6 Ways You Can Bring Innovation to Your Fulfillment Operations

“A problem thoroughly understood is always fairly simple. Found your opinions on facts, not prejudices. We know too many things that are not true.”

– Charles F. Kettering, as quoted in Dynamic Work Simplification (1971), W. Clements Zinck, p. 122

Kettering was an inventor, businessman and engineer with 186 patents. In the first half of the 20th century, he invented the Delco battery, the electric starting motor and leaded gas, headed research for General Motors and NCR and invented Freon for refrigeration and cooling systems. As if that weren’t enough, he invented Duco lacquers and enamel colors for mass-produced automobiles, in association with DuPont, and much more. Can you believe the diversity of ideas all came from one mind?

When you think about it, inventors and scientists challenge the status quo. They don’t accept “No, sorry, we can’t do that.” They experiment and often find answers or solutions they weren’t even seeking.

I see too many management teams accepting the status quo or not being able to take their companies to the next level. If you’re not continually pursuing innovation, you’ll never improve your fulfillment process, the capacity of your warehouse, the supply chain or operating results.

During the recently concluded peak season I met with two companies that wanted to talk about innovation in their centers. Both wanted us to see their operations at peak and then help design new facilities and processes. I was amazed at how engaged management was in being sure they took their companies to the next level:

  • The first company had merged four companies with complementary products together in six months. They were ready for the peak. They had eliminated much of the overhead payroll and duplicate expenses. 

Their challenge going forward is determining the future state of their production and distribution supply chain. I sat in awe of what they had accomplished in such a short period of time. Their key to success: Once the decision was made and everyone understood the marching orders of the new company, they did not allow anything stop them. They were thorough but quick to make decisions with peak approaching.

  • The second company plans to consolidate two large facilities into one, but the automation they invested in 15 years ago has little value as their product assortment has dramatically changed. New processes, technology and automation need to be considered to handle their ever-changing focus on customer gift preferences. 

At both companies we had two days of conversation with management about the future while their middle management was processing orders in peak season. I walked away wondering whether most companies are innovating quickly enough. Are they challenging themselves and their employees to invent the company and fulfillment solutions of the future?

Here are 6 concepts to use as you innovate in your center:

Consider Kettering’s advice:  Take every area where you want to innovate and break down the process and systems into their simplest form.  I can’t tell how many times I’ve heard a manager say, “I didn’t know we did it that way – we used to do this…”

Challenge everything:  How do you process product and orders? What automation and technology should you be using? As labor becomes more expensive and less available, what changes do you need to make? Are you organized in the most efficient manner?

Encourage thinking about fulfillment solutions from multiple aspects:  Customer service, productivity, scalability and costs.

Involve managers and workers: They’re involved in day-to-day operations and know where the issues are and often have ideas about solving problems that with good facilitation are priceless.

Identify what this shows you about future needs: Construct the future fulfillment solution and get everyone to understand and critique it.

Introduce outside ideas and experience into your problem solving: Most operations teams have good people but lack a broad range of experience in multiple company environments. Tap the expertise of consultants and vendors to bring your ideas and best practices to fruition.

Make 2016 the year you bring your fulfillment operations to higher levels of customer service, productivity and cost reduction.

Curt Barry is president of F. Curtis Barry & Company

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