Increasing Warehouse Productivity

Reviewing the Best Practices for Increasing Warehouse Productivity

Warehouse productivity lie at the heart of Lean and Six Sigma’s origins, but even today “best practices” are often not followed. At least, that’s the sentiment of Michael W., a poster from within Supply Chain Today, a group within LinkedIn.

Michael posted an article (which can be found here) on some ways to address productivity within a warehouse setting. I primarily want to talk about his article today for two reasons. The first is that many of the things he lists out are things we’ve already written about, hammered away at time and time again, and yet I see people making problematic omissions of these important principles every day still. Second, the elaboration on each point brought to the table is minimal in the original article, as pointed out by one LinkedIn user who posted asking for more detail.

While the discussion itself has yet to develop beyond a few murmurs, I’ve got a few things to say about warehouse productivity that can be thrown out here and now. Whether you personally work in a production facility or rely on a third party operator, hopefully you’ll find some value to use and/or pass along in the next few paragraphs.

Warehouse Productivity Must-Haves

From The Top Down

Michael’s article mentions “educating your leadership,” and I couldn’t agree more. The article then goes on (disappointingly) to couch the idea in only very general terms: empower your leadership to “ask the right questions…make decisions… take appropriate corrective action,” etc.

Sure, those are all good points, but if we’re going to be general then we need to address one reason for educating your business leaders that’s more important than any of those other things listed, and that’s the fact that those people hold power in the first place.

While it’s great to have informed leadership that can participate in improvement activities, active opposition to your projects is a bigger problem. I’ve harped on this time and time again, so I’ll keep it brief, but it basically goes something like this:  If those in charge don’t understand how or why you’re trying to accomplish your goals, they may never get greenlit in the first place.

Once you’ve got them on board in a more basic way, only then should you worry about how they actively fit into improvement plans by being educated; enthusiasm is great, but don’t put the horse before the cart here.

“Measure What Matters”

This was one of the points I whole-heartedly agreed with, if not (again) a bit lacking in detail. Lean & Six Sigma, the two most popular improvement methodologies, are both built upon observation and hard data. That is to say, if you don’t have an effective way of measuring your baseline, your progress, and your end results, you’re just a theorist. When working to improve warehouse productivity, getting your data correct from the get-go is a no-brainer. Taking numbers with real world applicability and tracking them is a great way to begin; LinkedIn user Davy W had an example of this as he sought to expand on the original article’s measure what matters section:

“When I worked for a Walmart DC we had a few key metrics and then everything rolled up into those metrics. So if the key metrics were right, everything else made sense. One of the key metrics was something like “boxes per employee.” Basically how many boxes were leaving the distribution center per employee. Thought this was a great metric because every person counted.”

In practice, these kinds of individual employee metrics are generally more useful than overall or floor-wide numbers because they help to induce a sense of personal accountability. That said, you can still use the aggregation of smaller and individual data chunks to build a picture of your overall operation when needed, a process that is much harder to do in the reverse. 

Communication

The number one spot on the article’s list when to communication, and for good reason. Good communication helps to not only keep everyone on the same page, but it also fosters a more positive work environment; workplaces with more open and amicable communication styles between various levels of employees (workers, floor managers, middle management, upper management) are going to naturally create an environment in which more people want to work.

Unfortunately, those benefits may not seem as tangible as highlighting the equally real effects of bad communication: Confusion in communications can lead to higher rates of defects, higher rates of mistakes and injury on the workfloor, and wasted resources, both physical and in terms of time and money.

Map Everything

Several of the points of the article have to do with simply getting a proper idea of what’s going on in a specific production facility. Having an intimate knowledge of all different processes and factors involved will, most importantly, help you establish proper causation between different steps of the process. The article also makes the interesting point that relying solely on performance indicators (even ones like those mentioned in the “measure what matters” section) is a dated method, and should be partially replaced by or combined with paying special attention to error proofing and standardization.

Getting a robust enough knowledge of the processes you’re working with comes down to really a matter of preference, as there are many methods for doing so. Six Sigma’s characteristic DMAIC framework is suggested by the article, and for good reason; the framework does a good job of wrapping process understanding and solution generation all into one.

Of course, you can use any method you want. Personally, I prefer talking to people directly, and will first compile a profile of common comments and complaints from both management and workers on the floor before anything else. Then, I’ll try to reconcile them with both each other and another mapping method (DMAIC, VSM, etc.). In this way, you allow yourself

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triangulate your information and ensure you’re seeing the most pressing improvement needs.

Takt Time

You should probably have some measure of your expectations and/or allowances to compare to your current rates. While this could fall under the Measure What Matters section, Takt times and the like focus on individual cycle times. What this means is that whereas most improvements will have to be measured over a course of weeks or months, Takt time lets you compare minute by minute or hour by hour production with expected turnover.

Having a shorter term measurement device also helps make two of our earlier sections easier to maintain (leadership education and good communication).

And of course…

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No article on warehouse productivity improvements would be complete without the mention of proper training. This training includes initial training that’s given to all employees, but should also focus heavily on making sure that updates at any level of production or warehouse policy are quickly relayed to and ingrained in the worker culture.

When working on changing habits or systems to increase productivity, you’re going to need to give refresher trainer courses out to current employees. You’ll also want to alter your initial employee training to reflect new policies to avoid having to train newcomers more than once. Plus, if they’re trained correctly from the beginning, new employees will help to reshape your workplace culture around any new principles, processes, or goals going forward.

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