The word "sustainable" does not always refer to the environment. It can also refer to an effort that is so successful that it perpetuates itself. I was reminded of that fact when Randy Lewis, senior vice president of distribution and logistics for the drugstore chain Walgreens, spoke at a gathering of warehousing and logistics professionals earlier this year.
Lewis is the driving force behind Walgreens' extraordinary program to employ people with disabilities at its distribution center (DC) in Anderson, South Carolina, USA. Walgreens committed to the plan even before selecting a site for that facility. What's more, the company never saw it as a shortterm initiative or social experiment. Walgreens' decision to locate in Anderson was largely driven by the area's sizeable labor pool of disabled workers and the support services needed to help them succeed. "We wanted a sustainable model," Lewis has said.
And sustainable it has been. Today, workers with disabilities make up 40 percent of the work force at the Anderson DC, performing the same work as their non-disabled co-workers for the same pay. Walgreens has expanded the program to other facilities, most recently to its newest DC in the state of Connecticut. And the Walgreens example has inspired other U.S. companies, including Lowes, Best Buy, Meijer, and Sears, to make similar efforts.
In his remarks, Lewis recounted what Walgreens had learned from the effort. Some of the results were surprising. For one thing, it costs less to employ the disabled, and they have lower turnover and absenteeism than other workers, he said. They also turned out to be far more flexible than managers had envisioned. When startup hitches created problems at the DC, the disabled workers pitched right in along with everyone else to do whatever they could to help, he noted.
Another revelation has been the program's reception by other workers at the site. "We knew this would work for people who never had a job," Lewis said. "What shocked us was the impact on those without disabilities." He said managers have sent him letters describing the joys of working there. "They said that they had to know every person as an individual. That has made us better managers, better parents, better husbands and wives, better citizens."
Lewis is fond of quoting from Irish poet Seamus Heaney's "Cure at Troy": "Believe in miracles and cures and healing wells," he recites. I'd argue this success is no miracle, but simply human beings at their best.
Walgreens considers what it has accomplished to be so important—Lewis characterizes it as "the best thing we've ever done"— that it offers to help other companies do the same, inviting them to tour its distribution centers and offering information at www.walgreensoutreach.com.
"We can make a difference," Lewis says. "Try this. You won't fail."