Optimizing WMS Performance

Ten solutions for turning problems with warehouse management sytems into opportunities.

Awarehouse management system (WMS) that is imposed on an illconceived layout, with ancient paradigms and an unprepared warehouse team will never reach even a tiny fraction of its full potential, and forget about payback, or fulfillment of all those bright promises.

Fortunately, with enhanced observational skills and a healthy dose of common sense, the astute material-handling practitioner can identify problems and initiate a program to optimize the totality of the operation, not just the WMS. With some judicious planning and synergistic implementation, the problems can be turned into opportunities.

Impediment 1: Inefficient layouts
Dead-end aisles, circuitous routes and other inefficiencies are relatively easy to spot. All aisles should be clear and straight, and have a minimum of two entrances or exits spaced according to the requirements of codes and processes. Bridge aisles for cross traffic must be high enough to avoid lift truck masts and allow for the free passage of at least one vehicle and a person.

Every layout is a trade-off between cube, fronts (places to put material) and time. Space and fronts can be maximized with narrow (4- to 5-ft) aisles, but throughput suffers because only one individual or vehicle can work in the aisle at a time. Judicious timing can mitigate the spacecrunch and sophisticated programming of a WMS; or the aisles can be opened for better flow. The compromises inherent in these choices will ultimately dictate the operational efficiencies.

Impediment 2: Poor housekeeping
Housekeeping is a reflection of the focus of management and the warehouse staff. Poor work habits directly translate into problems that can scuttle a WMS. Material that is misplaced, trash on the floor, and a general attitude problem lead to a casual disregard for the disciplines required for success. Don't even think about implementing a WMS until the warehouse in cleaned up, and can sustain this condition. One good place to start is to look in the manager's car. If it is a rolling pigsty, you will know exactly where to start the cleanup—with the manager's mindset.

Impediment 3: Poor warehouse location systems
A solid warehouse numbering system is vital to every aspect of a WMS. The addresses must be specific to at least the individual shelf or pallet load. Directing the staff to an aisle or area may have been sufficient in the past, but for tight inventory control far greater detail must be maintained. A key advantage of a WMS is the ability to stock material in a structured environment, not just by the vendor's alphanumeric sequence. This implies that the goods will be lost if the warehouse address is incorrect or ignored.

Keep the numbering system simple and meaningful for the staff. Ideally it should be a simple sortation in the computer. Straight numeric addresses are usually the best, especially with the lead digits indicative of physical separation such as pallet racks, cantilever racks, floor storage and shelving.

Impediment 4: Insufficient training
We have never encountered an over-trained workforce. WMS training is only one component of an educational program. Training must be an ongoing, regular function in the warehouse, and should be based on what the people want to know, need to know and must know to operate successfully in the context of their work. Therefore, the trainer must include the "why" as well as the "how."

People who understand every aspect of their job will always be in a better position to assimilate new information. Better yet, they can suggest, develop and implement new techniques. A good training program operates in both directions.

Impediment 5: Inadequate facilities
One way to reduce costs is to defer facilities upgrades and maintenance. This is especially true in rental space. Thousands of dollars for a WMS and nothing for improving lighting is a waste from every perspective. People who cannot see cannot maintain quality, safety or the disciplines of a warehouse management system. Similarly, it is hard to focus on a digital readout while avoiding potholes in the floor. Along with a commitment for computerized enhancements, make sure that the facility is upgraded to eliminnate distractions and safety concerns.

Impediment 6: New bandages on old wounds
Paradigms and operating systems developed to compensate for past deficiencies can become institutionalized in the new WMS. For example, placing receiving on one end of the building with shipping at the other end makes no sense in a cross docking environment.

Optimizing the programs of the WMS will never compensate for the better solution of moving some, or all, of the receiving processes to the shipping docks. Don't implement new software to solve problems that should never have existed.

Impediment 7: Obsolete data and paradigms
It is easy to overlook the simple fact that current accounting practices were developed long before electronic information processing. This results in insufficient data, subdivided into inadequate categories, without cross-correlations that are vital for a successful WMS operation.

There are huge differences between a rush order, a will-call order and an order that can be processed on a systematic basis. Eliminating special orders is perfectly acceptable in some environments, and suicide in others. Chances are, the accounting system fails to delineate the magnitude and necessity of these distinctions. Seek out real information, avoid anecdotes (especially from sales personnel) and quantify realistic needs. Don't assume the past dictates the future.

Impediment 8: Taking the textbook approach
Many WMS programs were written by systems analysts and programmers, not warehouseoriented people. These systems are based on assumptions that may be too generalized for your facility. Often this paradigm surfaces in programs that optimize the placement of inventory.

Using data based solely on the dollars sold is obviously fallacious in real-world situations with both expensive and cheap products. Similarly, looking only at the quantity sold, regardless of the sales unit (each/box/case/keg/pallet/truck load) is equally misleading. For material handling purposes, the best measure is often the number of hits (times the item appeared on an order). This falls apart when there is an affinity between products, such as 1/4"- 20 nuts, and the hundreds of types and sizes of threaded fasteners that could be sold with this core item. One can work around these situations, but only after the circumstances have been identified. The real world is not a textbook.

Impediment 9: Building a model railroad
Just because a module or program element is available does not mean you need it in your environment. Often the additional complexity will slow the operation, lengthen the training process, add to the workload and generate unnecessary paperwork. It is far better to bring in more sophistication on an as-needed basis, rather than trying to implement too much, too soon.

Regardless of how well prepared the staff and physical environment are initially, it is far better to implement the WMS on a staged basis, and avoid all the nuances until the initial programs are fully assimilated and trustworthy. Bragging rights for complexity add little to profitability.

Impediment 10: Reusing the wrong equipment
Just because the equipment exists is no real reason that it must be used in the future. When material-handling equipment is selected, there are normally some criteria for which equipment to choose. Adding a WMS to this environment changes these basic paradigms.

A pick-to-light cart system, for example, may outperform a conveyorized system when the assured accuracy attributable to a solid WMS allows for the use of a pick/pack operation with the goods removed from a shelf and placed directly in a shipping carton. With training and electronic assistance in place, picking to a tote with double-checking (and all the conveyors associated with these operations) can be eliminated.

Impediment 11: Finding more
The time to optimize is before the warehouse management system is selected, not after implementation. Customized solutions may be better in your environment than packages developed for a generalized environment. The only way for management to make an informed selection is with your input. While the decision process may come down to dollars and cents, the aggravation factor will be astronomical if you abdicate providing the insights that can delineate or simplify the actual needs of the operation.

Remember, regardless of which WMS is chosen, you and your staff will have to make it work. Define your needs, identify worthy goals, and optimize the operations and environment before selecting a program, not after the fact.

Bob Footlik, P.E., is president of Footlik & Associates, a material-handling and industrial-engineering consulting firm.

11 impediments with 10 solutions

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