Every Little Thing

Staff at all levels must track and report measurements daily

Here’s a different approach for you: Instead of spewing out more grand advice about all the strategic, “big picture” things you should be doing to polish up your operation, I thought it would be helpful to pick on some of the little things that drive me nuts.

A lot of times it’s the little things that tip you off to how effective an operation is. There are hobgoblins in the details. Many of these issues may seem petty or insignificant in the grand scheme of things, but collectively, they represent one of the most important shortcomings of middle and upper management: a failure to continuously evaluate, solve, and execute. Here is a sampling of a few common practices.

Shoddy housekeeping

It sounds obvious, but one of the simple truths in operations is that the physical environment reflects your standards and expectations to everyone working there. I am privileged to visit dozens of operations every year, both call centers and warehouses, and I can invariably get a good sense of what I’m going to find based simply on the physical appearance of the facility. I have never walked into a sloppy operation and found great performance in terms of service levels, operating costs, or inventory accuracy, nor have I ever seen a glistening, well-organized operation that performs poorly.

No measurements

You’ve heard me rant about it before, so I won’t belabor it here. The bottom line is that managers and staff at all levels absolutely must track and report some basic measurements of the business on a daily and weekly basis. Without them, you’re doing nothing more than “winging it.”

While the most useful measurements vary by operation, they typically should include basic data such as orders completed, carryover, productivity, labor cost per order, accuracy, and time to ship by function.

No attention to slotting

Nothing affects space utilization, replenishment demands, and picking efficiency more than slotting. It’s stupefying how few companies — small or large — fail to do it even occasionally. Also known as profiling, slotting is the process of determining where each item is located in the warehouse and what the capacity of each location should be based on the expected activity of the item. A location that is too small means you will be replenishing the bin more often than necessary, and a location that is too large means you’re wasting space and increasing travel distances.

Manual picking ticket sortation

Too many operations spend way too much time manually sorting picking tickets to improve picking routes for the pickers. First, the system should automatically generate picking tickets in an appropriate sequence to match whatever picking methods you engage. Second, if you’re sorting picking tickets at all, you are almost definitely using an inefficient and inappropriate picking method. You need to look into more effective picking techniques such as batching, wave picking, pick and pass, and radio frequency.

Highlighting picking tickets

Do your picking tickets look like a kindergarten paint-by-number project by the time they get to the pickers? Many order control clerks go way overboard by highlighting just about everything on the picking ticket, causing the process to become a serious waste of time. So much gets highlighted that nothing stands out anymore.

A better approach is to use your system to identify the critical issues for the picker. The picker should have a straightforward task, just doing exactly what it says on the picking ticket. He should not have to look for special messages or shipping codes, with or without a highlight. The system should automatically sort orders with special requirements together, such as rush orders or orders requiring personalization, so that when a picker or packer gets that group he knows what he’s dealing with and doesn’t have to play “Find Waldo” for special instructions on the picking ticket.

Missed opportunities for “slappers.”

Single-line orders are the easiest to pick, and items already packed in their own shipping box are the fastest, cheapest, and easiest shipment there is. Yet too many companies fail to seize the opportunity to ship prepacked items separately. Here’s the thing: Many large, bulky, or fragile items will always be shipped in their own box no matter what else the customer orders.

What is the point of requiring a picker the travel the extra distance to get the additional items, and requiring a packer to pack two different boxes anyway? Items that are prepacked should be picked in a separate batch by a separate picker, who simply slaps on a shipping label as each item is picked (hence the term “slapper”). There is no packing required. The same logic applies to orders where the customer orders a full carton of a particular item in addition to other loose items.

Excessive checking

Some companies have a separate step to check every order after it is picked and before it is packed. In the vast majority of these cases, you just don’t get the bang for the buck that you might think. This is an additional cost and built-in bottleneck that makes sense only when there is a serious accuracy problem that cannot be solved through other means first. The better approach is an overall process improvement that includes making it easier for the stock handlers to put the right product in the right location and easier for the picker to select the right product in the first place. The process should include scanning of the items against the order at the packing stations, comparison of projected weight to actual weight at manifesting, and random audits.

Too many shipping labels

As the major carriers have upgraded their tracking capabilities with expanded bar codes and formatting requirements, most of us now depend on standalone shipping systems like UPS Powership or Clippership to produce the necessary label formats. Instead of simply scanning a basic bar code on the standard packing slip label and moving on to the next package, however, the shipper must now wait for an additional label to print out at the shipping station in the carrier-specific format. Fortunately, the format specifications are available from the carriers and many shippers are now printing the correctly formatted label up front with the original packing slip applied by the packer. This streamlines the shipping process to a simple scan of the bar code.


With all the best of intentions, most packers simply put way too much motion into each box. Packing is already the biggest bottleneck in the operation, and you should do everything you can to streamline the process. Make packers sensitive to any unnecessary motion and provide more specific guidelines on dunnage use and packing techniques.

Bill Kuipers is a principal of Spaide, Kuipers & Company. The firm provides operations management and IT solutions for the direct marketing industry, with offices in New Jersey and Philadelphia. Kuipers can be reached at (973) 838-3551, or kuipers@spaidekuipers.com.

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