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Have You Really Optimized Your Lean Material Handling?

New, relatively inexpensive technologies can help you redeploy labor, cut costs, and remain flexible and performance-minded, says Frank Devlin, manager, advanced technologies, at The Raymond Corporation, a forklift manufacturer.

Going lean is just as important as technology, Devlin says. And anyone who opts for that must keep flexibility and performance improvement top of mind. "Sometimes people think lean is very rigid, a very doctrinaire way to do things, but really it's just basic concepts. You want to eliminate waste, build quality into your processes, make it easier to do jobs well and correctly. You want to look at alternatives to expensive solutions. Sometimes the most expensive solution isn't always the best. You want to build in a learning culture as well. It's critical to get people understanding their basic activities every day and helping them bring out the best in what you want to do."

No doubt you can reduce costs through lean, but how do you boost productivity at the same time? Devlin says there is quite a bit of new technology that's relatively inexpensive, and much of it is in the material handling sphere. "It's cost affordable and it allows you to bring a lot of data, operational data, out of your forklift. You can get good information about what you're doing with your forklifts. For instance, a lot of people do a lot more travel than they ever expected. It's about 7 to 1, travel  vs. lift. Once they understand those kinds of things, they can see solutions to automate some of those activities that are pretty labor-intensive now. And they can do that with less staff or redeploy staff to do more productive things."

Clearly, you want to prioritize your labor force when you're focusing on lean operations. So what do you need to consider? Devlin says kaizen, or continuous improvement, is a necessity. "Everybody is working towards doing things a little bit better everyday. Typically, it's percolating up from the floor. The people doing the work are actually finding out ways to improve things, and one of those key concepts within the kaizen idea of continuous improvement is to ask why, continually ask why. Why do we do this? You have product damage, so you ask why? Well, we're rushing to get things off the dock. Why are we rushing to do that? The dock is very congested. Why is the dock congested? Well, we have a lot of goods coming in, and we don't have enough people to get them off the dock? Why are there not enough people?

"Even in in this economy, people are complaining about not getting the right mix in the labor force. So maybe we can look at some other technology that would maximize the productivity of that labor force. And that might be automated lift trucks."

He specifically recommends equipment that has operator-on, operator-off capability. When a driver isn't required, it can be used in automated mode as needed, particularly for horizontal travel.

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Keywords: Reverse Logistics, Warehouse Logistics, Inventory Planning & Optimization, Logistics, Business Strategy Alignment, HR & Labor Management, Global Supply Chain Management, Lean Warehousing, Lean Concepts, Automated Forklifts

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