Even if you’re not in the parcel industry, the concept of different packaging levels requires no introduction. Rather than making one single box, bag, carton or container responsible for doing everything from storing and promoting your product to keeping it safe during shipping, levels allow several varied layers to achieve the same goals. 
In many ways, streamlining your logistics operations is much the same, because no matter how large or small your facilities are, they’re full of opportunities to reduce waste and improve efficiency at various layers – and many reasons why it makes good sense to take advantage of a combination. 

Level One: Your Employees 

For starters, consider the value that the individuals working on your DC floors can bring to the table.
Nearly a decade ago, my company did just that when we launched a formal Lean program and decided to give the professionals at each facility the opportunity to spearhead the program’s projects instead of insisting that all of them be run by corporate executives. Over the years, these employee-driven teams have come up with highly innovative ideas for projects that we otherwise might have overlooked, helped us execute a nationwide 5S effort in a matter of months and enabled us to complete many more projects than one small, higher-level department could have executed. In the process, they’ve played an instrumental role in helping us generate more than $47 million in savings. 

We’ve witnessed a similar phenomenon within the safety committees at each of our facilities. (And if you don’t think a high-performing safety program is part of streamlining operations, think again. There’s a lot of inefficiency that occurs when an injured employee isn’t functioning at 100% or you have to use a less experienced replacement while an injured employee is out of pocket.) Often populated by clerical, hourly and non-supervisory professionals, these committees have been the creative force behind some of the most well-received and effective training materials, events, games and programs being used in our company’s safety program today. 

Level Two: Your Equipment

If your company wants to give its logistics efficiency a more literal lift, the next level of streamlining – optimizing the performance of industrial equipment such as forklifts – could be an ideal fit. 

Forklifts are costly assets that are worth their weight in gold when they’re moving heavy loads from Point A to Point B. However they’re a prime example of unused capacity during their return journey to point A, because they’re usually traveling without cargo. 
Forklift task interleaving has the potential to eliminate most of these empty transits by changing these vehicles’ inefficient boomerang-like route configurations into more circular, multi-stop ones that involve several productive tasks along the way. As a result, companies can make considerably better use of their forklifts’ traveling time while also significantly impacting the overall efficiency of the operation. 

It’s important to note that like Facebook relationships, interleaving can be complicated. It can’t be executed well without the help of highly trained engineers. And it absolutely requires robust systems as well as a layout and slotting plan that incorporates interleaving functionality. As a result, it may not be an option for every operation. However given the proper support, it can also be well worth the effort, especially if your operation uses multiple forklifts. 

Level Three: Labor Management Systems

In case you didn’t get the memo, labor often represents the single largest expense in most warehousing and fulfillment operations, which is why the next level of facility streamlining is growing in popularity. 

Labor Management Systems are highly advanced technologies that enable companies to measure, monitor and enhance workforce productivity to the nth degree. Used in conjunction with sophisticated engineering techniques, they can help operations do everything from improving individual employees’ accountability and pinpointing star performers to improving managers’ efficacy and enabling better planning and scheduling. In the process, they can usually lower an operation’s workforce expenses by anywhere from five to 30%. 

Not surprisingly, these great benefits often come at great expense. It’s not unusual for LMSs — and the professionals’ time it takes to get them implemented — to cost as much as $1 million per facility (although there are also many highly productive LMSs that that cost less than 10% of this, and they often have most if not all of the functionality you’ll need.) 
However speaking from my company’s own positive experience, choosing to invest in these systems for your larger, more complex operations may be one of the wisest decisions you’ll ever make. 

Level Four: Warehousing Collaboration

The final recommended level, warehousing and supply chain collaboration, is perhaps the toughest sell of all, at least judging from the small number of companies that are actually engaging in it. 

Much has been written about this practice in recent years, and people have been almost unanimous in their praise about its considerable value proposition. After all, who can argue with benefits like building more cost-effective loads, splitting the costs of assets or sharing highly qualified personnel? But so far it’s been all talk and little action, and many believe it’s because most companies are still looking for perfect matches.

The good news is, finding collaborative partners may be easier than you think, because companies’ logistics operations don’t have to be doppelgangers in order for them to succeed at collaboration. All it really takes is some sort of supply chain parallel or intersection such as: a need for one company’s product pick-ups near another’s product drop-off points or the presence of additional fulfillment capacity for one company in a market where another happens to need fulfillment services but doesn’t have the capacity to justify a standalone operation. 

So don’t hold off on trying collaboration until all the partnership stars align. You could be waiting a very long time and missing out on some powerful efficiency-building advantages in the interim. 

Bonus Level: All of the Above

The nice thing about the tactics within these levels is that each can easily be implemented on its own — and rolled out as circumstances allow. 

Just as important each also has the potential to mesh very well with the others and to become even more powerful when used together. 

In fact, the more multi-faceted and many-layered you can make your efforts to streamline supply chain operations, the more likely you are to meet with success — and ultimately to take your logistics excellence to a whole new level. 

Kyle Oslos is Senior Director at APL Logistics, one of the world’s largest providers of warehousing, transportation and other global logistics services for industries such as retail, consumer goods, industrial and automotive.