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Store: Order Selector Training is an Investment, Not a Cost

Feb. 12, 2013
Where picking is concerned, there's truth in the saying "Work smarter, not harder."

Today's distribution center managers try to increase productivity any way they can. Most tend to invest in new technologies and equipment, sales efficiencies, delivery route optimization, inventory management and procurement changes. But in an environment that is still largely driven by a labor-intensive task (order selection), why do we continuously ignore the simplest and most cost-effective investment opportunity: the efficient work habits of our people?

Investments in "Voice Pick" or "paperless" order selection technologies are often compromised by their intrinsic cost and by expectations from an under skilled workforce employing outdated work methods.

In most cases, the training offered to order selectors was developed in much simpler, less demanding times. Upgrading order selector methods training, and thus, skill level and efficiency, is necessary to ensure that investments in technology generate real productivity improvements without sacrificing the quality and/or safety of the work being performed.

Selectors tend to struggle in today's environment simply because they are trying to play a new game with old skills that have not kept pace with new technologies and expectations.

Proper Training's Dividends

Prior to paperless order selection, selectors could simplify pallet building by planning their order in advance and choosing the sequence of their "picks" or items. Not only was non-sequential selection less productive, but it resulted in generations of unskilled pallet builders. To be successful in today's environment, they must now be taught new approaches to pallet building due to the necessity of sequential picking inherent to efficient paperless selection.

Generally, a properly trained order selector will walk the equivalent of two to three miles per shift and hold each case/item, on average, for one to two seconds. Studies of selectors who go without updated methods training show durations three to four times greater than that—once again, trying to play a new game with old habits.

A short-term investment in methods training will produce invaluable long-term dividends.

Behavioral Modification

Effective methods training results in the "de-programming" and "re-programming" of each trainee to eliminate old,
inefficient habits and paradigms and reinforce new, efficient techniques.

Eliminating the waste of energy, effort and time caused by old habits and paradigms helps organizations avoid preventable barriers to increased productivity, including:

  • Resistance from employees
  • Resistance from unions
  • Fear
  • Perception of unfairness

Employees who are able to meet performance expectations while working at a comfortable pace are more dependable, produce higher quality work, create fewer damages and make fewer errors.

Through practice and repetition, it will become second nature for your order selectors to process the mental work for their next item (What is it? Where is it? How will I get to it? Where will I place it?) while performing the physical work for their current case (travel to location, label/scan case, gain control of item, place item on pallet). With properly trained employees:

  • Unnecessary steps (miles) are eliminated
  • Time wasted carrying/supporting weight is minimized
  • Required effort and energy expended is reduced
  • Performance capability increases substantially

Overcome the Myths

In many cases, the first step in understanding the benefits of preferred methods training is to overcome common misconceptions.

Myth: Order selection is labor intensive work requiring little skill.
Myth: Order selection is the simple process of placing boxes on a pallet.
Myth: Basic training in fundamentals (driving machinery, reading product descriptions, lifting, stacking) is sufficient to develop safe, productive employees.
Fact: Safe, efficient, productive order selection is a trade, not unlike a mechanic or carpenter.
Fact: Methods training will facilitate substantial increases in productivity, while minimizing physical exertion and ensuring long-term health.                   
Fact: Methods training can eliminate thousands of steps, both empty-handed and supporting weight, during the course of one worked shift.     
Fact: Methods training will eliminate non value added habits and order selection paradigms that, when repeated hundreds of times per shift, severely hinder an employee's performance capacity.  

All too often the idea of methods training is dismissed, particularly when considering  "experienced" order selectors, because the complexity of the job (when done well) is underestimated – "pick cases up; put them on a pallet; how complicated can it be?"

Little Effort, Great Results

Compare the untrained worker with the trained worker.

Company A runs several distribution centers and employs a diverse workforce of over 5,000 employees. Bob works comfortably all day, never seems to be rushed, never sweats, but always produces top productivity numbers. Joe is always in a rush, always overexerts and always struggles to produce even base productivity expectations.

How can this be? Order selection is supposed to be a labor intensive job with little complexity. By this definition, the only thing that should separate high performers from the rest would be effort and pace. But Bob works at a much slower pace than Joe with substantially less effort, yet outperforms him comfortably.

Bob and Joe's co-workers have their own ideas as to why that is. "Bob always gets the easiest orders" or "they must be playing with Bob's numbers" are opinions frequently heard when referring to the high performance, minimal effort selectors like Bob. It can't possibly be because Bob is better. The fact is, Bob is better, but not for the reasons we may think.

Performance capabilities similar to those of the "Bobs" of the order selection world are easily attainable, even by our most challenged and unskilled selectors.

Why? Because what truly separates the "Bobs" from the rest are their simple, uncomplicated habits, techniques and decisions that save time and effort at every location and with every case. Simple habits and simple decisions that anyone can be taught and that anyone can learn.

Bob doesn't overthink and overcomplicate. He "under thinks and under complicates," if that can be said.

It's actually Joe who overthinks and overcomplicates the job. That is why he struggles with the balance between effort and performance.

Overthinking and overcomplicating wastes time and effort, while simple habits and simple decision-making saves time and effort – it's as simple as that.

Multiply this concept by 1,000-2,000 cases per shift and you have the difference between Bob and Joe.

Bob's goal at every location is simple: minimize the distance that I move, and most importantly, minimize the distance the case moves, all the while ensuring solid and stable pallets for efficient travel. This will, in turn, minimize the time and effort it takes to select the order.

Bob accomplishes his tasks efficiently by following these four simple concepts:

  1. Optimal pallet jack placement and handling;
  2. Proactive selection sequence;
  3. Pallet building: case placement decisions for stability;
  4. Pallet building: case placement decisions for efficiency.

Bob understands that one wasted step per case results in up to a mile, or more, of wasted walking per shift. A portion of this waste is "unloaded" or empty handed, but the costly portion is the "loaded" portion, with case in hand.

Bob understands that one wasted second with case in hand results in up to 30 minutes of extra "weighted" minutes per shift. He also understands that one wasted second per case results in 20 minutes to half an hour of wasted time at the end of the shift – at least 5% wasted performance capacity.

Not only do these wasted steps and "weighted" seconds unnecessarily increase the effort necessary to perform the job, but they also take more time, which can only be compensated for with an increased work pace (i.e., the need to work faster to compensate for the time wasted with inefficient work habits and techniques that are already sapping my energy and reducing my performance capability). The vicious cycle continues: shift after shift; week after week; year after year.

Why do these seemingly simple concepts escape the average order selector?

Generally, the human brain is not programmed to notice small inefficiencies – six steps instead of four; five seconds with weight in hand instead of three.

When these small, seemingly inconsequential inefficiencies are repeated hundreds, if not thousands of times, wasted steps become wasted miles and wasted seconds become wasted hours, very quickly.

Methods Training

The end goal for your trainers is to "transfer" the knowledge and skills necessary for all employees to optimize their
efficiency (become the two to three miles per shift, one to two seconds per case selector, while building functional pallets).

A preferred methods training program takes a group of trainers through the theoretical and practical aspects of order selection. The program includes both classroom theory and on-the-floor training.

The goal is to develop a structured training program that can be transferred to all order selectors and allow the company and its employees to achieve their productivity goals without wasted physical effort and/or work pace.

Benefits of Training

The program will convey the message that the optimal way of achieving, or exceeding, required productivity is through a streamlined, simple approach to the basic, efficient fundamentals of order selection and pallet building.

The positive results of a successful Preferred Methods Training initiative include:

  • Reduced effort and fatigue coupled with increased performance—achieved by eliminating non value added habits and paradigms and reinforcing value added habits and techniques.
  • Recognition by the workers and the union (if applicable) that the company is willing to invest in the workforce.
  • Increased credibility for a labor standards program, if applicable.
  • Easier, faster and safer progression towards the achievement of required productivity expectations for new hires. 

Remember: employees who are able to meet or exceed performance requirements while working at a comfortable pace are more dependable, produce higher quality work, create fewer damages, and make fewer errors.

Criteria for Selecting Methods Trainers

All too often training is assigned by seniority or given to the "fastest worker," which, in many cases, will result in unqualified trainers being responsible for the future success of your enterprise. The ideal trainer is rarely the fastest worker. Instead, ideal trainers are individuals who consistently attain productivity goals, but do not need to "run" to do so. They are respected by other employees and have good communication skills, while possessing a generally calm and reasonable personality.

Your method trainers will learn that:

  • "Running" is not the long-term answer for safe, productive employees;
  •  Competitive productivity can be achieved by working efficiently, yet comfortably;
  •  Proper methods training is imperative to achieve this goal;
  •  Training requires dedication and an open mind with respect to practicing, learning and teaching new techniques.

Management must assess the trainer's:

  • Personal efficiency of method;
  • Ability to remain calm, even with the most difficult employees;
  • Communication skills and ability to effectively transfer knowledge (teach);
  • Level of respect from other employees, and thus, the employee's willingness to listen and learn from them;
  • Commitment to training when needed.

It is also imperative that supervisors be well informed regarding the correct methods.

Comprehension of correct methods will facilitate their ability to properly address issues or concerns involving work methods and/or substandard performance.

Perhaps the most integral part of the entire training process is the knowledge, interest and support of the supervisory staff. Trainers are working with their peers, and do not have the direct line control required to ensure optimal results.

Proper Methods Training

Trainers should keep the following principles in mind when conducting training:

  • Balance practical and visual learning;
  • Narrow the "focus" (address one concept at a time);
  • Use analogies to clarify the cost of inefficient methods;
  • Repetitive practice is necessary to replace old habits.  Trainers should clearly quantify the importance of efficient     methods when performing physical, repetitive work.
  • One extra step per case can result in an extra mile of walking per day, five miles  per week, 25 miles per month;
  • The cost of improper pallet-jack placement when considering "weighted" time per shift;
  • The repetitive cost of bad habits in effort and time when they are repeated hundreds of times per shift, or thousands    of times per week.

The Results

Companies that have successfully conducted methods training initiatives have seen productivity improvements anywhere from 20 to 50 percent. While implementing new distribution center technologies can cost millions of dollars, training can be accomplished at a fraction of the cost. Labor continues to be the single biggest cost in distribution centers. Why not treat it as an investment?

Chris Begley is a project manager at West Monroe Partners. He has more than 25 years of experience in distribution, from order selection on the shop floor to supervision and operations management. He specializes in methods training for order selectors working in an Engineered Labor Standards (ELS) environment.

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