Implementing Material Handling Systems -- Averting Disaster

Jan. 1, 2001
In Consultant Forum, Art Van Bodegraven of the Progress Group convenes a roundtable of consultants who point out the make-or-break elements of systems integration.

A roundtable of consultants points out the make-or-break elements for systems integration.

The challenge of implementing material handling systems projects in the real world of time and cost constraints is growing. Hardware has to work — and work with the companion software. People have to know how their jobs have changed, and not only execute transactions, but also recognize when the system isn’t working the way it was supposed to. And, as always, planning is of the essence.

We’d like to not believe it, but the sad truth is that implementing material handling systems is tough work. As with anything difficult, the chances for something important to go wrong are high. Too many cases are serious enough to wind up in court. But it doesn’t have to be that way.

Recently, some of us in The Progress Group met to talk over the challenge. We’ve seen plenty of flawed installations, and we’ve worked with litigants and their lawyers when all else has failed to resolve problems. And we’ve been involved in success stories, as well.

Our panel consisted of Jim Apple, who has devoted his working life to the design of distribution operations and systems; Dave Stallard, who spent many years in system design and installation for a major manufacturer before turning to consulting in the same field; Drew Hale, who just completed a 400,000-square-foot facility (including the material handling systems); Catherine Cooper, a veteran systems project manager in logistics and operations; and Steve Mulaik, who specializes in the software side of the question.

Opening shots

Stallard threw the first punch, strongly suggesting that a majority of MH projects are fatally flawed by solving a problem that will change by the time implementation takes place. Apple agreed, noting, "You have to be solving a real business problem, to get support, anyway." Hale added, "It has to be the right version of the problem. Designing for today’s world guarantees a poor fit for how volumes and velocities are going to change." "And," added Cooper, "the problem needs a complete solution. Automating bad processes is dumber than not using technology at all."

Ingredients for success

The consultants roundtable identified these keys to implementing material handling systems:

• Money. Apple maintained, "Underfunded projects are doomed to failure. They are neither completed on time, nor successfully. Contingency budgeting is also critical. Without enough money, the specifics of the solution and its scope must be rethought — at the beginning."

• Time. "There is never enough time to do things right," observed Cooper, "but companies will spend bazillions of person-hours trying to make things right at the ‘end’ of a project. Not that anyone has the luxury of all the time in the world, and no one in a competitive world can afford a ‘comfortable’ schedule. The key is intelligent use of what time there is, using as much fast-tracking as possible, and with a heavy dose of planning at the front end. And, putting your foot down when management tries to arbitrarily cut the timeline back."

"Another opportunity to rethink design and scope," added Apple.

• People. Hale stressed the criticality of training. "There’s no such thing as too much training. It can’t begin too early. And it can’t involve too many people and functions."

"It needs to teach how to recognize operational anomalies, as well as how to run the machinery," said Stallard.

Apple added that "design of human interfaces can’t be left until the end, or it will be impossible to get them right."

• Communications. Cooper related the necessity of "having everybody on the same page — timetable, objectives, freeze dates, status." "Look," she said, "I’ve seen operations modify [improve] processes well after design was completed, making part of the new system ineffective or obsolete. Systems groups are notorious for making modifications based on incomplete assumptions about what the material handling system will or won’t do."

"Also," added Hale, "when a project involves integrated components [e.g., building, services, material handling equipment, control systems, logistics execution systems], design development and changes must be fully communicated, with everyone using the same AutoCad version, and PC virus detection."

• Partnership. "Make sure your suppliers, vendors, contractors — everybody — are putting, and keeping, their ‘A Team’ on the project," cautioned Apple. "You’ve got to put your ‘A Team’ on it, too. And, don’t select project partners who can’t commit their team in writing."

• Flexibility. Mulaik observed, "There are going to be problems; count on it. Nobody involved can afford rigid positions. There must be give and take — compromise. This can only be effective with joint and open work sessions. And all parties need to be ready to back away from their established positions, and rethink all viable alternatives. There is no substitute for having well-defined problem resolution processes."

Sounds easy, doesn’t it? All you need is time, money, and the ability to leap tall buildings in a single bound.

Recipes for failure

"We may be watching the wrong ball here," said Mulaik. "Software testing is the unappreciated project killer. It’s easy to find cases in which finishing up the software takes two to six months longer than the physical aspects of the installation."

Almost everyone preaches the "Gospel of No Modifications," until some brave soul points out the absolute necessity of a few critical changes. Then, typically, the floodgates open, as people see the opportunity to get their pet modifications (frequently of limited value) into the queue.

Now, with a wheelbarrow full of modifications, software becomes the project’s "stealth" critical path. And along with not having enough resources to work on the modifications, there isn’t enough time to test and debug them. Short-cutting testing is a tactic only for someone with a death wish.

Vendors often have no way of knowing which bugs are most important to work on first, so they are all treated equally. Clearly, the entire scenario calls out for organized processes, and plenty of oversight.

"I think, overall," Stallard adds, "the greatest disasters have come from committing the new facility or system to critical customer support by a date certain, irrespective of the timing of physical and information acceptance processes. Then, when there is no time or way to fix deficiencies, the company is stuck trying desperately to meet mission-critical operational objectives, whatever the cost and effort."

"We don’t have to go very far back to the cases of the candy company that couldn’t ship for Halloween, or the toy company that failed to deliver at Christmas," Apple reminded.

Other do’s and don’ts

Stallard continued with a cautionary list:

• Don’t underestimate the productivity/time impact of additional scan verification.

• Do order spare parts along with the equipment. That way, you’ll save serious money and have the parts on-hand for the inevitable start-up failures.

• Don’t expect immediate target performance/productivity achievement. You will be disappointed, and your associates will be demoralized.

• Do be prepared to dynamically manage staffing — all day, every day — to capitalize on the capacity and capability of the system. This comes as a surprise to many managers.

• Don’t expect to build employee ownership of the system in the last few weeks of the 12- to 18-month project cycle. This process needs to begin with initial planning.

• Do send a delegation of employees and supervision to a similar facility, with equipment similar to yours (from your suppliers). Not to observe; to work, and learn the equipment and systems.

• Don’t forget that you can shrink the margin of error in operations with a greater amount of mechanization and sophisticated system control. There are far fewer buffers, and many more opportunities for jams, full conveyors, and other entirely natural disasters. The requirement for proactive management increases.

Bringing up material handling systems and/or new facilities can be done effectively. But implementation can be crippled by shortcuts, incomplete planning, and spreading people resources too thin. Then, the adage kicks in: "Adding manpower to a late project only makes it later."

Final words, from Hale and Stallard: "Make friends with the installation crews. They are vital. And plug key maintenance staff into the installation and early problem-solving. They’ll save your bacon, down the road." MHM

About the author

The Progress Group is an international supply chain and logistics consultancy with headquarters in Atlanta. Art Van Bodegraven is TPG’s supply chain practice director. He has been consulting for 33 years. Panel members in this article were James M. Apple Jr., David W. Stallard, Charles A. Hale, Stephen A. Mulaik and Catherine L. Cooper. They average more than 20 years of experience in consulting and system design and implementation. Visit