There are various solutions out there. Some of them you can hear it only from a wristband and those kinds of things. But when you’re really optimally implementing voice, there is a speaker, there’s a headset and a microphone that blocks out all the outside noise and all that. And it’s a conversation that’s pretty straightforward and very accurate. So you’re not having a lot of repeats yourself or didn’t hear this or didn’t hear that or heard the wrong bin. It’s really important. And I think when you look at that conversation and you go to the workforce, you mentioned people have trouble holding on to people today. I think the whole conversation around this generation or this working generation, some of that can be overblown, but the reality is, across every generation, we all have interacted with voice and we can take that interaction. So this fits some of those where some folks might point to the younger generation needs this or needs that. Yeah, okay, fine, but they can have a conversation, and so it’s a native interface for them to do their work. And then you can kind of pace in chunks, which certainly applies to many of the generations when you put all that together and start trying to stereotype in that way.
Adam Honig: So you do have TikTok feeding into it occasionally just to keep the younger generation engaged.
Alex Reneman: Absolutely, interstitial videos that pop in with some of the latest you know? No, none of that.
Adam Honig: Coordinated dance moves amongst the team members on the factory floor.
Alex Reneman: That’s right, pipe through some music, all of it.
Adam Honig: Yeah, I love that. So can you tell us a little bit about one of your customers maybe? Like who’s a typical customer type?
Alex Reneman: Sure. I would say everybody listening now has opened their fridge and pulled something out of it that has run across a voice system. So really all of your major grocers, your major retailers, your distributors, a lot of the unknown cats that are in that supply chain model that people don’t know the names of that really power things and get things moved around the country and around the world, those are the guys that are running voice for mission-critical operations. They’ve gotta get this stuff out on time. And never in a time in my career has supply chain been on the end of everybody’s tongue. When the pandemic hit and we had supply chain problems… I mean now my 12-year-old son will come home from school and say we talked about supply chain in school today. It’s crazy. So it is one of those things, it’s just right there in front of everybody’s face and it’s fantastic to be right in the middle of that. And it’s a neat technology, but it’s more so about the outcomes that it can bring in those operations and with these challenges today.
Adam Honig: Yeah, so I know a lot of things that we talk about on this podcast are around supply chain agility, right? And I wonder if using this approach, whether you’re able to make the team more flexible too. Like towards the end of the day things change a little bit, and different order of operations needs to occur. Is that part of what the use case is that people are seeing?
Alex Reneman: Yeah, that’s a good call. I can give an example. We were working with a customer who had an assembly line and they had a couple stations along their assembly line. One was maybe a 30-minute station, there’s a 60-minute station and a 30-minute station. And instead of having to employ three people, they can employ two and have one person flex from one to the other because voice can walk them through those steps. Maybe you have a blowup graphic diagram of what they need to assemble. You take that into a warehouse, and if somebody moves from picking to potentially putting things away or receiving or whatever, they can just switch right then, and so it is a flexible technology. Not only that, when you look in a warehouse, things change and that’s the only constant, right? Is change. And so the customer comes to the supplier and says hey, we need to have these now in eaches as opposed to in a big case or whatever else. You don’t have to move a bunch of stuff, you tell the software to send those orders down and the worker can just continue to work. So it’s really adaptable to what’s going on in the operation.
Adam Honig: Gotcha. Yeah, I can definitely see how it makes the whole team just that much more flexible as they’re dealing with the day-to-day. So kind of stepping back for a little bit because you were working with a lot of companies in the supply chain, things seem to be getting better, seem to be getting worse, everything’s all kind of mixed up. What’s your take on where the supply chain is today?
Alex Reneman: Yeah, you’re right, it does seem to be getting a little better. I don’t know how much of that’s just raw of rosy colored glasses; we’re looking for it to be better, but I sense it is at some point. But it’s still a challenge, and I do think this is an opportunity for anybody running a business in this sector or elsewhere. The expectation is well, of course there’s supply chain challenges, we’re all kind of facing those, so then how do you still win? How do you bring the best to your customers? And this is as it’s always been, is service. It’s making sure you’re bringing the right outcomes to your customers regardless of the technology, regardless of what’s available or not. But we are absolutely seeing it, our customers are seeing it, and they’re all struggling with it, but it’s itching when ‘necessity is the mother of invention’ kind of thing. You’re really seeing some companies come up with good strategies in their business. And one of the things that I really enjoy in working in distribution centers for years, that often is the redheaded stepchild of the company. And they don’t get the focus from the head office and those kinds of things. Now they’re getting a lot more focus, and a lot more money. What is the problem? How can we help it? So it’s good for the folks that we’ve worked with for all these decades that are actually getting some attention within their corporations to be able to solve the problems that they’ve run into daily.
Adam Honig: Right because they have become the bottleneck at this point, right?
Alex Reneman: Right, and very visible, that’s right.
Adam Honig: Yeah, exactly. And when it’s on the front page of the newspaper, it’s super hard to avoid as you were saying. And we’ve been seeing a lot of people investing in predictive analytics for the supply chain, you know, trying to figure out what’s gonna be coming down the pike for them, like how do they forecast accurately? We’ve been seeing customers loading up on inventory, we’ve been seeing customers skinning down on inventory. It’s just been all over the place. It’s super interesting right now.
Alex Reneman: It really is interesting. And that’s one of the things we’ve enjoyed. Again, it is about technology, but it’s not, it’s about outcomes ultimately. And so that’s one of the things we see, a lot of data is coming through our system and we can present that in a way that brings insights to the customer in terms of true business decisions they can make off that data. It’s huge. And so whether that’s on the inventory side or on the workflow side or anything in between, there are some insights in that data. And I love that trend, I love that everybody’s hopping on board with that. And you’re seeing smarter and smarter solutions out there that aren’t just giant. You remember the days of oh, I’ve seen this giant report and it’s a business sales report. It’s like managing my company through the rearview mirror and that’s just not helpful. And so stuff that’s going on now and things that we’ve been doing with our customers, it’s neat to see that we can get that done and help them make good decisions going forward.
Adam Honig: Yeah. I wanna talk about outcomes for a minute because I’m hearing a trend from you of a lot of focus on that. And I worked early in my career for an MIT professor who was focused on outcomes. He thought that there were really only three true business outcomes, there was growing revenue, making more money, or increasing customer satisfaction. And I’m very curious, what kind of trends you’re seeing about the outcomes that customers are seeing or seeking as you’re talking to them?
Alex Reneman: Yeah, so that’s interesting. And it’s always ever-evolving, but we’re right in this mishmash of the pandemic, the supply chain piece, now the economy cooling off, purposefully so with the Fed and different things. And so we’re right in the middle of all that. So it’s kind of different across the board, but I found customer satisfaction, but when we start there, the money and the profitability and the growth come. And not that it comes in a dumb way, you gotta be strategic about it and savvy. But if you aren’t truly getting customer satisfaction, I’m not in, I don’t think that’s a way to grow business. So I do think we start there, but when you look at some of our customers and what they’re looking for in this market, it’s really interesting because you’ll see different data that comes out in the industry. You’ll see, okay, because of what we see or potentially see or fear or hear about the economy, we’re gonna reduce our technology spend. Okay, great. But then they are gonna increase their spend on how do we make workers more productive? Okay, great. Well oftentimes it’s technology that can help the workers be productive, and so it’s a really weird time. And that’s why we try not to get too wrapped up whether it is the technology or it’s the thing or the widget or whatever. What are you trying to accomplish, Mr. Customer, Mrs customer, and let us help guide you to that outcome. And it may be technology, it may be voice, it may not be. We find a lot of our customers come to us continually about things that aren’t voice-related at all. It’s an outcome they’re trying to get to and we try to help them get there.
Adam Honig: Yeah, I find that predictability seems to be such a high goal for most companies that yes, we wanna have good relationships, but what drives those good relationships is being able to communicate and making sure we can set expectations so that we can get things done in the time that we tell people that we do.
Alex Reneman: Yeah, that may be indicative. In a drought, all you want is water. With everything so uncertain, all they want is certainty. It would make total sense, right? And we do see that for sure, and I think that dependability is really important in any phase of business you’re in.
Adam Honig: Totally. Well tell me a little bit about what you’re seeing from an HR perspective. I mean a lot of the people I’ve been talking to have been saying that the great resignation has caused a lot of turnover and turmoil. Are you seeing that in the distribution centers and the manufacturers that you guys work with?
Alex Reneman: Oh yeah, you see salaries going up, but it’s more than that. I think savvy managers and companies know that it’s more than just pay, it’s the quality of work. And I referenced that earlier. Look, all success in any company is about the people, right? A satisfied worker is a productive worker, those kinds of things. And so we are seeing folks paying a little more attention to the holistic look of the worker, which I think is fantastic at a moment in our society. And not everybody, it’s not all sunshine and rainbows, I get it. But in the past, we spent a lot of time internally on our people and the value our people bring and making sure they’re flourishing in their roles and making adjustments to make sure that that’s the case. And in conversations with prospects and customers through the years, not that it’s fallen on deaf ears, but it’s not been as important. We’re finding that much more important now. People are interested in okay, how can our workers be fulfilled? Is what we’re talking about here, this solution, whether it be voice or anything, does it help our workers flourish? And that’s fun to see that start happening. And I think it’s good, I think it’s good for the workers, I think it’s good for the companies, and I think it’s good for the economy overall.
Adam Honig: Yeah, I have a thesis that if you can technologically enable the team, they’re gonna feel happier in their job and more supported. And that solutions like what we’re talking about with voice can actually drive people to stay around longer.
Alex Reneman: There’s no question, and I wish I had the study, I just read it the other day and I wish I had it to reference it properly, but it basically said just that, it was like workers want to know how they’re performing and they wanna be enabled to perform better. And obviously there are some people that wouldn’t wanna perform great, no matter what you paid them or how comfortable it was, whatever. That’s not what we’re talking about. Your typical workers, average workers, and your above average workers, they wanna be productive. I think it’s a human need. We all wanna be productive and have good outcomes, and so when they can be enabled with either technology or feedback in the process that can help them be better, they want that. Now the trick is oftentimes companies will do that in a way where it’s almost like tricking the worker to be more productive. And that’s not what we’re talking about, we’re talking about giving the worker the information they need and we do this over voice so that they can be more productive. And when you find that you bring average workers to above average workers because now they have a path to be successful, and it’s pretty cool.
Adam Honig: There’s a little bit of a dilemma in that you bring everybody to be above average, of course, you dragged it up the average too. So I don’t know mathematically if that MIT professor that I was talking about would go with us, but I’m with you. Let’s get everybody to be above average.
Alex Reneman: That’s right. Traditional average, we’ll put it that way.
Adam Honig: Traditional, yeah. So I was talking with a podcast guest a couple episodes ago about some of the crazier projects that she’s been involved with. And they’re in a business that makes saws or concrete you know, construction and stuff like that. And they’ve taken down some massively big buildings using this technology. I’m just wondering if there’s any sort of crazy customer stories you can share with us about things that you guys have done that’s really like wow, that’s kind of amazing.
Alex Reneman: Yeah, interesting. So I’d like to say absolutely, here’s this wild crazy thing. We’ve got customers who do cool stuff, but it’s cool stuff in a niche that’s maybe a nerdy niche for us. Right now it’s distribution, it’s assembly, it’s the things that are pretty straightforward. They do [Inaudible 17:18] with giant warehouses, the multiple football fields long and just cool stuff. But now, by and large, it’s pretty pick and shovel work man, it’s the grit that runs our economy and trying to get goods around the world. And so although it’s cool to us, it may not be cool to most people listening on the podcast today.
Adam Honig: I think a lot of people on the podcast are into that real work kind of thing. But doing the day-to-day, super important, and getting stuff packed and shipped. I mean no money’s gonna be coming in unless we get that done, I can tell you that.
Alex Reneman: That’s right. I will tell you there’s some really interesting stuff that we’ve been looking at there. When you work with a customer for a while and you gain their trust as a trusted advisor, sometimes you get into projects that you just never would imagine. And so we’ve been into things with RFID, in terms of tracking things differently, and robotics, augmented reality, all the buzzwords you hear out in the world, customers wanna try them with you when they trust you. And so we’ve been into all kinds of things like that, and it is really neat, but again, it’s always about outcomes. Just because you can do it doesn’t mean you should. Just like at Spiro, you guys could do all kinds of stuff with your software, but if it doesn’t create value for your customers, you’re not gonna do it, right? And so it kind of comes down to that.
I know a lot of folks listening, if they’re in the industry or maybe looking and even sometimes have some anxiety about what’s the next technology that’s gonna come and our competitor is gonna install it and wipe us out or whatever else. I mean there’s still a lot of folks using 40 plus year old scanning technology and it’s still out there. And voice is certainly a solid choice, but it’s interesting to see as robotics comes around the corner and what that’ll bring in augmented reality. Obviously we see those as complementary technologies, those are edge technologies to what an operation is already trying to do. If it gets them a little further ahead, great, but the reality is most operations today, that’s still a bit of a reach, both from a financial perspective and a technological perspective. But that’s where I love what we’re doing in the space we’re in because voice is really on that path to automation. It gets people there, it’s a pretty simple implementation and now they’re on the path and they can begin to make those upgrades to go beyond the technological path, whatever it may be on that path to automation.
Adam Honig: Right, so I was gonna ask you about what you were seeing in the future coming up for voice? Or can you listen to what’s going on and pick up clues from the ambient sounds that are going on? Where do you see the future of this kind of technology?
Alex Reneman: Yeah, it’s a good call because there is that mix of privacy. So we make sure we aren’t violating anybody’s privacy by trying to listen in too much or anything. It’s about a command, you know, back and forth of just specific commands we’re listening for. That said, there’s certainly trends in the data. You already mentioned it in terms of the insightful data that’s pulled in. You plugged in again, more buzzwords, AI, you plug that into things, does this help better decision making on the floor? Where do you place your products on your distribution floor? Or from a manufacturing perspective, are the raw materials coming in on time? All those things are interesting. And so I think when we look at where it’s going, it’s hard to look past robotics and think that there’s some play there and it’s certainly happening in the industry. On a smaller scale it doesn’t sound like, but it’s certainly happening. Again, the augmented reality stuff’s exciting to me, we’re not there yet from a technology standpoint honestly, but it’s getting there and I think that’s the kind of stuff that’s exciting. But really, that data piece that you mentioned, that’s probably gonna bring the biggest impact. Which sounds silly because everybody’s all excited about the hardware stuff, but it’s probably that that will make the biggest difference. But man, Adam, again, it all comes down to people. Regardless of all the exciting stuff and the lights and how bright they get, it’s still are we helping the worker be more productive and more effective in their job?
Adam Honig: Right, so if they’re predictive in analytics, you know, just provide a report, then who cares? We gotta help people get their jobs done. I’m totally with you on that. I’ve been personally feeling like there’s been a lot of investment in smart manufacturing and things like that, are we getting the return on it yet? Do we just have to keep pressing or is it something else we need to focus on? I think it’s a bit of an open question personally.
Alex Reneman: It is. And I think the more you lean, you either go through the door or you fall to the side and go through the window. I mean you get there, right? You keep pressing forward. And you look at their manufacturing plants, and like you said, lights out in distributions. Well there aren’t people in them, but there are people that are affected by that on one end or the other, and again, you’re trying to create better outcomes there. And so I think we just gotta keep leaning forward, but keep outcomes in mind. At least that’s what we try to do and it’s served us well so far and served our customers well and that’ll continue to be our mantra until something tells me it isn’t the effective one.
Adam Honig: Gotcha. Leaning forward but not falling out the window, I think you said. I love that. I think we’re gonna have to use that for now. That’s awesome. Alex, this has been excellent. I really appreciate your coming on the podcast. You know, talking about voice and how it can help folks, fantastic, but I think even more, this conversation that we had about outcomes and how every business should just be focused on what are their customers trying to achieve and how do we help them get there. That’s the mission of every business and I’m so happy you brought that up because it does get lost in the shuffle. So this has been super great, really appreciate that.
Hey, so just as a reminder to everybody here, you can find every episode of the Make it. Move it. Sell it. podcast at Spiro.ai/podcast, be sure to subscribe. And I don’t know, if you thought Alex made any sense here, if you like leaning out the window but not falling in or whatever the heck he just said, maybe give us a thumbs up or a nice review. I don’t know, Alex, you think people should do that?
Alex Reneman: They should totally do that, yes, no question.
Adam Honig: Oh yeah, why not? Come on, what’s it gonna cost you? Nothing.
Alex Reneman: It’ll create great outcomes, do it.
Adam Honig: There we go. Even if you just got something from the outcomes part of the discussion, you should do that. But thanks everybody for turning in and we are looking forward to seeing you on the next episode.
Alex Reneman: Great, thanks Adam.