A Peek at Holiday Order Picking

As the holidays approach and people turn their minds to gift buying, distribution centers plan to see business surges. This time of year makes you focus on the need to have your process in line so that temporary employees can get up to speed as quickly as possible. Since order picking in most facilities is where all the action is, it seems appropriate to spend some time in this area–where usually the greatest opportunities for improvement can be found.

When was the last time an overall training program was completed? Do order pickers no why they are doing steps because if they don’t many may find them irrelevant and skip the process thinking there is no harm?

A typical DC will experience between 50%-60 % turnover rate in this area per year. With that kind of turnover, a training program is instrumental in the success of productivity and accuracy. Some in the order fulfillment world will experience over 50% of their volumes during this period. Training, especially if you have a WMS, pick-to-light, carousels, or any type of automation or software, is critical.

Another area of improvement is second or third shifts. Many times the productivity/accuracy rates are lower on these shifts and managers seem to be okay with the phenomena–why? Your team should be as productive or accurate whether it’s light or dark. So work on building that team of supervisors on off shifts.

My favorite area is attitude. In many facilities I walk into, there is this attitude about the order fillers like they are second-class citizens, and that attitude promotes a complacency that is prevalent in the area. They think, No one cares so why should I bother to do a good job! This is a management issue that many vice presidents don’t even know exist.

When was the last time you walked the floor or picked an order? Do you have a recognition or affirmation program? Do you spend more time catching people doing things right or do you focus on catching them doing things wrong? Do you know what it cost per error? If you ship short, most will hear about it, but what if you ship too many?

I once on a rental car bus admired a business traveler’s roller briefcase. She said, “I ordered it online, it was on $250 but they sent me two, so I gave one to my sister.” This unfortunately is a common scenario, and many times the DC doesn’t realize they have the problem.

When performing an audit in one DC that had an abnormally high number of errors, I discovered a surprising issue: Many order fillers could not count. We administered a simple math test and 30% did not pass. Tracking the errors and having accountability is another gold nugget. In the early days of pick-to-light it was not uncommon to get at least a 50% increase in productivity.

Whether you have a manual system or an automated system, accountability is a huge key for productivity and accuracy. If you don’t know who picked every order every time, start today with a manual system to accomplish accountability. Down the road you might look to an automated system. Start a key performance indicator or benchmarking program, which can pay dividends.

Slotting is another issue and an area of opportunity. A great example is the golden zone. Do you need sophisticated slotting software to put your fast movers in the golden zone? No, a simple spread sheet and a little management guidance will work fabulously. Review your slotting today.

Look for fast movers on the bottom. Realize if you have a fast mover on the bottom of a gravity flow rack and you are making an order picker bend every time they pick it over a period of a couple of hours, productivity will go down more than 10%; depending on volume it could be more.

While you’re looking at slotting, don’t forget the guys stocking. If the order filler goes to the slot and has to wait for product, you’ve just created a bottleneck.

Happy order filling!

Susan Rider is president of Upton, KY-based operations consultancy Rider & Associates.

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