Surviving seasonal peaks

The holiday order crush—assuming you had one last year—may seem like a long time ago. But holiday 2008 is right around the corner, and seasonal peaks can be destructive to your distribution center without the right survival strategies, says operations expert Sam Flanders.

Merchants often attempt to solve seasonal peak problems with a misguided approach, says Flanders, president of Portsmouth, NH-based Warehouse Management Consultants. “What you do to make your operation efficient during seasonal peaks is no different than what you do at other times, but it is more critical at these times,” he says.

The key to surviving seasonal peaks, stresses Flanders, is to focus on the same fundamentals that keep the DC operating the rest of the year. “The fundamentals are the same for a seasonal peak as for your regular operation, but you really need them to be working smoothly.”

By using proven, simple concepts and strategies to work smarter, streamline order processing, simplify packing, and train personnel–and by stressing flexibility–Flanders says DCs can reduce bottlenecks, smooth out peaks and improve productivity.

One tactic: focus on scalability, taking what you have that works well, and making it work just as well or better when the peak time arrives. “When considering any system, you must ask, ‘Is this scalable?’” says Flanders.

For example, say you have a conveyor system that automatically delivers orders to zones that need filling. It only sends boxes to places you need them. “During peak season, it becomes like LA during rush hour. If the system doesn’t have the capacity, you wind up with the equivalent of a traffic jam,” Flanders says. “You need to think: ‘How much do I need to make it work during that three week period?'”

Merchants should focus on process, layout, flow, and people, rather than expensive technology solutions. Staffing is a core concern: “Seasonal times are when you want to be careful about trying to cut staff and replace them with machines,” Flanders says. “Having staff members who are fully trained and competent can pull you through peak seasons.”

Remember, if your seasonal staff isn’t well trained or is not competent, “it’s the worst time to break down.” The merchants who have been most successful with seasonal hiring in their DCs start looking for people during the summer, says Flanders. “You might bring people in for a trial period, to cover vacations. This gives you time to assess them. Some companies have a recruiting process for seasonal people all year round.”

The other part of the equation, Flanders points out, is you need to have resources on staff to invest the time and train those people. “There’s a cost,” he acknowledges, “but it will pay off.”

While Flanders focuses on the unique demands experienced by seasonal businesses, he says that what he does for a nonseasonal business is very similar: “Focus on the pain points, the problem points, and on using best practices to do it better.”

Sam Flanders will present “Surviving Seasonal Peaks in the DC – Working Smarter” at NCOF on Thursday, April 10, 8:15 am – 9:30 am.

More Articles by Sam Flanders:
What’s in Storage
The Skinny on Order Completion Analysis
Nine Ways to Better Control Your Inventory

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