These are trying times. COVID-19 has considerably affected every one of us, and most of us believe it will change the world forever. The supply chain industry, along with all other major industries, is experiencing and attempting to manage during — dare I say it — the “new normal.” And, after all, trying times are for trying.
Warehouses are generally considered “essential businesses” because supply chains can’t just stop supplying items, no matter what is going on in the world outside. Pandemic safety protocols have taken precedence over warehouse efficiency, as they should, and notable delays have occurred, but the warehouses of most businesses have adapted so they can continue to serve their customers. This warehouse evolution has been a necessary but painful process.
But what if there is an upside? Is it possible that this pandemic has forced businesses to take steps that can not only reduce the risk of viral infections among their warehouse workforces, but can also serve the greater good of the business itself? Grab a dab of hand sanitizer, and let’s look at some ways the pandemic might have a positive effect on warehouse operations.
Mitigation of Risks
Supply chain risk management has been a hot topic in the industry in recent years. In context, most businesses have focused primarily on potential risks associated with their supply chain networks at a high level (sourcing, suppliers, customers, transportation, inventory positions, etc.). Until now, due to this 30,000-foot view of the supply chain, it hasn’t been common for businesses to consider and evaluate risks within the “four walls” of their supply chain facilities.
This began changing when the pandemic unfolded. Businesses are now taking a keen interest in facility-level risks as they find and implement ways to prevent the spread of the virus in their warehouses. The general approach to identifying possible risks — assessing the likelihood of occurrence, evaluating the potential impact of an occurrence, mitigating the risk, and good planning (developing contingency plans, disaster-recovery plans, communication plans, etc.) — is generally the same for all kinds of risks, whether viruses or otherwise. This means many businesses that are proactively addressing virus risks now have the pieces in place to roll out an effective risk-management program at the warehouse level. And that’s a good thing.
Better Ways of Getting the Work Done
Prior to the pandemic, far too many businesses ignored their warehouses for far too long, simply maintaining the status quo and avoiding meaningful improvements and innovations that could enhance service levels and add value to the bottom line. Old habits truly do die hard. To paraphrase Grace Hopper (no known relation), the famous computer pioneer and Rear Admiral in the US Navy, the most dangerous phrase for a business is, “We’ve always done it that way.”
The pandemic, while clearly tragic, has resulted in a wake-up call for warehouses. The necessity of complying with government regulations and heeding the safety recommendations of the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and the World Health Organization (WHO) have forced businesses to rethink how they operate their warehouses and to make positive changes to how their work is done (the process known as kaizen among Lean practitioners). It has also heightened their interest in automation and mechanization, which not only can keep their workers safe during a pandemic, but also can help their businesses be more flexible, resilient, and agile, so they can satisfy the demands of the ever-changing marketplace long after the pandemic subsides.
Improved Workforce Performance
Like so many other employers, warehouse managers have faced dramatic workforce challenges during the pandemic. Warehouse workers have been consistently inconsistent in showing up for work for various reasons, such as forced quarantine, childcare needs while schools are closed, fears of infection, and of course becoming ill with COVID-19. It hasn’t been unusual for employers to hire twice the number of workers they would otherwise need to ensure they have enough people working in their warehouses during the pandemic, but not all businesses have that luxury. And as a practical matter, warehouse workers can’t easily work from home.
There are fundamentally two ways for a business to get work done when not enough workers are available: Employ automation and mechanization, as mentioned previously, or find ways to get more productivity from its available workforce. Whether during a pandemic or otherwise, both approaches can be good strategies.
Interestingly, some of the policies strongly recommended by virology experts to prevent the spread of SARS-CoV-2 can also have a positive impact on worker productivity. For example, social-distancing practices discourage warehouse workers from working in groups (sometimes referred to as “processing by committee”), which has been shown to have a negative effect on worker productivity. On the other hand, when workers perform tasks independently while properly socially distanced, they tend to perform better, while the risk of infection from coworkers also decreases. And let’s not forget that in any business, including warehouses, unnecessary or longer-than-necessary meetings have a negative impact on productivity while increasing infection risk because they compromise social distancing.
As another example, adopting a “touch free” warehouse operation, or at least minimizing the number of touches required to get the work done, can mitigate the spread of the virus. Plus, it reduces the amount of handling, which industrial engineers have identified as a major killer of worker productivity in warehouses. Fewer touches (inventory, equipment, computers, paper, etc.) result in both lower infection risks and higher productivity — a win-win for the warehouse.
Looking to the Future
As Friedrich Nietzsche said, “That which does not kill us makes us stronger.” Long overdue in some cases, the actions many businesses have been taking in their warehouses in response to the pandemic will result in lasting positive effects that might not have been experienced otherwise. The dark cloud of the COVID-19 pandemic can have a silver lining in your warehouse when approached with the right attitude and efforts.