I've been fortunate enough to manage and support warehouse operations of all shapes and sizes around the world for many years. In all that time, I have never witnessed such rapid change over such a short period as we have seen in 2020 and 2021.
There’s still one continuing global truth in warehousing: the larger the facility, the more complex the operations, the greater the headcount, and more difficult the task. But as we tackle the global pandemic era of warehouse management, many are starting to question if we require a new breed of manager to navigate our faster-moving environment.
I don't believe we're looking at a wholesale change in the role of a warehouse manager, resulting in the loss of some core skills in favor of others. Those key drivers and attributes that first draw folks into distribution management — like being able to coach and develop a team to meet definitive targets and efficiencies, plus having a strong operator mindset — are still valued. But modern, digital warehousing certainly requires much greater depth and more varied I.T. skills.
Additionally, the COVID-19 supply chain, especially with the seismic shift taking place in online e-commerce retailing, has become a lot more complex. Distribution operations embody that complexity, so the leaders of those operations must be much more than just drivers of traditional and bulk ‘pallet-in, pallet-out’ activity. They must now be innovators and continuous improvement advocates to survive and thrive.
Continuous Improvement Approach
Innovation in the warehouse primarily comes in two forms: advanced technology such as a cloud-based warehouse management system (WMS) and the agile, easily configurable processes it supports, and the genuine creativity required to break through process design. Continuous improvement approaches are the accepted method for measured improvement, although most distribution centers struggle to de-prioritize their established ways without technological assistance.
Process design is a funny thing to think about when managing a warehouse, as most functions performed are static, time-tested requirements that have been cemented and difficult to change. However, warehouse managers who bring curiosity to the table and think creatively about improvement will have a distinct advantage over their peers. What’s more, designing a new process is a skill in itself, one that’s becoming increasingly important in the current warehouse-management field.
Technology selection and implementation within a warehouse used to be an I.T. or project management office-based activity, where the warehouse operations team was the internal customer, but not necessarily the driving force behind selection and adoption.
This approach is now skewing, and to best serve operations, warehouse managers need familiarity with software selection, programming, data analysis and project implementation practices. I can’t stress enough, however, that except for the most customizable solutions on the market, the best implementations are driven by operations staff who can also dedicate themselves to the execution and realization of the new technology.
In the past, organizations would mostly convene improvement teams led by a particular department or resource responsible to the company as a whole. Bespoke warehouse managers now take the lead, and approach their operations with continuous improvement as a recurring and given key performance indicator.
There’s still value in the Lean/Six Sigma process, as a huge amount of warehouse operations are repetitive activities and there’s always waste to be addressed. However, warehouse managers shouldn’t be pigeon-holed into only that approach.
More Creative Methodologies
New skills and the most effective upgrades in a warehouse tend to be embedded in well-rounded improvement approaches. Creative methodologies such as Theory of Constraints and Total Quality Management are rapidly taking precedent.
In addition, warehouse managers familiar with agile tenets and even holding Certified ScrumMaster status will find parallels in the pace and organization of change management in some of their core processes.
It’s not necessarily a new breed of warehouse manager that’s needed to navigate our new world order. Rather, it a leader who’s focused on the new and next level of effective operations, one who can quickly grasp and advance new software technologies and process improvements to promote greater understanding and efficiency.
That’s an increasingly pivotal role in any company hierarchy and supply chain, as well as a higher-level career path. Extraordinary fulfillment times such as these require a more focused and problem-solving skill set that’s infinitely adaptable.
During the current pandemic, it has become more vital than ever for companies to identify the most cost-effective software tools and leanest process-improvement approaches, while driving continuous innovation within the warehouse.
Adaptable and flexible cloud-based WMS can help, by optimizing space and labor resources to ensure efficiency and productivity improvements. Functionally rich, it also allows for such measures to be quickly and inexpensively enacted.
Don White is CEO North America of SnapFulfil.
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