When something goes really wrong in a warehouse, how do you fix it?

From my experience, there is a great deal of rumor and innuendo that floats around in a building that is struggling. Going from bad to good is much harder than going from good to great because it is not always obvious what is truly wrong and the management team has very little time to fix problems. Managers of buildings that are out of control spend very little time solving problems; they work around them.

So if something is wrong in a warehouse what do you do?

  1. Recognize that many of the staff’s “ideas” about the root cause are wrong. Usually problems that kill an operation sneak in like hurricanes in the 1800’s; no one sees them coming until it is way too late. If the true root cause had been obvious someone would have stopped it way sooner.
  1. Recognize that you don’t have the time to pursue a million fixes; you need to smart bomb and not carpet bomb your core problem(s).
  1. Get data from the floor and your systems that will help you target your root cause(s)
  1. Measure weekly how well you are doing to solve the core problem. For example, if short picks are preventing you from achieving productivity or throughput goals, you should measure short picks every week. You need a scoreboard to measure if what you are doing matters and to keep the organization focused and morale up.

I just got back from California a few weeks ago. I was called in by a fast growing eCommerce company/startup that had an expanding backlog of orders. Despite having only 25k square feet, they simply could not keep up with their own success. They could only ship 90% of what they sold.

We did exactly what I suggest above. I looked at the operation and from experience I knew they should be able to keep up, so I dug into the data around the operation. We did some time studies of different steps of the process. We poured through warehouse management system data for a week and soon discovered that the root of the backlog was picking productivity. There were a series of issues that made their pickers slower than pickers at most of our other eCommerce clients. Now we had a real problem to target.

We then proceeded very methodically. First we put in place a way to measure the overall picking team’s daily productivity. We then set about making changes to the picking process based on the time study results. Under our direction, the management team did things over a couple of weeks, including eliminating locations that did not have clear boundaries which were causing product to get mixed up, requiring a picker to spend a great deal of time trying to “find” the right item. We also increased the number of orders that pickers picked in a given tour to reduce their walking time. With a few other changes, within 4 weeks, their picking productivity increased 40%. They climbed out of their backlog. They are growing like crazy once again.

This is how it works. If this company had not taken an Operations Forensics – like approach and had instead acted on several ideas that the management team had come up on their own (with no analysis) we likely would have squandered the precious time that the operation had to spend on fixing the problem. Approaching these situations must be done very carefully. It’s like surgery on yourself or fixing a plane in flight. It takes courage, patience and deep faith in the scientific method.

As of September 8, 2020, Crimson & Co (formerly The Progress Group/TPG) has rebranded as Argon & Co following the successful merger with Argon Consulting in April 2018. 

Bruce Strahan

[email protected]

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