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Dec. 14 2016 08:44 AM

As the holidays approach and people turn their minds to gift buying, business surges are realized in the distribution center. Many will experience all-time highs, and others will call in a number of temporary employees to handle the extra load. Processes must be in place so temp employees can get up to speed as quickly as possible. Since order picking in most facilities is where all the action is, it is here that the greatest opportunities for improvement can be found.

Training & Attitude

Do you have room for improvement? Usually, the answer is yes. As mentioned earlier, training is often at the top of the list. When was the last time an overall training program was completed? Do order pickers know why they are doing certain steps? If they don’t, many may find the steps irrelevant and skip the process, thinking there is no harm. A typical distribution center will experience between 50-60% turnover rate in this area per year (yes, I know many facilities have much higher rates, while some smaller facilities have much lower, but this is the average). With that kind of high turnover, a training program is instrumental in the success of productivity and accuracy. Plus, with holiday rush periods, temporary help is commonplace. Some in the order fulfillment world will experience over 50% of their volumes during this period. Training, especially if you have a WMS, pick-to-light, carousels, or any type of automation or software, is critical.

Another area of improvement is second or third shifts. Often the productivity/accuracy rates are lower on these shifts, and managers seem to be okay with this. Why? Your team should be productive and accurate whether it’s light or dark. So work on building that team of supervisors on off shifts.

My favorite area is attitude. Okay, I see you rolling your eyes! But in many facilities I visit, there is this attitude about the order fillers like they are second-class citizens, and that attitude promotes a complacency that is prevalent in the area. They think no one cares, so why should they bother to do a good job? This is a management issue that many higher-ups don’t even know exist. When was the last time you walked the floor or picked an order? Do you have a recognition or affirmation program? Seriously, do you spend more time catching people doing things right or do you focus on catching them doing things wrong? Do you know what it costs per error? If you ship short, most will hear about it, but what if you ship too many? On a rental car bus once, I was admiring a business traveler’s roller briefcase. She said, “I ordered it online, it was $250 but they sent me two, so I gave one to my sister.” This unfortunately is a common scenario, and many times the distribution center doesn’t realize they have the problem.


When performing an audit in one distribution center that had an abnormally high number of errors, I discovered a surprising issue. Many order fillers could not count. We administered a simple math test, and unfortunately, 30% did not pass. Tracking the errors and having accountability is another gold nugget. In the early days of pick-to-light, it was not uncommon to get at least a 50% increase in productivity. One of the tangible gains was from accountability, which is why labor management systems are so popular. If employees know that you will see everything they have done, they have a different mindset. Whether you have a manual system or an automated system, accountability is a huge key for productivity and accuracy. If you don’t know who picked every order every time, start today with a manual system to accomplish accountability, and down the road, look to an automated system. Start a KPI (Key Performance Indicators) or benchmarking program; it will pay dividends.


Slotting is another area of opportunity. A great example is the golden zone. Do you need sophisticated slotting software to put your fast movers in the golden zone? No, a simple spreadsheet and a little management guidance will work fabulously. Review your slotting today. Look for fast movers on the bottom. If you have a fast mover on the bottom of a gravity flow rack and you are making an order picker bend every time they pick it over a period of a couple of hours, productivity will go down over 10%. Depending on volumes, it could be more. While you’re looking at slotting, don’t forget the guys stocking. If the order filler goes to the slot and has to wait for product, you’ve just created a bottleneck.

Susan Rider, President of Rider & Associates, can be reached at