The power of speed-of-flow

Don’t waste time in your distribution center or warehouse…for time is what your DC/warehouse is actually made up of!

In wholesale-distribution, unlike in manufacturing environments, wasted time does not litter the factory floor like wasted material does. Wasting time differs from wasting material in that there can be no salvage.  You just don’t “see” it. Once time passes, it can never be retrieved.  That moment’s productivity potential is lost forever!

On a daily basis, there are a lot of good examples of this concept of “time waste” occurring in every DC or warehouse.  Generally, little of it has to do with warehouse workers' attitudes or motivation to get the work done.  Yes, sometimes there can be a training issue.  More likely, it’s about “not really knowing your warehouse or distribution center constraints.”  What do I mean by that? 

The 10-Plus Wastes

Years ago, lean practitioners such as myself, identified the original “7 Wastes” that are typically evidenced in a warehouse or DC.  Shortly, thereafter, the list grew to “8 Wastes.”  I have, over the years, identified a few more.  In fact, I suggest that there are now “10-Plus Wastes,” which to one degree or another are prevalent in most DC’s or warehouses.  Many of them continue to go unseen or undetected (you can email me for a complete, descriptive list).

As facilities become larger, they suffer from significant inefficiencies — wasting time and resources — usually having to do with poor storage methods, ill-conceived storage capacities, problems with the proper location and accessibility of products, and constructing the best routes for directed receiving put-away, replenishment of bins and picking activities.

So in this context, strategy for speed incorporating “speed-of-flow” means speeding up fulfillment without losing accuracy or increasing cost. Why not incorporate “speed-of-flow” solutions into your strategy for speed?

Some basic facts:

1. It’s an indisputable fact that upwards of 70 percent of a picker’s time is spent walking.  Similar percentages exist for other major warehouse operational functions, such as put-away.  Much of that 70 percent is taken up just getting to the location where the product is stored — even before you execute the pick or put-away.  So, value is realized when you reach the work area, not in transit or commuting to the work area.

2. Picker productivity is more a function of “hit density” than pick-rate, particularly once the picker gets to where he/she is going.  In other words, there is significant benefit in increasing the picking opportunities by shortening the distance between picks and increasing the number of picks per stop.  Therefore, the introduction of better product location methodology, storage media, use of space and how the pick-face is offered to the picker, is one of the quickest ways to achieve higher pick-rates.

3. There still seems to be a basic skepticism that exists when it comes to considering batch or zone picking options; whether it will actually yield higher productivity.  Frankly, this needs to give way to better logic.  The old reasoning that it increases processing time or reduces accountability — leading to more errors — only results in a continuation of, or a fostering of, discrete order picking.  The argument no longer has any wind behind its sails.

4. Conveyor system transport of product, even basic gravity-fed conveyor, is an often under-utilized resource option and can be a major asset to your strategy for speed and speed-of-flow.

5. The use of flow-racking is another resource option, particularly in offering an extremely flexible pick face for fast-moving products, simplifying bin replenishment and optimizing the ergonomics of product storage and retrieval.

6. Many DC’s and warehouses still incorporate old warehouse design and layout concepts.  Smart storage, retrieval and product flow design can go a long way towards reducing wasted time.  It also can enhance the ROI of your warehouse management system investment.  WMS is just a tool.  It can’t function alone — without a design strategy for speed-of-flow.

7. Critical DC/warehouse performance measurements are often lacking.  There are several critical metrics which can provide a baseline measure for identifying continuous improvement opportunities.

So what will your strategy for speed be?

First, a question:  Why not begin by investing more time and resources to study and identify opportunities that could provide significant productivity gains in your DC/warehouse?  

I am often disappointed that I don’t see a strategy for speed.  I see attempts at improvements being made all the time, but often in a piecemeal or incremental fashion, not a reimagining.  For instance;  “Let’s give the folks some new picking carts, that will speed them up!”  “Let’s buy another forklift, that’ll help!” While not bad ideas, they are just tools, not a strategy — surely not transformative.

Frankly, it’s not like these types of efficiency discussions are new to wholesale distributors.  Within a DC or warehouse, the goal has always been to reduce processing time for all the major warehouse functionalities, hasn’t it? Yet, the basic lean thinking objective:  “less travel + fewer touches = less cost,” for many, remains unrealized — as well as the ability to assure the quality of those touches.

Let me know if you have any questions or if I can help.  We have several articles and whitepapers on this topic, including recommendations for change, which could be valuable to you.    

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