Learning through sharing

Rich Skinner is the warehouse manager for Nasco’s distribution center in Fort Atkinson, WI. Skinner works daily on seeing that Nasco’s supervisors and staff pick, pack, and ship orders accurately. Nasco, which is owned by Stamford, CT-based conglomerate Aristotle Corp. ships 90,000 products annually and mails from 28 educational and health products catalog titles.

The company has two 300,000 sq.-ft. warehouses located across the street from each other. This fall, Nasco is renovating 60,000 sq. ft. of one facility by extending the walls and posts up from 12 ft. to 25 ft. Because its inventories are highest during the summer due to the school orders, Nasco is tackling the project in the fall and aims to have it finished before next summer.

What is Nasco’s greatest challenge?

Our biggest challenge in the warehouse is hiring and keeping good employees. We cross-train employees for both facilities. The initial job is easy to learn, but to recognize problems and be able to solve them before it affects a customer is priceless. There are 160 employees in the two warehouses — we have many dedicated employees with 20 and more years of experience. We have to run a second shift during the summer. We then add 155 students in to both shifts to complete our fulfillment. This is the busy time for receiving — just before the heaviest shipping will begin.

Do you have an incentive plan for your pickers and packers?

We have a company-wide incentive bonus plan for our full time employees. It is great for teamwork and satisfying our customers. We do use individual incentives for the top 15% of our students. The incentive is 25 cents per hour wage increase based on best performance. It’s for summer employees with a high line-count, few errors, good cooperation, and good attendance. The students do very well on all jobs during the summer. We have hired several students either full time or part time after the summer.

Tell us about your “welcome to operations” moment?

I’ll never forget when I started 15 years ago. Our warehouse is large, but with many smaller rooms, corners and side aisles. It was very easy to get lost and I needed to ask employees for help. When I interview for new employees, I let them know that this will happen to them in the beginning.

I know we’re doing a good job in fulfillment when:

The orders are shipped on time and the customer service department is looking for something to do.

I know we need to do better when:

Our orders begin to back up and when the receiving area is full at the same time. Fulfilling summer orders for school business is always a challenge. Good planning with the right amount of labor is the key to avoiding this problem.

If you had to choose: backorders or overstocks?

Overstocks, because we can sell the product given enough time. It does take more space, but it is better service.

Have you shared best practices across the other distribution centers within Aristotle Corp.?

Yes, we discuss practices with the other branches. The results have been very successful. In one example, our own Nasco distribution facility in Modesto, CA, was reusing cardboard boxes and buying used boxes from recyclers. We had the idea to add a green recycling sticker to notify a customer as to why the box was already used.

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