How To Improve Your Warehouse Without a WMS

Sept. 1, 2004
by Don Benson, Warehouse Coach I get excited when I discover a distribution center where the warehouse management and the IT or systems department work

by Don Benson, Warehouse Coach

I get excited when I discover a distribution center where the warehouse management and the IT or systems department work well together and have developed effective enhancements to their systems to improve warehouse performance, without having to purchase and install a full warehouse management system (WMS). In my experience, these smaller companies, which usually cannot afford to purchase a WMS and yet have built systems enhancements for the warehouse, seem to have a much higher probability of surviving and even prospering in this competitive environment. And I find them to be fun to work with because they understand the cooperation and collaboration required for success.

To become successful on the path that can enhance your systems to support warehouse operations requires several different elements. In this column, I will present the elements that I believe are most important, the major ones that you can accomplish without a WMS, with some suggestions about how you might begin to initiate and perhaps accomplish the change.

But first, there are some critical elements to your success.

Get your data in order and keep it that way. As I have mentioned in several columns, regardless of the level of system support you enjoy, without high-quality data, you and your company will never achieve the success you want. One phrase has been around a long time that is still worth remembering: “Garbage In – Garbage Out.” The key to data quality is to implement quality control on the input, and to maintain aggressive, daily processes to find and fix problems when they are discovered. The more attention you pay to maintaining high-quality data, the more those in your department and senior management will recognize your leadership to maximize the effectiveness of your department and the success of the entire company. There are three articles on this subject of data accuracy on my site at

Know your business and the most important opportunities for operations improvement. Start by developing and maintaining a ranked list of your top five most important operations problems, challenges, types of errors or bottlenecks. As you monitor the daily flow of material, identify the functions that work well and the ones that always require extra attention, and when.

There are two steps here: searching and selecting. It is tempting to select the first option that seems to make sense. We often find that considering and evaluating several options, including the cost (investment and ongoing staffing, etc.) can lead to discovering and selecting the best. Analyzing and comparing several options ensures that you can easily defend the one you select and will have thought it through to implementation, which should make it easier to present to others and obtain their support. I recommend that you tour other warehouses asking questions about options they considered for particular methods, and about their selection process, etc. Again, as you start to move from discovering options to selecting the one to implement, ask the people doing the work what they think. Talk with your peers about your situation and the ideas that you have to improve the situation. Make sure that you have done all you can do without additional IT support before asking for it. There is always competition for IT resources and if you don’t need to wait for IT support, you can implement your solution more quickly.

Know the proposal process in your company. When you decide that working with IT is the best way to improve your situation, document your request, describing the problem; specifically describe how your solution will work, including estimated costs and savings, etc., before presenting it for approval. Getting others to participate in developing the proposal will increase the probability of success. Be prepared to defend your request, negotiate and collaborate with others in the final design of the solution, and then expect competition for IT resources. Often other managers (e.g., accounting and sales) will have been the primary users of company IT resources for many years, and will find it difficult to accept that the warehouse has a more important need than theirs. You will find it useful to talk with your manager or the IT manager to learn more about what this process requires for successfully navigating this path.

Stay involved. Once your project is accepted and moves to the top of the list for IT development, stay involved with the people doing the work. It is almost impossible to effectively describe in a written form all that we want a system to do. Consequently, without frequent conversation about the application with the designers/programmers, the results are often significantly different from what you requested. Fixing software always costs more than doing it correctly the first time. Once programming starts, I suggest that you take the responsibility to meet regularly with the users (people in the warehouse) and the IT staff about what you want and what they are doing. Take the programmer or analyst out to see and work with the process you want to improve. Time invested here is well spent; you almost cannot overdo your commitment to this element.

You are responsible. Remain an active part of the change process. Participate in the process of testing and implementation. Take responsibility for the results, the impact on your operation, the training of your staff and obtaining the results you documented in your proposal. No one will understand it and give it the level of attention that you will.

As you become more successful in working with change, you will build your skill and the confidence of others in your capacity to make change happen successfully. And when the time comes to obtain a WMS, you will be a much more competent customer than most; you will already have developed a working relationship with your company’s system staff, and you will get much more out of your new system.

Don Benson, P.E., has been consulting to retail, wholesale and manufacturing organizations for more than 25 years. His practice focuses on improving the effectiveness of warehouse and distribution operations. His office is in Oakland, California. He can be reached at [email protected] or 510-482-3436.