5 Strategies to Boost Your Warehouse Workforce’s Efficiency

by Michael Koploy

Warehouse Management System Software Analyst,
Software Advice
3/24/2013

In a survey conducted by Intermec at the end of last year, it was reported that mid-sized warehouses lose approximately 3,000 hours a year due to workforce inefficiencies. The survey also noted that 30 percent of warehouse managers had not conducted a review of their processes in the warehouse in the past year.

In this article, I cover five strategies to help eliminate common issues that lead to reduced efficiency within the warehouse workforce.

1. Create Processes to Reinforce Accountability

Warehouse managers often turn to automation to improve fulfillment, but the benefits of automation are lost when pickers are careless (and assume a packer down the line will correct any mistake). Warehouse managers should require the perpetrators to resolve their errors, advises Paul Shrater, COO and co-founder of the travel item e-commerce site Minimus.

Shrater’s team has reduced picking errors by asking packers to place erroneous inventory on a “reject” shelf. The responsible picker is then notified, asked to stop what they are doing and correct the error by fetching the correct item. Short-term losses in efficiency are quickly regained by establishing accountability among workers, says Shrater.

2. Document Procedural Changes and Compare Against Errors

For a warehouse, accurate inventory picking isn’t a benchmark for success–it’s a necessity. “In our industry, you rarely get credit for the 99.99 percent of things that go right,” says Milton Cornwell, COO of third-party logistics provider Materialogic.

Most warehouse managers keep close tabs on internal picking error rates. But because error rates fluctuate, it’s difficult to know if inadequate training, improperly implemented technology, unrealistic expectations or worker negligence is the cause. Managers should create a meticulous log of all changes in the warehouse, and then compare them against error rate changes over time.

“We look at error rates as an indication of an imperfect system,” says Shrater. By knowing what has changed recently in the warehouse environment, Shrater and his team are able to either understand if they need to re-train a new class of workers or if there is a malfunction in warehouse technology.

3. Improve Profit-Sharing Programs with Extended Education

Profit sharing is a popular way that businesses emphasize quality work and incentivize teamwork in the warehouse. To increase the impact of a profit-sharing program, leadership should help workers understand how the warehouse fits into the business.

Minimus employs a generous profit-sharing program for its warehouse workers, Shrater notes, but he also believes its training programs for warehouse workers–which discuss its business in general as well as the implications of one team’s actions upon others–are an important catalyst for its success.

“If you show people how their actions will impact their wallets, they listen,” says Shrater.

Once a month, Shrater says, the entire Minimus company comes together for a business symposium led by the company’s executives. The practice has helped warehouse workers realize the importance of their roles–and the impact of carelessness and mistakes.

4. Ask Leadership to Walk the Floor

I’ll admit, I’m a sucker for Undercover Boss. But while the reality show often ends with a cheesy, made-for-TV epiphany from the CEO, asking your leaders to walk the floor can help find extraneous, unnecessary activities that might otherwise go unnoticed.

Ask a senior member of your management team to help pick packages or assist in the storage yard for a day. During this time, ask if they question “why” things are being done the way they are as much as possible.

The leadership at Minimus will frequently help on the warehouse floor, and Shrater recounts how one executive recently asked why a particular scale was being used in a staging area. Because many manufacturers don’t provide an even weight for products and zeroing-out a large scale is time-consuming, counting by hand is a better way to count items. Workers agreed this was inefficient, but it was just the way things had been done as long as anyone could remember.

Minimus eliminated the scale and can now process orders more accurately, thanks to the ability of the non-entrenched executive to question the necessity of the process.

5. Avoid Over-Engineering your Warehouse

Finally, it’s important to remember a new warehouse management system won’t break bad worker habits. Placing an expensive technology investment on top of an inefficient, unregulated workforce is a recipe for a poor return on investment.

“I’ve seen a number of warehousing environments that are, for a lack of a better word, ‘over-engineered.’ A tremendous amount of money is spent only to realize they aren’t nimble, effective or efficient,” notes Cornwell.

Warehouse managers should also consider the time it will take to deploy a new technology solution. Shrater says that his team is considering a new software product that could improve pick-and-pack rates, but he hasn’t yet pulled the trigger on the purchase. One reason: his team can’t justify slowing down operations to integrate the technology into its current software and workflows.

“Right now, the process isn’t really broken, so we don’t need to fix it,” says Shrater. He adds that this mindset has allowed his team the time to evaluate all its options and create a thorough implementation plan to ensure the investment is effective.

I’m interested to hear how other operations have eliminated warehouse inefficiencies. Please leave a note in the comments with any strategies you’ve employed within your operation.

An additonal thanks to Will Schneider, President at WarehousingAndFulfillment.com for his insights for this article.

Thumbnail image created by Michaela Hackner.

 

1 Comment

Some of the biggest savings come from changing paradigm. Kiva Systems made their jump by changing the assumption that shelving systems need to be bolted to the warehouse floor. ( a further paradigm shift is the use of the same portable shelf as a returnable shipping bin) The biggest pain is in arrival. Standard pack pallets containing a single part have been replaced by randomly organized material which matches the JIT lists. Arbitrary delays by shipping companies and global sourcing have totally disrupted the planned arrival times.
Giving each associate a tablet port to the computer system will help alleviate the chaos.The GPS location of the tablet at the time that the unit number of the mobiles shelving unit confirms proper stocking of the arriving unlabled part which the operator confirms as a match to the picture of the part recorded when the part number is assigned.
Making a useful warehouse management software is shooting at a moving target. It is hard to keep up with the emerging user needs

Comment by George Spiller
03/03/2013
 

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