The road to a warehouse management system (WMS) looks and feels different for every distributor. For some whose operations were entirely paper-based before deciding to hit the gas on an implementation, the journey might have seemed daunting at the outset. Others may have been eager to push the ignition and start their WMS engines, only to discover they needed assistance to navigate and overcome certain obstacles along the way. Some distributors will tell you that finding a WMS that would “play nice” with their existing ERP, while improving inventory accuracy and guiding employees, isn’t as easy as one might think.
To help more businesses embark on their own future WMS implementations with confidence, we asked several distributors that have already traveled down the road to paperless operations to share their perspectives, insights and lessons learned.
EA: Please share one reason for your decision to shift from manual to automated operations in the warehouse.
Shaun Frazier, operations director at Sea to Summit: In our previous warehouse, we were simply bursting at the seams and couldn’t capitalize on new sales opportunities.
EA: Speaking of sales, how did your warehouse fare during peak seasons like the holidays prior to a WMS?
Tom Yearsley, chief finance officer at C-A-L Ranch Stores: During peak sales periods, the distribution floor became a bottleneck in getting goods out to the stores in a timely manner ... Merchandise can’t be sold if it’s sitting in a distribution center.
EA: Before looking to technology to improve your business, what were some of the major issues or warning signs that indicated it was time to hit the brakes on pen and paper in your warehouse for good?
Ty Marchand, IT manager at Plymouth Inc.: Every time an order came in, the picker would have to find the item by memory because there was no system to track item location. The weight of each item or case picked had to then be manually written down. Once each item in the order was picked, the piece of paper with the handwritten weights of each item (which were written down quickly in below freezing temperatures) was then taken to the dispatch department. The information was deciphered and 10-keyed into a terminal that would print the invoice. This frequently happened while the driver was waiting to leave. After watching the teams do this and how painful the process was, I thought to myself, there’s got to be a better way.
EA: Some distributors spend years modifying their paper-based systems before finally looking to an outside solution. What roadblocks kept your warehouse from going paperless sooner?
Drew McMillan, chief operating officer at Devil Mountain Nursery: There were a few times where we started walking down the path of trying to pull the plug completely on the paper. Then you realize there’s a few fundamental issues you need to go back and address. Everything sounds good in planning until you actually do it ... We finally realized we could continue changing it until we were blue in the face, but it would never change to the degree that it needed to for us to continue to grow.
EA: Once you identified the right WMS solution for your business, what needed to be done before you could start the implementation process?
Dan Luzietti, chief finance officer at Hercules Industries: We changed the programming in our ERP to complement our workflow, rather than take the program and modify our workflow to best complement it ... In many instances we had painted ourselves into a corner with some custom programming within our systems that we first had to undo.
EA: What was the ultimate goal of your WMS implementation?
Marchand: Working in unique cold conditions is never easy, so our goal is to streamline every other aspect of the inventory and the order processes as much as possible.
EA: The mere mention of the word "change" can cause some people to feel uneasy. Tell me more about the transition to a WMS.
McMillan: All the paper orders, the need to have a face-to-face communication about the order, hand the paper to someone, the need to find that person to find out what happened with the order — all that was replaced by the software.
Change is scary, people are scared, and they get frustrated. When you’re used to doing something for a long time, there’s some pushback. We were mindful of that and when we saw that the software wasn’t operating in the way we promised, we were able to pull back and make the necessary changes before moving forward. Where we sit today, people, even those who were doubters at the outset, are now pretty darn convinced and used to the operating system.
EA: How would you summarize the transformation in your warehouse from pre- to post-implementation?
Frazier: Prior to implementation, we already had processes in place, but they were incredibly manual and inefficient. Our volumes have continued to rise dramatically, but the number of errors is extremely low and we’ve been able to cut training time for new employees by 50 percent. Our operations are far more straightforward and streamlined now.
Paul Gillis, inventory control manager at Outdoor Equipment Distributors: Prior to [implementation], we had no time to do anything but picking and pulling orders. The warehouse was a mess and we were forever playing catch-up. Now, we are able to spend the first hour of every day doing cycle counts and cleaning out work spaces. The transformation has been like night and day.
EA: How has the success of your WMS implementation helped guarantee success for your distribution center?
Luzietti: We’ve made our people better at what they do and we’re managing our capacity better.
Yearsley: Overall we’ve been very, very pleased. We are more efficient and accurate, much faster, and we have far less paperwork! The employees love it as well, particularly since we now get product out to the stores where it can be sold in a timely manner.
EA: Now that your WMS is in place and optimizing your warehouse functionality, what goals are next on the horizon for distributors like you on the road ahead?
Nick Meyer, warehouse manager at Sea Wire & Cable Inc.: We take continuous improvement seriously. Our goal is to reach zero defects. But that goal of zero defects cannot be accomplished in-house alone; it must be an entire supply chain initiative.
Not only has adopting advanced technology like a WMS helped distributors to significantly reduce the number of errors in their warehouse operations, it’s enabled them to completely eliminate processes that were directly hindering their businesses’ growth. What’s more, they’ve achieved higher picking accuracy, improved delivery and better customer service.
Eric Allais is president and CEO of PathGuide Technologies Inc., a WMS provider.
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