This is the second installment of a three-part series on picking technologies and strategies. Part I was published in the April 2005 issue of O+F.
Picking seems like a simple function. The picker finds a product in the warehouse, picks it and puts it into a tote or a carton, and then sends it on its way by cart or conveyor. But like so many things in life, what seems simple is not simple at all. Pickers can have a profound influence on a distribution center’s bottom line. If they’re too slow, they reduce productivity and drive up costs. If they make errors, they oblige the company to engage in order return and reshipping, which also drives up costs. Proper training can make a world of difference to pickers’ productivity and accuracy.
“You need to make sure they understand your procedures but also take the opportunity to expose them to the types of errors most commonly made in your environment,” says Dave Piasecki, principal of Kenosha, WI-based Inventory Operations Consulting.
Yet training pickers for the warehouse environment holds challenges that are not necessarily present in other industries. The basic task of training is complicated by the nature of the typical distribution center workforce, says Bill Hillebrenner, director of consulting at Dallas-based CEI Logistics, a subsidiary of Cisco-Eagle, a manufacturer of material-handling systems.
“The biggest challenge in training pickers,” says Hillebrenner, whose company consults on a variety of order fulfillment and distribution issues, “is that they’re not always there very long. You’re investing money in training, and then they’re either temporary by design or they leave. I hear from clients all the time, ‘I get ‘em trained, and then they get a job that pays 80 cents more per hour and they’re gone.’”
Even in environments where the workforce is fairly stable, training pickers holds out plenty of challenges. “In my environment, we service so many different clients, and we have different operations, so cross-training is important,” says Scott Talley, vice president of worldwide distribution for PFSweb, a Plano, TX-based global business process outsourcing provider. Talley’s company operates more than 1 million sq. ft. of warehouse space in its main operations center in the Memphis, TN, regional market, plus warehouses in Texas, Canada, and Belgium. About 85 permanent pickers staff these locations. “We might train in one area — say, pick-to-light — and then we have to train them in picking print material, which is all manual. We have to train in several processes.”
One challenge Talley doesn’t face is training temps in picking functions and then having them leave, because he uses temps only for the tasks requiring minimal skills. “We put a box around the work they do. They don’t do inventory transactions; they don’t do picking; they don’t do receiving. We have them building shipping cartons, cleaning up. It’s low-risk labor.”
Not all businesses can afford to use temps that way, cautions Hillebrenner. Some are so seasonal that they have to deploy temps to handle inventory at peak times.
Whatever the demands of the environment, there are some constants to consider in training pickers. Here are nine guidelines to keep in mind:
- Simple processes simplify training
Because of the transitory nature of the picking workforce, Hillebrenner advises clients to “make the process itself as simple and as standard as possible to minimize the training required.” The goal, he says, “is to get people off the street and turn them into productive employees as soon as possible. There may be a set of complicated algorithms behind it, but you want to simplify the process: pick, walk.”
- Use automation — when it’s cost-effective
Simplifying processes doesn’t mean that all warehouses should deploy automated technology to streamline their picking operations, says Hillebrenner. “We do the math and the math dictates whether it should be manual or automated or something in between.”
In most cases, adds Inventory Operations Consulting’s Piasecki, “picking automation technology will simplify your training. This is due to both the capabilities of the technology and the constraints of the technology. Automation forces you to clearly define your processes, deal with process issues, and set up specific ways to accomplish each task. Granted, you should be doing this anyway, but are you? Properly designed automated picking systems should take most of the decision-making away from the picker. For the most part, this is a good thing and is especially beneficial to the training of new workers. Businesses with high turnover or high seasonality will appreciate the shorter learning curve provided by systems that direct each task.”
- Factor in different learning styles
For most pickers, the training process typically consists of some classroom training, then observing an experienced picker, and then working under the supervision of an experienced picker for a while. This sort of multifaceted training approach pays off, Hillebrenner says, because different people learn in different ways — some by reading or listening, some by watching the process, and some by doing it.
Piasecki agrees: “Training seems to work best when you combine documentation of policies and procedures with classroom training and on-the-job training.”
- Draw on information technology to create training materials
“Advances in computer technology have provided some great tools for creating training materials,” says Piasecki. “No matter how small your company is, you have access to desktop tools that allow you to create high-quality paper training materials, presentations, or Internet-based training materials that can include hyperlinks, digital photos, movies, detailed diagrams, etc. A mom-and-pop shop can now create its own knowledge base with a basic Web design program. The knowledge base can then be published on a single machine, a network, or the Internet, or even run from a CD.”
- Put the work in context
Hillebrenner advises clients to give trainees a bit of perspective on the entire distribution process. When picking procedures are reduced to discrete components, it can be hard for pickers to see how their labors fit into the big picture. “It makes a lot of sense when you’re training employees to try to train them one job downstream and one job upstream, to show them ‘what’s the job of the person that’s feeding me work and what’s the job of the person I’m feeding,’” Hillebrenner says. Knowing what the next process will be can help a picker understand why turning a box 90 degrees on the conveyor belt will be more efficient and shave time off the process, he adds.
- Teach product knowledge
Talley notes that when pickers know details about the merchandise, they’re more accurate. “Units of measure can be a challenge. ‘One’ might be a case, or it might be a unit.” Letting pickers know which is which for particular products can reduce errors.
“Since accuracy is critical in order picking, you want to make sure you use the training opportunity to help pickers be more accurate,” says Piasecki. “Don’t wait until they make a unit-of-measure error to explain, ‘Oh, yeah, some of our items are stocked as cases or sets.’”
This can be tricky in high-SKU environments or those where SKUs change frequently, says Talley. For seasonal products or fast-changing industries such as technology or fashion, keeping workers up-to-date on what constitutes a unit of measure is challenging but vital. He supplements classroom and on-the-job training with visual aids such as digital product photos. “We just hang the image right over the bin so that they can see what a unit of measure looks like,” he says. For some clients, Talley uses “smart” pick carts outfitted with onboard touch-screen computers with browsers. If there’s any doubt, the picker can go to the item master to identify the unit of measure or find other pertinent information.
- Make training a reward and a key to advancement
At PFSweb, Talley grooms what he calls his “floating team.” These employees are trained in every area and are consequently the highest paid and have the most interesting and varied work. When he cross-trains other pickers, they remain within an area — say, picking or receiving; the floating team moves across areas. The size of the team is limited and selection for it is a competitive process. Prospective members “have to be willing to work a little harder to learn more,” says Talley.
- Pay attention to safety
On-the-job injuries are a major source of increased costs, so preventing accidents is key. At PFSweb, new workers go through a safety orientation training program given by an employee safety committee. Membership on the safety committee carries some prestige, and committee members work with veteran employees to review safety procedures. But a large part of safety, says Talley, is engineering the job correctly from the beginning. Good processes combined with good training can prevent injuries.
- Keep on training
PFSweb’s pickers have periodic service checks in which the manager walks or rides along, evaluating speed, accuracy, and other benchmarks, and offering tips for improvement and reinforcing standard procedures. “If we don’t do that, they’re going to figure out what they think is the best way to do things,” says Talley. Service checks are also used as the basis for performance reviews.
“Most important,” says Piasecki, “is not to treat training as a one-time event. Ongoing supervision of employees to make sure they continue to follow procedures is critically important, as is supplemental training when processes change or as reminders of procedures that are not consistently followed.”
Karen Berman is a freelance writer based in Fairfield, CT.
Next up: In the final installment of this series, slated for August, we’ll cover pick-to-light implementation and how to avoid its pitfalls.