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A 12-step Journey to Order Picking Perfection

Oct. 7, 2014
The process of fixing order picking problems starts with an organization's culture and progresses through the tools that will drive your warehouse to order picking and packing perfection.

Fixing the order fulfillment problems that anger customers and lose business begins with making sure order picking and packing processes are well documented and clean of discrepancies. This will help establish a foundation for future improvements. Procedural gaps can force diligent workers to make errors. Interview your workers in an environment of honesty and good will. Find out how they've been handling problems that crop up. Processes calling for one step can often be taken a step further when workers know the processes are broken, not effective or missing.

Schedule regular meetings to discuss why errors happened and how to fix them. To generate the right level of openness and participation, "oiling" everyone up with pizza during lunch is an outstanding tool. It puts everyone in the frame of mind to help and participate. Through a candid and free exchange of opinions, employees will not only tell you the problems you don't know exist, but will solve them just as quickly and often in the same meeting. 

Take the double bar code verification process, for example (where the operator is supposed to scan the product SKU label and then the pallet SKU label for 100% accuracy). The importance of this is often ignored. The operator might double scan the pallet SKU label… it's faster…but it defeats the purpose of increasing accuracy.

Why does this happen? Usually because operators don't know why it's important. Since they are compensated (or punished) for productivity and throughput levels, they cheat the system. 

Aligning compensation to reinforce positive actions benefiting your organization's short, medium and long term goals is vital. Consider a weekly "all or nothing" bonus. Throughput, accuracy, safety and attendance goals need to be achieved for them to hit bonus. 

12 Steps Beyond 

Once you've built a strong foundation, there are 12 building blocks you can easily stack on top of it to provide a fast return on investment for low acquisition costs.

  1. Post individual and/or group error rates.

    This can be as simple as posting paper on a bulletin board or as complicated as a large display or monitor showing real time accuracy levels. This usually requires data from a simple report generated by the WMS or WCS software system. Posting errors and picking rates can also foster good proctoring practices if it's built into your culture. Allow the individual who is setting the bar to teach and tutor those who "don't get it." Having individuals and teams competing against each other is a great win-win scenario for everyone.

  2. Post employee throughput levels.

    People like to be the best at what they do and they obtain even greater satisfaction by being the best. Showing real-time picking rates certainly helps foster competition and sets the bar so others know what they should be achieving 

  3. Remember that the pursuit of perfection is a process.

    The trick is to divide and conquer. Allow your process, staff, tools and technologies to incrementally get you further to 100% accuracy.

  4. Weigh everything!

    Implementing a weigh scale and software verification system takes few resources and will verify a percentage of orders in split seconds. Imagine the burden you can take off your checkers and QC people with very little effort. 

  5. Avoid the wrong documentation going with the wrong order.

    Today, most organizations have employees handling piles of documents.  The errors and waste of labor in this process is dramatic. Using an automated document printer and inserter system provides 100% accuracy and often has a six-month ROI.

  6. Master the small items.

    Using weigh scales can eliminate a large number of mis-picks after the fact, but how about during the picking process? Using scales while picking can make sense if you are picking small components and especially if they are costly. 

  7. Use parts images on the PC monitor to direct pickers.

    Many of today's WMS, WCS and inventory management and picking software solutions allow organizations to include images of an item in their database. On some parts, common sense might rule, but when dealing with inner packs, custom packaging and proprietary parts with unique configurations, a simple image helps an operator confirm in milli-seconds what they are seeing and picking. This is especially helpful in organizations which use temporary labor to fill in for their full-time operators. 

  8. Minimize errors.

    Use pick to light and put-to-light indicators with goods-to-person technologies (such as carousels, VLMs, shuttle technologies, AS/RS, etc.). Items are delivered to the operator at an ergonomic height, and the lights tell where and how many items to pick and put into the correct order. 

  9. Create active light grids on shelving or goods to person pick faces.

    This practice is used more frequently on SKUs in smaller totes or boxes across wide spans of shelving or trays. By building an XY grid of lights on the center of each shelf level and column you can set an audible and light alarm to indicate the operator is in the wrong cell/SKU location. 

  10. Use voice picking for a large number of SKUs in shelving or rack not using goods to person technologies.

    The audio directs the picker to the correct location and quantity. The picker then verifies the SKU and quantity. The throughput levels often increase slightly with this technology, but your accuracy will often increase higher. This is espcially true for operations which require the picker's hands to be used for picking and counting. 

  11. Slot your inventory for increased throughput and accuracy.

    Slotting is keeping similar types of inventory items together—by velocity, physical size, picking frequency, seasonality and other characteristics. Slotting increases accuracy by eliminating operator walk and search time.

  12. Give orders a last look with visual scanning.

    This technology verifies accuracy and routes any questionable orders via conveyor to quality checkers. 

These 12 ideas can help your organization get closer to the 100% accuracy mark while improving productivity and system throughput.

Ed Romaine is CMO-VP marketing at Integrated Systems Design – ISD ( and has spent more than 30 years working with organizations looking to improve their warehouse order picking, packing, shipping and assembly systems. 

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