Coping with Seasonal Crunch Time

Summer is almost over. If you are in the business of distributing to consumers, you are probably thinking about the upcoming busy season and what can you do to get ready for the impending onslaught or orders. How can you be sure to keep your service commitments even on your heaviest shipping days?

Processes that work great most of the year can implode when your order demand spikes. You must be able to minimize bottlenecks and throttle up your resources. The alternative is to risk alienating customers, who may find a different place to shop next year.

Here are a few tips for seasonal preparation and planning:

Learn from the past–or from similar businesses
The best way to prepare for seasonal challenges is to look at history. If you are an established operation, look to the prior year for guidance. Speak to staff in each operating area to find out what types of problems occurred and what types of bottlenecks slowed down order processing. If you have stats on orders processed, find out when your busiest days and weeks were, and how you performed during those times. Did you carry over orders or miss service deadlines? Was there an increase in complaints about accuracy or damage? If you don’t have this information, be sure that you collect it this year. Also, consider anticipated growth when preparing your peak operating plan. If you are a new operation, try to use a benchmark from a similar business to estimate what your seasonal peak will look like.

“Why are the aisles so big?”
I’ve given tours where this question was asked to me directly. To the guests touring the facility during a slow day, it is a logical question. They see only a couple of people processing orders in a 9-ft. aisle, which much larger than it needs to be for the work being done. What they don’t know is that during crunch time, that same aisle may be filled with 12 pickers and their carts, and these workers need to be able to work efficiently and pass each other easily. If the space is too tight, you can bet that your pickers will end up waiting for co-workers to get out of the way, rather than trying to squeeze through. It’s human nature and polite, but it will result in lost productivity. The same reasoning goes for your staging areas. Make them big enough to handle the equipment to be used and the materials to be staged on your busiest days.

Plan people for peak periods
If you had service failures last year, were they because you did not have enough people to do the work? If so, start thinking about staffing now. Consider providing “permanent” seasonal positions, where associates can take advantage of company benefits (though you can ask the seasonal associates pay a larger percentage–or all–of the cost of their benefits). Colleges on trimester systems often let their students out just before Thanksgiving; you may be able to get in touch with a school’s placement office or job board to post seasonal work opportunities. You also can hire part-timers with a formal agreement that they will ramp up their hours to a higher level during your seasonal peak period.

Plan extra stations, systems, and equipment
Even if you have the people, you still need enough equipment and space to get the job done. In the packing area, for example, do you have enough manifest stations to get your peak load processed on your busiest days? If not, plan temporary space where you can set up stations and equipment. In some cases, you may travel farther or perform extra labor, such as filling and transporting packages in a hamper rather than taking advantage of a conveyor, but you will still get more orders processed. Similarly, make sure you have enough RF terminals, carts, voice units, or whatever other technology you are using. Finally, make sure that your computer system can adequately handle peak-volume activity.

Take advantage of high volumes to work smarter
When order volumes are high, you may have opportunities that you would not have during quiet periods. For example, you may be able to combine orders in ways that wouldn’t be possible during slow periods, such as into different size groups or order service levels. This can help with picking vehicles and also with the processing of standardized requirements at pack stations (such as having a cart with only overnight orders on it). Sam Flanders is president of Durham, NH-based operations consultancy Warehouse Management Consultants.