January always brings thoughts of new beginnings, fresh starts, and a better, healthier new year. Let’s put those thoughts to work in your distribution center. While the nation is thinking about becoming leaner physically, how can you make your facility leaner?

Where to start? My suggestion is to start where the highest cost resides, which is usually order picking. But if customer service is the biggest concern, maybe packing or shipping should be the focus. Every company is different, but they all have some similarities. Kick off the program with some fun; you may want to develop a contest among the different departments or shifts. It’s amazing what people will find or accomplish if it’s a competition. Throw a pizza party for the best ideas or accomplishments or give one every Friday for a month. The first thing you need to focus on is clear and direct communication. Communication should be made in multiple forms, verbal and non-verbal. Post details on boards, add pictures of good results, get creative and remember, the more communication the better. Explain why the lean initiative is important and what you want to achieve with the program. If you want to check if you have all your basis covered in the communication plan make sure you have the data to answer how, what, when, and where. You may want to collaborate with other facilities in your network and make it a bigger effort.

Go through the functional areas of your distribution centers looking for processes that look cumbersome or that take a lot of time. An area that almost every facility has opportunity in is the start up of a shift. Do shadow boards and organize the start up tools. Make sure someone has the responsibility after each shift to set up the next shift for success. This attitude will escalate and become addictive. Your start up time should be no more than 10 minutes. If it’s taking 3 to gather the paper cutters, tape dispensers, RF gun with a fresh battery, pencils, etc., the team is wasting valuable time that can add dollars to the bottom line. Think about it: if you add 20 minutes of productivity for 10 people every day, multiply that by week, month, and year. Then multiply it by your hourly wage. One simple improvement can save big dollars yearly.

Packaging is another area where there is big opportunity; it’s a lot of repetitive motions so the supplies should be easily reached to reduce the motion and time to pack. If you have like items to pack, develop pictorial aids so each packer will pack routinely and not have to think about it. Invite your shipping partner (fresh eyes) and ask them to look at your process. These individuals have seen a lot of shipping processes so they can usually give you ideas, suggestions or needed improvements, which will make you more efficient. Look at walk times or runners. One facility I visited had 10 runners. Obviously, if you have that many runners there is an opportunity for a design enhancement. 

Order picking is usually the area that will add big dollars to your lean goal. There are usually opportunities in slotting. Make sure the order filler is reaching less and bending almost never. The more you make the associate bend the more tired that person gets and the slower they move. If you decide you need to re-slot enabling all your fast movers in the golden zone, don’t just do it one time. Develop a plan to maintain the efficient slotting and re-evaluate at least quarterly or, even better, monthly. If your order fillers are using paper to pick, you have big opportunities. Or if you are picking into anything besides the shipping carton, a new design enabling shipping carton picking may add big dollars to your lean initiative. Make being lean your goal for 2013.