Feb. 22 2021 06:52 AM

Whew; 2020 is finally behind us! As 20/20 means perfect vision, I thought now would be a good time to ask if you can accurately describe your vision of last year as well as what lessons were learned by you or your team. The year certainly brought to light the need for preparedness and strategy!

Online orders grew astronomically, blowing away all predictions. This hit all sorts of verticals: Food, clothing, and supplies were hit with exponential growth. Additional people to meet the demand were not readily available, and it became apparent that you must (for your own livelihood) keep your existing employees healthy to get your day-to-day business accomplished.

For many, the lightbulb went off in the direction of automation. You do not have to worry about a machine getting the virus. (Although you do need to worry about the mechanic falling ill, so up to date maintenance is imperative). Previously, it was extremely hard to justify the cost of automation in some areas, while in 2020 it was obvious that the need over-shadowed the cost. Suddenly, it was not cheaper to just throw bodies at a problem because those bodies were not available. Many companies found themselves working overtime and working their employees 16-18 hours a day. Some saw their employees calling in sick just from pure exhaustion. Then there were the working parents that had to have someone keeping their school-aged children because schools were closed. One creative company opened an available space for their employees to bring their children during work. The room was equipped with computer stations so the school aged children could do their virtual learning. It was certainly a wild year, but it was full of lessons on how preparedness can reduce or ease the pain for accommodating the unforeseen.

Orders placed in November that didn’t arrive until after Christmas will likely give those specific retail partners a black eye from which they may not recover. So how do you spend the beginning of 2021 getting your facility and teams ready to face all obstacles? Here are a few ideas:

1. Evaluate your carriers. Which ones preformed in a stellar manner, which ones failed miserably, and which ones fell somewhere in the middle? Sit and work with the reps to find out how they will handle this differently in the future. What are their contingency plans? For the ones that chose the USPS service, it took a month to get a package in some areas. In other areas, the representatives worked several hours of overtime to ensure delivery. Which one do you want to work with next time?

2. The extra volume and urgency pushed not just the people to exhaustion but the already stressed automation such as conveyors, RF guns, forklifts, printers, and many more basic equipment we seem to always take for granted were pushed to the unfortunate limit. With the pandemic it was not easy to repair or get new items. How would you better prepare for this next time? What are your redundancy plans?

3. Review areas of improvement. Simple things can have a dramatic impact. For instance:

--Look at the dead zones in the warehouse that require reboots of the RF equipment. Would a simple additional antenna relieve some of this heartache and frustration (not to mention productivity loss)?

-- Wait times on printers! This is so simple but so impactful. Once a box is scanned, how long does it take to print a label? Five seconds is unacceptable. Five seconds for each box multiplied by the number of boxes per day (thousands) would reduce your throughput by 10-15%. Now multiply that by the number of printers in your facility!

-- Check the conveyor. Do you need to increase the amount of scanning eyes in the facility? Do you have a person standing and orienting boxes so the eyes read correctly? Fix this now, if you do not. Do you have someone (or multiple someones) up on a platform reducing bottlenecks? Analyze why this is happening in order to see if automation would be a fit for this are.

--If you are RF picking, is your equipment miss-applied or does it need repairing? If there are constant jams and the order filler must go and get it unblocked, this need to be repaired immediately. Walking a 500,000+ square foot building to pick orders is work enough, but having to walk to a supervisor station to fix poor equipment is enough to make that employee want to go somewhere else. 2020 found the market desperate for people willing to work. Do a survey and ask your frontline workers what and how you could have done better this past year. It will be interesting to learn the little things that could be a big impact.

Last year’s in-person PARCEL Forum was canceled (understandably so, given the pandemic). Many of you told me that this is where you get your cost-saving and improvement ideas. The year 2021 will see a new venue for PARCEL Forum (Washington D.C.!), September 14-16, and we hope to see you there. We must all improve and preform more efficiently for the good of all our customers.

Susan Rider, President, Rider & Associates, and Executive Life Coach, can be reached at susanrider@msn.com.

This article originally appeared in the January/February 2021 issue of PARCEL.