Picking is one of the most intensive processes within the warehouse, and it’s also one of the most likely to result in a mistake that ends up costing time and money. Often a mispick isn’t discovered until an inventory count is wrong, or the customer sends the order back.
Thankfully, most mistakes in the pick-and-pack realm are common, which means there are plenty of available fixes. Here are seven common concerns, along with ways to address them.
Grabbing the wrong item from the right location. You’re going to mess up orders when pickers head to a bin and grab what’s inside, but it isn’t the correct item. The picker will then need to then find the correct pick, further delaying each order. It’s a major efficiency killer.
The solution is a warehouse management system that checks items in two ways: scanning them when they’re received and put away, and when they’re picked. If the entire bin is wrong, your WMS should make it easy to find the right location.
Picking an item with a similar ID. When moving quickly, it’s easy for an 859-I to look like an 859-L. Many warehouses are organized by SKU because it’s easy to create sequential picking orders this way, but that could lead to mispicks when SKUs are similar.
The best way to fix this issue is to give your team barcode scanners to verify each pick. You can also ensure that the SKUs you create look distinct, either at the beginning or end, to make mistakes less frequent. If this is a broader problem for your operation, consider changing packaging color or other cues on similar-looking items to help make them more visually distinct.
Having too many people and locations. Your staff can’t grow exponentially without breaking the bank. So you’ll need picking to be as efficient as possible – and that means not just hiring more people to pick more locations. Too many workers running around the warehouse will cause significant bottlenecks. Keeping staff small, and giving everyone more picking sites to work on, will slow things down considerably as well.
Your best bet in these situations is to adopt advanced picking strategies, such as wave or zone picking. That way, pickers are working in defined areas or on set products and amounts, each filling parts of multiple orders. You can automate these orders as well as some of the consolidation, resulting in a better way to manage growth.
When you reach this stage, look at the average benchmarks within your industry. You might find that bulky goods should only be picked at a rate of 25 items per picker per hour. Small e-commerce shops can grow closer to the 80-100 mark. Match your team size and order demand with these numbers to help your staff stay fit, avoid congestion, and keep orders flowing out on time.
Substituting the wrong items. Stock can run out, especially if you’re processing a lot of orders or have inventory that’s applied to multiple uses. For example, some local grocery stores now offer home delivery. When there’s no fresh option for a certain fruit or vegetable, they might substitute a different option for delivery. This works fine when it’s a matter of exchanging one kind of apple for another, but doesn’t cut it when the grocer completely changes the type of fruit, or includes hot habanero peppers instead of milder poblanos.
The best method for avoiding this situation is to run a warehouse-management tool that only lets you take and advertise orders for goods you have. If you do encounter out-of-stocks regularly, consider giving the customer a choice for approved substitutions. Then set those approvals as rules within the system, and have it generate an error if the picker tries to deviate. It will keep everyone on the same page, and prevent returns for unwanted goods.
Losing order details. Although there are many kinds of WMS systems, a lot of warehouses still rely on printed orders for their pickers. While this process can be streamlined so that there’s always an order sheet ready for the pickers, it presents a variety of problems.
The biggest risk is that the picker misplaces the order information and has to go back to the office or printer to get it again. That slows down every aspect of the operation, and can put you behind each day that it occurs. Losing information can occur when papers rip or ink smudges, or when someone sets down the paper to use a cart or lift a large object. It can also fall out of your pocket.
If this is happening to you, not only is it time to switch to a digital system, but you might be in a position to jump to voice-based picking platforms. These give your crew specific, clear orders to make the entire pick easier. What’s more, nothing gets in the way of their hands. Voice commands, along with the ability to read back part numbers as they pick, ensure accurate efforts while keeping speeds up.
Forgetting about half-picked orders. If you’re running a very lean operation, you might be utilizing goods that haven’t yet arrived or been unloaded. To make the process go faster, many companies will pick a part of an order and have it ready for when the rest of the items arrive. Unfortunately, this can go sideways quickly if you don’t have enough space for these half-picked orders.
Similarly, things can get bad if you don’t have a general overflow space that everyone knows about. When orders are stacking and placed in areas they shouldn’t be because the picker thinks it’s more convenient, it can disrupt operations in a variety of ways. Someone might put the goods back on shelves; the picker might forget where they set things aside, or a team member might have to go around and ask each picker if the items should be there.
While software can help you define half-picked orders, the most important thing is often to have set space for these orders, and limit the number of times you only partially pick each day. You’ll prevent mistakes and order errors, as well as not lose track of inventory levels.
Sometimes that might mean splitting an order into separate shipments so that your customer can get at least some of its products without delay. How you manage partial shipments is up to you, your customer, and your workflow, but every warehouse should have a specific plan for this eventuality.
Prioritizing the wrong things. The final issue we’ve seen in warehouses is that they don’t set priorities for products or orders. This means teams are picking as they can, without ensuring that the first order is filled first. You might end up delaying some orders or moving your most important ones to the back of the line, which can hurt your bottom line.
The other prioritization concern is when you’re not following first-in-first-out (FIFO) rules. They prevent perishable products from going bad, and other items from becoming either less usable or attractive.
Address this problem by having a proven methodology for sorting orders. Your team should only be able to get the oldest order that can be filled, instead of being allowed to jump around. For products themselves, you can avoid expirations and other time-sensitive issues by using scanners or voice-picking systems that require a specific batch number on the product. That way, people are grabbing the oldest item, and not just what’s closest to the cooler’s door.
These are just a few different issues your warehouse might be facing, with plenty of ways to resolve them. At the heart of it all is being smart about your processes and people, with the right software and tools to support you.
Jake Rheude is director of marketing for Red Stag Fulfillment, an e-commerce fulfillment warehouse.
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