Editor's Note: This is the final part of a three-part series. If you would like to view parts one and two, you can access those here and here.

Previously, we discussed an in-depth process for improving warehouse efficiencies – reviewing current processes and identifying areas of improvement; documenting process workflows; projecting inventory and SKU requirements; and defining cost drivers and developing alternatives to be reviewed. In the second part of this series we identified space and equipment requirements. This month, we will focus on defining the framework to manage and monitor processes, developing a transition plan, and prescribing re-engineered business processing procedures. The final step is to implement changes and make sure that they meet specific requirements.

Define Processes - Track, Monitor, and Manage

Once areas for improvement within the warehouse have been defined, it’s time to start the real work of implementing solutions within your warehouse to fix the problems within your picking, packing, sorting and shipping processes. Statistics show that adding new material handling automation equipment can reclaim inefficient processes in the distribution center. Lost time and productivity occurs if there is no automation in the areas of picking, packing, sorting, loading, and unloading.

The order picking processes are an important part of the supply chain system. They are often labor-intensive, so improving these processes with automation will increase worker productivity, throughput, and accuracy. Adding picking technologies, like pick-to-light, RF, and pick-to-voice can minimize touches, decrease errors in picking, and speed throughput.

While many companies focus on squeezing every drop of efficiency out of their picking process, each individual order must still be packaged and marked for transit before shipment. Therefore, focusing on your packing process is key to efficiency improvements, as well. Quite often, orders that move through pack qualify for a dynamic manifest as opposed to the common static manifest, which includes placing a box onto a table scale, checking the contents, inserting a pack slip, void filling, and taping. This manual process can take anywhere from 30 seconds to two minutes to complete. Even with the quickest workforce in the world, dynamic manifesting, which leverages automation to improve efficiencies, can improve your manifesting operations by 2,000%.

Put-away is the process of moving material from the dock and transporting it to a warehouse’s storage, replenishment, or pick area. Companies can best manage the put-away area by calculating resource and space requirements based on expected receipts and current backlogs. It is best to put away products the same day they are received, because not doing so affects space, causes congestion, increases transaction errors, and makes products more susceptible to damage.

In your warehouse or DC, it is essential to have established receiving processes in place, such as shipment inspection and appropriate paperwork, to minimize errors. Advanced shipping notifications (ASNs) alert receivers prior to what products to expect and give an expected arrival time. Knowing what is coming into the warehouse enables managers to pre-plan receiving for the day, which includes having the right equipment and correct number of workers available to move products through the receiving process.

Once automation is applied to your system, you need to monitor and measure the processes. Using a warehouse control system (WCS) to manage the equipment in your warehouse will provide real-time insight into and control over the entire fulfillment process. The WCS acts as the brain for any automated distribution center, providing communication between the WMS and all the material handling equipment and processes needed to complete an efficient distribution system.

Develop the Transition Plan

Once the pitfalls have been found and solutions applied to them, typically in the form of automation or improved slotting/storage, etc., training of workers is required to smooth the transition to new procedures and processes. Work with a one-stop shop material handling systems integrator that offers complete installation services, which should include training of how to use the equipment. Proper mechanical and electrical installation is a vital component for every material handling system. Proper installation ensures the material handling equipment will work properly, the equipment warranties are maintained, and that the facility is in compliance with local codes.

Most importantly, any warehouse project can’t be successful without cooperation of the organization from top to bottom. Encourage the organization to engage with new processes and systems and to embrace changes rather than resist them. Include everyone in the process with training and support. Let people know what is happening and allow them to voice concerns, which will make it a lot easier for all employees to accept the changes.

Prescribe Re-Engineered Business Processing Procedures

Business process reengineering (BPR) is the analysis and redesign of workflows within and between enterprises to optimize end-to-end processes and automate non-value-added tasks. Michael Hammer wrote in Harvard Business Review seven reengineering principles that can be followed, which include:

  • Organize around outcomes, not tasks.
  • Identify all the processes in an organization and prioritize them in order of redesign urgency.
  • Integrate information processing work into the real work that produces the information.
  • Treat geographically dispersed resources as though they were centralized.
  • Link parallel activities in the workflow instead of just integrating their results.
  • Put the decision point where the work is performed, and build control into the process.
  • Capture information once and at the source.

This technique, while introduced in the early 90’s, still holds today and will lead to dramatic improvements in performance.

Implement and Test

Once the new system, processes, and procedures have been introduced and put in place in the warehouse, testing is suggested to ensure everything works together in harmony. Many warehouses run parallel operations, both manual and automated, to make sure workers know how to operate the machinery, the equipment is operating properly, and improvements in efficiency are actually being realized. Once the equipment passes the test, manual processes are removed and the switch to full automation is a go.

At this time, you might think the process of analyzing your operations is over. In fact, it is a continual process of testing, fine-tuning, measuring, and tweaking to keep making the operation better and better.

Jim McLafferty is Director of Post and Parcel Sales at DMW&H. He brings 25+ years of experience in the material handling industry, building lasting partnerships with clients by delivering cost effective, high quality professional services that keep clients’ businesses operating smoothly and efficiently. Jim is also a thought leader in postal deliveries and parcel shipments, and the equipment and systems needed within a warehouse or distribution center to facilitate package deliveries.