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Discovering the Value of Continuous Improvement in Your Warehouse

Nov 14, 2017

Is your warehouse management system (WMS) an untapped goldmine of new ways to increase efficiency? Most companies simply aren’t aware that there’s an extensive list of features just waiting to be unlocked in their WMS. Whether you went live with your system last week or three years ago, chances are there’s functionality that can be enabled to achieve greater labor, efficiency, and cost savings—you just need to know where to look. Even if you’re not having major issues, small process changes can make a big difference in how your team completes tasks every day.  Don’t let parts of your WMS turn into ‘shelfware’ that locks best-of-breed methodologies away from your organization.

Learn What’s Happening on the Floor
The first step in evaluating your operations is to understand the ins and outs of activity and how the WMS is helping or hindering tasks. Management doesn’t always know exactly what’s happening on the warehouse floor. It’s time to find out.  

This is about investigating why productivity isn’t where it was expected to be as you mapped out the implementation months or years ago. Sometimes this is because there’s a culture of “This is how we’ve always done it.” After a go-live there may be resistance to a new system, particularly if workers find it actually takes them longer to complete tasks with the new technology. For example, perhaps the receiving process requires more data input than before. If this is the case, find out whether adjustments need to be made. Perhaps it’s a situation where the new steps may take a little longer on the front end but the additional data being collected improves another part of the operations.

Sometimes you’ll notice differences in how long it takes each person to complete a task. It’s important to get to the bottom of why person A does something faster than person B. While this may mean one worker is simply slower than others and needs training or coaching, it could also point to the need for a process change. 

Talk to workers to understand exactly how they complete tasks. Make a culture of continuous improvement by incenting and rewarding their suggestions. Make sure the communication loop is open between the workforce and leadership. For example, if the RF scanners are hard to operate or respond slowly as they’re being used, this is an example of a small problem that can become a large one. Instead of spending a lot of time walking around looking for help, workers may get frustrated or try to fix the problem themselves. Encourage feedback to speed problem identification and resolution. In this common situation, there may not be enough coverage for the RF signal to reach scanners effectively, which is something that should be addressed.

Identify Areas Where You Can Improve Cost Control
Now that you’ve gotten input from workers, it’s time to look into processes in more detail. It’s easy for costs to rise over time if they’re not monitored. This can be due to increases in labor, raw materials, and energy being used. Below are areas where you can generate measurable improvement, often by enabling WMS functionality that’s in your system but not enabled for your workforce.

  • Identify ways to improve capacity utilization. Labor costs money. Are put-aways in the right place for picks? Where’s the closest place to put something? Perhaps the WMS tells the worker to put product away in aisle 3, but since it’s a fast-moving item and always shipped by full pallet, it may make more sense to put it closer to the shipping lane.
  • Optimize how your MHE is working. For example, if using wire-guided vehicles that must change aisles frequently (which is time consuming), identify why this is happening and see if there is a way to alter their paths or the inventory they are moving.  
  • Identify and correct the bottlenecks. Your work observing routines and uncovering where people have created work-arounds due to system inefficiency is key. Throughout the development of the implementation plan and the system go-live, your organization may have elected to keep things simple, particularly if you were moving to a WMS for the first time. The idea with this is to ensure workers are comfortable with the system, which means passing over functionality that could be perceived as more complicated. Maybe you planned to implement it later and haven’t gotten around to it yet. Maybe you don’t know it’s there. Either way, you’re losing out on some great potential efficiency benefits. Examples include:
    • Re-optimizing the work: Perhaps the staging lane is an issue, and it’s taking too long to get the last pick to arrive (and you’re only as fast as your slowest pick!). Configure the system to increment a task’s priority so the task is assigned to the next-available person who can complete it quickly and keep things moving.
    • Opportunistic pick stealing: If the same inventory is stored in multiple locations, the system could be configured for the picker to find the product in the closest physical location to save time.
    • Threshold picking: Perhaps a picker needs 20 items but there are 25 on the pallet. The system can determine when it’s faster to pick the entire pallet and then drop five items off at a designated point to speed the overall pick/pack/ship process.
  • Establish seamless integration with your supply chain partners. How well your WMS can exchange information with your warehouse control system (WCS), measuring/dimensioning system, customer ASNs, and carriers determines a lot about the overall efficiency of your operations. Identify any areas where information exchange isn’t working well so they can be addressed.
  • Ensure your support action plan is solid. A proactive support team is critical to address system issues as they arise. You need to document the support stream (critical chain) so everyone knows where to go for which issues.
  • Leverage proven methodologies. Use methodologies such as Lean, Agile, and ISO that support your continuous improvement initiatives with proven processes.

Find the Opportunities You’ve Been Missing
The fact is, it’s a competitive world when it comes to supply chain operations. Your competitors are probably making improvements in how their warehouses run, and you need to as well. 4SIGHT experts have years of experience in identifying areas where small changes can have a big impact on your efficiency and your costs.

Learn more about our expertise in warehousing environments or contact us today.

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