Synergizing Your New WMS, Process Change and Automation

In our experience, more than 50% of major fulfillment center projects such as WMS and automation are not implemented on time and within budget. Major changes to processing merchandise and order fulfillment often do not reach planned production goals for months after initial implementation.

Simply installing a new WMS by layering it on top of existing processes is a waste of time and money unless processes are streamlined to work in concert with each other. In their own right, each brings its own value to your business. When you add new automation or technology to the mix, the project becomes more complex.

Yet it is the synergy of all three together, the hand-in-glove integration, that delivers the maximum benefit. This sounds like a no-brainer, but it isn’t because the three entities are almost always designed, developed and marketed by three different companies. Using vendor and other outside resources, your staff will have to plan and manage the implementations.

To make the synergy magic happen, here are 11 points to consider:

Total Design and Separate Implementations

Design the new fulfillment environment taking into account how the WMS, process changes and automation will fit together and what benefits will be gained. But if possible, plan and execute independent implementations. Many times, decisions are made to simultaneously do all three in a new fulfillment facility. That is the most difficult type of implementation.

There may be no good alternatives to doing so, but determine if there are viable options. Can the WMS be installed in the existing facility first, then in the new facility? Each of these projects are significant, requiring attention and competing staff resources. Can they be implemented separately to ease startup problems?

WMS Selection for Flexibility, Functionality, Scalability

Installing a full-function WMS is the first step in increasing productivity and establishes a foundation to build on. WMS and automation companies will have preferred partners. Don’t assume that’s always the best choice for your ecommerce company. For sure, the interfaces and integrations they develop are often of considerable value. However, we recommend selecting the WMS that best fits your company size, functionality required, IT platform and operating model (i.e. on-premise versus cloud) and has an acceptable a total cost of ownership.

Understand and Streamline the New Processes

As we said earlier, simply layering a WMS on existing processes doesn’t translate to more efficiency. Review in detail the processes supported by staff and how they will interface with the proposed WMS. As you conduct WMS demos, make sure to demo the processes in total first with a minimum of questions and interruptions. You don’t want to get the vendor’s presenter off track. New processes may look more elongated and involved than they may actually be.

From the demos, strive to understand the needed process changes. Major changes often happen in these areas (just a select list):

  • Building product master files
  • Setting up receiving and inbound freight
  • Setting up put away and replenishment options
  • Setting up picking options and technology
  • Managing fulfillment workloads
  • Reporting productivity and returns processing

Consider Changes in Organizational Responsibilities

For example, consider the product master file. Will it be maintained by merchants, purchasing staff or inventory control? If you choose to start using a dimensional measurement system, where in the process is this performed and updated? Recognize that implementing new processes and systems will challenge existing responsibilities and territories. Who in the organization will recommend the best options for changes and be sure they are developed and implemented?

Supplement Your Team

In the proposal phase, consultants may be available from the vendor free of charge to provide studies which help justify and close the deal. Professional services in the implementation will often become as much as 50% of the costs of implementation, charged out at $1,500 to $2,000 per day depending on their role and expertise. The focus should be on the total project and its ROI rather than a component such as equipment cost or consulting.

Involve Key Employees in All Decisions

The earlier you involve key employees in major projects like this, the better the chance of getting their buy-in and ultimately achieving successful outcomes. Involvement over time helps them get acclimated to the changes you are considering. They’ll also be more attuned to how current work is performed.

Help Staff Make the Transition

We find that every organization needs time to absorb new systems, processes and tools, no matter the training. Not to denigrate warehouse staff, but some management teams lack the prior experience with the new WMS and technologies to get the maximum benefit early on. It will take them much longer to get up to speed.

Plan for Productivity Loss

One of the hardest points to deal with is getting management to understand and accept temporarily lower productivity during the start-up period and the first few months. Be realistic about how long it will take for productivity to reach the expected new goals. In checking out a vendor’s references, ask them about their experience in meeting budget and productivity goals. We find many companies will tell you what they would do differently.

Fine Tune the New Fulfillment Automation

No implementation is perfect. Build tasks into the project plan to audit the implementation and make proposed changes. These may range from more training for certain people or departments, fine-tuning material handling, automation or technology and workflow adjustments to increase productivity and reduce backlogs.

Establish Realistic Plans, Schedules, Estimates

Each implementation is a major project in its own right, which is why you should determine if you can execute these projects independently. They will each require detailed project management, staff resources and staff time required to implement.

Consider a Fulfillment Consultant to Supplement Staff

A consultant can complement your organization’s skillsets and help you work through the process changes. They can also recommend organizational changes, help develop and manage the project plan, schedule and report on status and advise on budget performance.

Gaining the synergy of process changes, WMS, automation and technology means realistic detail design and implementation in order to achieve outcomes that will lead to the kind of ROI management expects.

Brian Barry is President of F. Curtis Barry & Company

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