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Warehouse Optimization . . .The Little Things

By Dave Piasecki

When people think of optimizing warehouse operations, they usually think of warehouse management systems (WMS), automated material handling systems, bar coding, and automated data collection. Often neglected are the “little things” that affect warehouse operations. These little things usually require little to no investment and can sometimes have an enormous impact on operations.

Training.

While I generally wouldn’t describe employee training as a “little thing”, the fact is, training employees is inexpensive and will likely have the greatest return on investment of anything you will do in your operation. Operations that lack adequate procedures and employee training are likely to suffer from poor quality, low productivity, safety issues, low employee morale, highly stressed supervisors and managers, and a general lack of control. These chaotic conditions caused by poor training tend to contribute to the ongoing cycle of inadequate training by making it difficult for supervisors and managers to find time to define procedures and train employees. The only way to break the cycle is to take the time to define and document the procedures and implement an employee-training program.

Rules are a good thing! Unfortunately, many supervisors and managers seem to shy away from communicating to workers how they should be doing their jobs. In addition, of those that do communicate clear policies and procedures, few actually enforce compliance to these "rules". It very well may be true that people don't like being told what to do, however, you'll find your workers will get even more aggravated working in an environment that has a lack of control. This is especially true of your better workers whose jobs will be made more difficult by other workers not following procedures. Read my article on Warehouse Supervision.

Tools.

Making sure employees have the proper tools readily available to perform their job functions can also have significant impact on operations. Time wasted by employees wandering around the warehouse searching for a pallet jack or a tape dispenser will certainly be more detrimental to the bottom line that will the cost of purchasing more of these low cost items. While it’s OK to put emphasis on employees taking care of these tools, the fact is that items like pocket calculators, tape machines, markers, and razor knives will disappear. Whether they are lost, broken, or go home is someone’s pocket, doesn’t change the fact that you now have an employee that doesn’t have the proper tools to perform their job. You’re much better off treating these as consumables and always having extras on hand than risking employees making counting errors because they don’t have a calculator, risking product damage because they couldn’t find a tape dispenser, or risking injury because someone couldn’t find a pair of safety glasses. Also make sure you are purchasing quality tools and supplies. Stretchwrap that doesn't cling or breaks in the middle of wrapping, tape dispensers that don't work properly, tape that doesn't stick or doesn't come off the roll correctly, and pallet jacks that require excessive pumping will not do much for productivity or morale. Below is a list of some of the key tools used by warehouse workers.

  • Warehouse Tools

    • Pallet Jacks
    • Hand Trucks
    • Stock Carts
    • Rolling Ladders
    • Banding Dispensers
    • Banding Cutters
    • Banding Crimpers
    • Pry Bars
    • Stretchwrap Dispensers
    • Tape Dispensers
    • Pocket Calculators
    • Clip Boards
    • Razor Knives and Blades
    • Markers, Pens, etc.
  • Cleaning Supplies

    • Brooms
    • Dust Pans
    • Mops
    • Trash Containers
  • Safety Items

    • Safety Glasses
    • Dust Masks
    • Gloves
    • Aprons
    • Respirators
    • Hard Hats
    • Wheel Chocks

It will also prove to be very useful to have specific areas for these tools to be stored within each department. Tools required for daily operations should be made quickly accessible to workers while items only used occasionally should be stored away from the high activity areas.

Low-cost equipment.

There is a lot of low-cost equipment available that helps increase productivity and safety in warehouse environments. Lift tables, portable flex conveyor, drum handling equipment, pallet dollies are some examples. Browsing through a good warehouse equipment catalog is certain to give you some good ideas.

Pay close attention to workstation design in operations where workers spend a significant amount of time at a workstation such as order packing/packaging in fulfillment operations. Make sure everything the worker needs is easily accessible and that infrequently used materials and equipment are not cluttering the work area. Verify that the workstation size, height, and orientation are optimal for the specific task being performed. Look into modifying the workstations to meet your specific needs, there is a lot you can do with bolt-on attachments or better yet if you have access to someone with some welding experience. This also applies to other equipment such as stock carts.

Make sure flatbed carts, stock carts, and other rolling equipment have good quality wheel/caster assemblies. It's amazing the difference in level of effort required to push a cart with a larger higher quality caster than the smaller cheap casters that come on most equipment. If your employees use these types of equipment regularly, it's definitely worth it to replace the stock casters with better ones.

Equipment maintenance.

Proper maintenance of warehouse equipment is both a productivity and safety issue. Preventative maintenance plans should be in place for lift trucks, conveyor systems, automated material handling equipment, dock equipment, stretchwrapping machines, palletizers, bailers, and compactors. Employees should be trained and encouraged to immediately report any problems with equipment. Contingency plans should be predefined for all key pieces of equipment to ensure you are prepared in the event of a breakdown. Maintenance of pallet racking is often overlooked. Any warehouse that has racking will have some degree of racking damage. It is important to replace or repair damaged racking as quickly as possible; not only as a safety issue, but also as a statement of attitude. Leaving damaged sections of racking in place tends to promote further racking damage. Rack guards and barricades may be put in place where there is a higher likelihood of damage.

Cooling.

When it gets really hot in a warehouse you're going to lose productivity. Depending upon the activities being performed and the location and size of your facility you may find air conditioning to be a feasible option, however, many warehouses will never experience this luxury. You can do a lot with strategically placed ceiling and portable floor fans. There are also fans available as add-ons to your forklifts. Fans are especially important on man-up vehicles such as order selectors and turret trucks since the temperature near the ceiling is dramatically warmer than at the floor level (even in winter). Also make sure drinkable water is available and encourage employees to drink often. Even very mild dehydration will impair your employees productivity.

Housekeeping.

Maintaining good housekeeping practices will result in improvements in safety, productivity, and morale. Expectations of spotless floors in a working warehouse are usually unrealistic, however, implementing specific cleaning schedules will ensure a clean, safe working environment. Floors in high-traffic areas should be swept at least once each day or shift, while areas that don’t receive much activity may be swept once each week. Debris such as strapping, stretchwrap, and broken pieces of pallets should be picked up immediately as they pose immediate safety hazards. Slippery surfaces like areas around machines should have a regular mopping or floor-scrubbing schedule. Piece-pick and case-pick warehouses need to make sure product on shelves is neatly stacked with empty cartons, packaging, and stretchwrap removed. Specific areas should be designated for storage of pallets, totes, crates, etc. Ample receptacles should be available to ensure employees can easily dispose of trash. I find that you get much better results by assigning specific areas and tasks to specific individuals. This creates ownership and ensures everyone does his or her part. Also, as I mentioned earlier, make sure you provide adequate housekeeping supplies and equipment.

Identification.

Clear identification of product and locations will make order picking and putaway faster and more accurate, while clear identification of storage areas and staging lanes will eliminate congestion.

  • Use clearly readable labels or license plates on pallets and cartons.
  • Use location labels on storage shelving and pallet rack positions
  • Use signs to identify aisles.
  • Tape or paint floors to designate floor storage areas and staging lanes in dock areas

Forms and paperwork.

Create easy to fill out custom forms for any documentation requirements within the warehouse such as truck logs, inspection sheets, production reporting, cleaning schedules, load sheets, and transaction sheets. It only takes a few minutes to create a simple form in a word processing or spreadsheet program. Using a custom form will ensure accuracy and consistency in your documentation. Now I have to admit I do get a little anal when it comes to people using 50th generation copies of forms (a copy of a copy of a copy…) where the form eventually transforms into some type of morphed black and white artwork. Requiring employees to fill out forms that they can’t even read will not do much for accuracy and certainly doesn’t send the right message as to overall quality. There is absolutely no extra cost in producing clear forms.

Always have clear procedures for filling out forms and other paperwork. Make sure there are specific time tables and locations for turning in, processing, and filing of paperwork.

Managing miscellaneous storage.

Miscellaneous materials and equipment such as tooling, maintenance and building supplies, promotional materials, obsolete equipment, broken equipment, test material, sample items, etc. can gobble up valuable warehouse space and clutter aisles and staging areas. Maintaining current dispositions of these materials and keeping open communication with the “owners” of these items will prevent your warehouse from becoming a dumping ground. Any materials or equipment that do not have an immediate use (within a couple of days) should be put into a storage area, do not leave these items sitting in your receiving or shipping staging areas. Aggressive plans should be in place to sell, recycle, or scrap any equipment or materials that do not have a documented use.

Obviously this list of “the little things” is pretty much a list of things you probably already knew. And individually some of these items may seem to have very little impact, however as a whole they can have a tremendous impact to your employees and to your operation. Make a list of your “little things” and check it regularly to make sure you don’t lose sight of these issues.

Go to Articles Page for more articles by Dave Piasecki.

Dave Piasecki, is owner/operator of Inventory Operations Consulting LLC, a consulting firm providing services related to inventory management, material handling, and warehouse operations. He has over 25 years experience in operations management and can be reached through his website (http://www.inventoryops.com), where he maintains additional relevant information.


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