Tread Lightly When Improving Warehouse Operations

A period of economic downturn can be a great opportunity to plan out and implement improvements in your warehouse operations. You might, for example, aim to significantly lower labor costs, reduce error rates, decrease stockouts, or improve the quality of your delivered orders.

But it’s important to pace out such changes slowly and carefully — regardless of the current economic climate. After all, a baby needs to crawl before it walks.

While your desire for rapid change is understandable, it is important that you keep a clear perspective on the change process, and how it will impact your distribution staff and your managers. Too much change, too fast can cause fatigue, frustration, fear, and in the worst situations, open resistance and resignations.

Here are some tips to follow that will help you to deploy change rationally, and build momentum in the change process, rather than dysfunction:

Resist the desire to create a “big bang” solution

A client of mine once said, “I’d love to have a ‘big bang’ implementation to get it over with, but I know that the ‘big bang’ will upset my staff create a period of prolonged agony.”

It is natural to want to achieve results quickly. Our culture and many corporate philosophies encourage this kind of thinking.

The problem is that change deployed too quickly causes upsets, and can create long-term dysfunction. The result can be just the opposite of the original goal. It takes a lot more to undo frustration and anger than can be gained with quick systems deployments, and if you aren’t careful, you may be the only one left on the ship.

Start with one or two easy wins

Identify one or two ideas that will yield obvious beneficial results, but that are neither high risk or difficult to implement. When you deploy these changes, take some time to establish a sound process — even though you know the changes will be easy.

Get your team members involved, create a communication plan. Explain what your goals are. Solicit feedback and concerns back from your people. Make sure that your staff understands that you want their feedback.

And when the change is deployed — successfully, of course — make sure you thank everyone involved and publicize the beneficial results to your staff as well as your management. This can be a tremendous morale booster and momentum builder, which will lay the groundwork for more difficult undertakings.

Fix processes before deploying new technology

Resist the natural tendency to reach for the “magic pill,” whether it be a warehouse management system, a pick-to-light system, or voice technology. Focus on making process changes first, and see what changes you can put into place before you purchase the technology.

Most, if not all, systems that dramatically improve operational performance do so because they mandate process changes. For example, many order picking systems that significantly improve pick rates, do so by batching multiple orders together. You don’t have to drop $200,000 on a high-tech picking system in order to accomplish this goal. All you need is a little ingenuity from within your operations and IT staff.

By deploying process changes independently, you receive two major benefits: 1) you build on the baby step/low risk/build momentum philosophy and 2) you reduce capital expenditures and risk, enabling you to better evaluate if a capital investment is truly worth it.

Continue “baby steps” and build momentum

To the greatest extent possible, continue to take baby steps in the improvement process, keeping your operational focus on deploying one or two changes at a time. Let everyone know what you are doing, and also how you are doing as you go.

Make sure you give publicity to the achievement of new milestones and successes. You will build a positive environment for change, and create and enthusiastic and energized team.

Sam Flanders is president of Durham, NH-based Warehouse Management Consultants (