Struggling With Lackluster Warehousing and Distribution? Take These 5 Steps.

Published : April 26, 2016

Steps to improve warehousing and distributionHave you ever looked at the operational data coming out of your warehouse and felt you could do better? Are you puzzled by the low efficiency scores, bad fill rates or sluggish speeds that keep showing up within your workflow? Is the C-Suite leaning on you to improve your turnaround time or output? Getting the results you need out of your warehousing and distribution requires knowledge and proactive examination at every step, but the effort only demands five simple steps in all.

It's time for your fulfillment center to set up a framework that gathers data and runs like a well-oiled engine of commerce, but where do you start?

Step 1: Determine Your Assets

While this step is admittedly easier to accomplish when moving warehouses or shifting into a new space, it's crucial even if you’ll be operating in the same place. You should compile a hard list of your assets, including equipment, usable floor space and volumetric space suitable for pallets, shelving and so on. Without this data in-hard, you won't be able to plan out any time or cost-saving measures, nor can you accurately compare one workflow method against another. In fact, flying blind will do little except burn working hours in a trial-and-error dance of configuration that is likely to leave the whole team frustrated. The temptation to just roll out a configuration and deal with the fallout later is tempting, especially in a busy facility, but it's almost never a good idea in terms of efficiency.

Smart business planning, even on-demand planning, is made with a few constants in mind — budget, shipping time, etc. To run the backbone of your fulfillment with any less consideration of your permanent assets is asking for trouble. Assessments can also help you safeguard and log your assets for loss prevention or insurance purposes, making them doubly useful. Additionally, rapid response to unforeseen disasters can sometimes hinge entirely on having accurate, timely information available on your skus and their locations.

Step 2: Determine Your Status

How fast does an order get processed in your facility, from initial order receipt to 3PL package handoff? Completing a fulfillment-centered SWOT analysis will illuminate potential opportunities to be seized and risks to be mitigated, smoothing out bumps in the road to fulfillment. This step will require a critical eye, and the less your team knows about it as its happening, the better. Teams naturally tend to work a little harder when they know they're being watched, so a subtle, ongoing observation is the best way to get an honest assessment. If in-house oversight is difficult to keep hidden, consider having your most popular skus or units delivered to a dummy address to check the quality of packaging, the security of in-box items, the presence of the correct paperwork and other important customer-facing considerations. 

Step 3: Implement Support Before Changes

No one likes to be knocked off their stride, and your warehousing and distribution teams are no exception. If you subvert their entire workflow without adequate preparation or explanation, there's a good chance that you risk minimizing the very benefits that you're aiming for. If your proverbial plan of attack is multi-pronged, do your best to put support for existing systems — the ones you plan to keep, of course — in place before replacing systems elsewhere. When the older, familiar systems work more quickly or with greater reliability, your team will be less likely to treat new initiatives with distrust or reluctance.

Support of the human variety is important, too. Throughout your assessments and subsequent solutions, make a conscious effort to loop in-the-know team leaders into the conversation and ask their opinion. Many revolutionary technologies and techniques sound sensational on paper or presented at a convention, but not all translate well in every industry. The last thing you need to do, after all, is throw good money after bad and end up entrenched in a technology that negatively impacts team cohesion without positively affecting results. Positive human support also requires that your workspaces reflect the values and goals of your management philosophies; CIPS advises that some workplace protocols, such as workspace cleanliness, are essential to getting the most out of your workforce. 

Step 4: Set Solid Goals to Achieve

Like most business endeavors, the measure of your warehouse's transformational success requires, at its core, a rubric to be measured against. Changes — at least the sort that most C-Suites are looking for — are not subjective when capital is on the line, so the path to achieving them shouldn't be either. Shoot for goals that are manageable but not necessarily easy. If 10% increase in order volume seems well within reach, bump it to 15%. Timelines will be important as well, though caution is a little more well-advised here.

Give your team ample time to hit the first target in your to-do list and adjust time spans of subsequent tasks downward, if emerging patterns seem to support the ability. By removing ambiguity from what your company is hoping to achieve, your team leads and supply chain partners remain well-informed, and well-equipped to help you tackle each target as it crops up. Managers consider implementing a "scorecard" or pass/fail approach on certain line item measures to clearly communicate praise or the need for additional improvement.

Step 5: Never Rest on Your Laurels

When a distance runner crosses a finish line, he or she stops running and celebrates their victory. The race is over, and it's time to start thinking about the next race. In business, the race is not a line but a loop: No matter how much ground you cover, you'll likely need to cover it again, and faster. Each circuit of workflow completion is another data point to examine, and another chance to apply SWOT-style scrutiny to clear the same hurdles with greater speed and accuracy. Assessments also make an excellent tool for discussions with C-Suite managers for funding, work hour allotment and so on — offices run on data, and decision-makers are more likely to sit up and listen if you approach them in the "language" they speak fluently. 

Assessments should not be a static annoyance of paperwork, they should be spontaneous and ongoing in order to catch problems by surprise. Systems left too long without oversight seem to trend towards cutting corners, ultimately producing shoddy results or, at the least, ones that aren't completely consistent with company standards. It's not to say that scheduled, expected assessments have no place in warehousing and distribution management: quite the contrary. Familiar reports and benchmarks like Y-O-Y or M-O-M derive their core data from these scheduled events, so be sure that they're incorporated amongst more eclectic check-ups throughout the work cycle.

Warehousing and distribution can only find their peak efficiency with a steady hand at the helm. Use the movements and data naturally found in your fulfillment center as the linchpin for positive change and you won’t have to fight an uphill battle against your own team or company. Listening and observing are two of the greatest tools in your arsenal as a member of management, your warehouse can guide you to operational success if you can hear and speak its language.

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Topics: Warehouse Management

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