If you are like most distribution center managers, you know that your existing operation has a number of unsolved challenges and problems that your people grapple with on a daily, weekly, and seasonal basis. As with many things in life, you may have grown to accept some of these problems as being the way thing are. But you can break out of this “that’s just the way it is” mode of thinking and identify, document, and prioritize challenges—and ultimately implement improvements.
The key to identifying challenges is to systematically and objectively observe your operation. For example, to identify challenges in the pack area, you should observe the area for one or two hours during a busy time of the day. What activities take place that could be improved? Do bottlenecks occur? Is there a great deal of unnecessary movement? Do operators have to replenish supplies too frequently? Is equipment placed to make packing easy, or should it be rearranged? Could stands, arms, or other fixtures be added to make supplies more accessible on the table? How easy to reach are the things that are touched frequently? How easy is it to get packages sorted to a carrier bin? How much work does it take to get the packages to the truck?
You should undertake this sort of observation in every functional area of your facility. There is absolutely no substitute for careful and objective observation.
As an observer, however, you may be locked in to a particular way of thinking, and you may simply not realize that another alternative is possible. To avoid this sort of “thought blinder,” consider using a newly hired employee or perhaps even an outside resource to observe activities for you. A new resource will not be as willing to accept things as normal, especially if you encourage him to find areas for improvement.
In addition to your personal observations, you should take some time to interview both supervisors and individual associates in each of the functional areas. Again, this is often better done by an outside resource to whom employees will be more open and honest. Your workers will often know things that may not be visible from observation alone.
Once you collect all the data, the final step is to organize and prioritize the information into an action plan. Pick something that will have a high payback but will be relatively easy to deploy as a first initiative. Knocking off an easy project will help you to build some momentum for more-difficult projects. Then you can prioritize and work on the rest of your list as time permits.
Sam Flanders is president of Durham, NH-based operations consultancy Warehouse Management Consultants.
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