The growth of e-commerce and the number of warehouses, distribution and fulfillment centers they require to operate effectively, have redefined the American workforce. As major retailers work to keep pace with growing consumer demand and deliver orders that needed to be fulfilled yesterday, the sheer number of workers required to keep the engine running smoothly is growing exponentially. Major players like Amazon, for instance, have at least 600-to-800 workers operating within one shift in a typical distribution center.
Yet despite good salaries and benefits for often untrained workers, as well as creative incentives, such as free college tuition, many e-commerce providers, retailers and manufacturers are losing staff and finding it difficult to replace them.
The Key to Efficiency
At a time of rising demand, the worker shortage is reaching emergency levels. How can warehouse operations do more with less workers? The key lies in reducing motion waste, which can come in all shapes and sizes.
In an average third-party logistics (3PL) warehouse, it’s not unusual for workers in outbound/inbound shipping to be walking upwards of two minutes between the product coming in or going out, and a fixed workstation where they would enter the required data on the product and return with a label. These same steps are typically done 300 times a day in a specific shift. Improving efficiency just by eliminating physical steps, would enable warehouses to save significant amounts of time and operate with fewer workers.
Reducing motion waste also allows them to meet key performance improvement management (PIM) metrics — the holy grail of warehouse performance — which is calculated based on how many people you have, the volume of packages and hours allotted to get it done.
A major 3PL provider, for example, saved 1200 minutes in the outbound/inbound process. Each worker was spending two-to-three minutes walking back and forth for every single shipment. By mobilizing the workstation, each worker was able to print labels, collect and enter data and perform other requirements of the job directly at the point of task. In this way, it was able to retrieve 1200 minutes of labor.
As another example, a rare goods authenticator and distributor was able to save 90 minutes each day of a supervisor’s time simply by working smarter. Anytime there was a problem, such as questionable product authenticity or pricing issue, the supervisor would be required to walk to wherever the staff worker was located, determine what the issue was and then walk to a fixed workstation to rectify the problem. The firm was able to increase productivity by 70% simply by mobilizing the workstation so that it remained with the supervisor.
Mobilizing supervisors and reducing their motion not only helped to reduce time, but it also is a key factor in improved quality and customer satisfaction. For workers who must be productive during their shifts, it’s often a nuisance to take time out to call in a supervisor about a questionable product and it’s often tempting to simply let it move on without remediation. This ends up not only cutting into productivity, but it also can harm a brand’s reputation.
Unfortunately, in many distribution centers, printers and computers are kept behind closed doors of the “office,” where only supervisors are allowed entry, to print labels, check email and retrieve necessary product or shipment info. This means that they are running back and forth to address label issues and other issues that workers need to have addressed, while often also jumping on a forklift and rolling up their sleeves to meet performance metrics.
Providing supervisors with the technology they need to do their jobs on the warehouse floor not only improves quality, and streamlines motion, but it also helps them focus on what they were hired to do — train workers and ensure that the distribution center is a well-run organization that meets or exceeds productivity and quality benchmarks.
In addition to removing motion waste, some of the other ways manufacturers can maximize productivity, include the following:
Increase power. As the productivity quotas for workers rise, given reduced staff and heightened activity, there are very few things worse than a barcode scanner that runs out of juice just when a worker is about to reach their production requirement. Many manufacturers are addressing this by using the most advanced battery systems available in order to maintain power throughout a shift and offer ample redundancy in the event a battery does require charging in the middle of a shift. When a battery requires charging it’s not only the time it takes to recharge it or get a new battery system, but also the time it takes to walk to the site to retrieve it.
Boost employee safety. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, there were a reported 2.7 million nonfatal workplace injuries and illnesses in 2020. Each time a worker is injured on the job, not only is it difficult for the worker, but it’s also becoming challenging trying to fill the shift for the manufacturer. One way to reduce worker injury is by streamlining workflows so that less people are moving around the worksite, conducting proper safety training, and providing ergonomic data collection and other equipment that reduces repetitive stress.
Standardize digital processes. Despite the growing use of warehouse technologies, such as warehouse management systems (WMS), RFID barcode readers and auditing software, many still revert to writing key info on a pallet or a piece of paper, walking over to a laptop for access to the WMS in order to find the order and then going back to stage it. Digital processes must be standardized and made readily available to workers in the format that works best — whether that is with RFID readers or hand-held scanners; and then they should have easier access to their own laptops for retrieving and entering necessary data.
Worker shortages won’t be going away anytime soon, but the key is in making do with the staff you have, by working smarter to boost efficiency, reduce motion waste, increase safety and ultimately improve the worker experience.
Steve Shaheen is co-founder and CEO of Definitive Technology Group.
Timely, incisive articles delivered directly to your inbox.