Affordable Distribution Management: Improving Labor Productivity

By Don Benson, P.E.

The first topic that comes up in a discussion of operations is almost always productivity, and how to get the material handling staff to work harder. Occasionally, some managers talk about the benefits of work simplification, how to combine or eliminate tasks, so that more can be done with less effort. However, the objective of this change is almost always focused on the worker. While there is a great deal that can be done in this area in every distribution center there is another powerful approach that often is overlooked. In my experience, the easiest and first way to address improving labor productivity is to start with supervision and management. And the place to start is through planning, and specifically the converting of work events to regular processes.

There are three elements to examine to understand this approach. They are all common, easy to see and provide direction you can implement tomorrow. The first element is to recognize that your distribution center has a normal cycle of operation. That is, whether by hour through the day, or day in the week or days in the month, there are always predictable peaks and valleys in workload, usually as a result of production planning or customer order patterns outside of your control. The second element is that you like every other manager would rather deal with a small and constant level of overstaffing or overtime than with the consequences of not shipping orders for the lack of staff. And the third element is to acknowledge that there are many important tasks in your operation that should be done every day that often only get accomplished when they become so big that they cannot be ignored, e.g., cycle counting, pick position rep! lenishment, stocking packing station supplies, returns processing, sweeping the floors, cleaning up the data in the computer, reslotting pick positions, etc. Usually these tasks are thought of as not important because they do not directly contribute to daily shipping or sales or the benefits would be small for the effort required. And while that is true, if they are not done in a timely way, the results can be disastrous.

My recommendation is that tomorrow you begin this form of productivity improvement by identifying the operations support tasks that need to be worked on every week. Then develop a program for assigning people to perform some portion of these tasks every week, during the normally slow hours or days in your next regular schedule. Rather than continue to put them off, or bring in someone else to take care of this support work, or to make big projects out if them once a year, begin to accomplish small amounts every week with your regular staff. Recently I have seen managers schedule these support tasks for slow times Thursday morning every week, or from 7:00 to 8:00 every morning, or on the 1st and 2nd and 16th and of each month, depending on their individual cycle. You will probably discover some resistance in implementing this change, in yourself and from the people that work for you, so you will need to monitor performan! ce closely at first. Few people like change. And I know that it will not be long before you will see a difference. Give it a month and let me know what happened, particularly the surprises. You can reach me at [email protected])

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Other articles in this series:

Improving Distribution Operations

Evaluating Vendor Shipping Performance

Improving Labor Productivity

Picking Document Design

Implement Cycle Counting

Inventory Storage

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