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Best Practices for Order Picking in Distribution

Getting products into hands of the customer quickly and efficiently is quickly moving from a differentiator to table stakes. As expectation of buyers increase, distribution centers must look for new ways to get things done correctly and efficiently.  

Consider these realities:   

  1. Often, the picking process is the most time-consuming process off all, making it a potential bottleneck.
  2. More orders picked translate to more orders shipped. That leads to quicker invoicing and increased revenues.
  3. Picking also directly impacts throughput metrics, so that improving the productivity and speed of the picking process, directly improves distribution center throughput. Throughput is the measure of inventory that is received into the inbound dock doors and shipped through the outbound dock doors by fulfilling orders. 

Bringing a variety of best practices to bear can create nearly instantaneous benefit.  

Follow location sequence for the pick path

When pickers pick travelling in a well-defined location sequence, the picking process becomes efficient because:

  1. Users don’t have to go to the same locations twice.
  2. Users need not zig zag, but instead following a streamlined path that eliminate confusion.
  3. Location sequences simplify the skipping and returning to orders in situation when replenishment is needed.
  4. Sophisticated warehouse management systems (WMS) can configure the pick location sequence in multiple ways to accommodate a variety of warehouse layouts.  

Establishing multiple zones that group locations

Dividing the pick locations into zones and assigning pickers to specific zones contributes to even better picking process because:  

  1. The practice reduces picker’s travel time by confining them to one area of the warehouse and reducing walking time.
  2. When pickers are confined within zones, they become experts within their zones, and can find things more quickly.

SKU velocity classification

  1. SKU classification into A, B & C SKUs based on SKU velocity enables the correct slotting of SKUs.
  2. Fast moving or high velocity SKUs, often called the A SKUs, are slotted close to the shipping area to expedite picking.
  3. Moderate velocity SKUs, called B SKUs and are slotted further away but still not very far from the shipping area.
  4. Slow moving or low velocity SKUs, often called as C SKUs, and are slotted far away from the shipping area since they are in less demand.
  5. Sophisticated WMS can automatically categorize SKUs as A, B or C SKUs, based on sales volume, to cut complexity.
  6. The WMS can also automatically create move tasks and assign them to user to be reallocated to the appropriate bins or areas.

Non conveyables

Non conveyables refers to SKUs that don’t ride the conveyors because they are:  

  1. Too big
  2. Too small
  3. Oblong shape/size
  4. Otherwise not within the specifications of conveyable materials   

These items should be separated into their own zone, so that they can be picked and shipped separately.  Isolating the picking process for the non conveyables ensures that the they do not interfere with the picking process for the conveyable SKUs.

Non sortables

Non sortables are the SKUs that don’t ride the Sorters because they are:   

  1. Too big
  2. Too small
  3. Oblong shape/size
  4. Otherwise not within the specifications of sortable materials   

These items should be separated into their own zone, so that they can be picked and shipped separately.   Isolating the picking process for the non-sortable items ensures that the they do not interfere with the picking process for the sortable SKUs. 

Task-based picking  

Slicing and dicing picking work into tasks based on zones, after sequencing the picks by location and considering capacity of the carts works well. Creating batch picking tasks and then assigning those to pickers makes the process faster, more accurate, and more efficient.  Further confining tasks within specific zones reduces picker’s travel time makes completion of picking tasks even more efficient. More can be done though. By tracking such tasks for different pickers and providing real time feedback on performance in terms of picks per hour. Something as simple as a color indictor of red, green or blue encourages pickers stretch to meet daily departmental goals.

Managing labor standards with ergonomics

What gets measured gets managed.  Knowing they are being measured and incentivized based on the amount of work they get done, changes the behavior of operators. If operators run out of work, they proactively seek additional work and are also more engaged. 

Measuring picker motions, optimizing for ergonomics, and then creating appropriate labor standards allows organizations to create goals that are both optimized and realistic. Good standards take the nature of the picked product, the amount of travelling and handling attributes in setting the standards. Next, daily performance key performance indicators (KPIs) should be displayed on a notice board or monitor. By making the process transparent, a certain amount of good competitive is encouraged.

Gamification for picking

Gamification tackles the challenge of making work resemble a game. Instead of drudgery, boredom, and a sense of pressure, workers get interested and do better. Gamification, done right, pushes people to new levels of engagement and makes work more enjoyable. Further, this approach transforms what is normally an extrinsic reward (business success or a bonus) into an intrinsic reward (meeting and exceeding clear goals, creating a shared sense of community, and building a sense of enthusiasm). Of course, extrinsic rewards work well in conjunction with gaming, especially if employees see an increase in pay for their efforts.

Multiple shifts with well-planned replenishments

Thoroughly understanding the dynamics of different processes and the interdependencies of processes helps clearly assign priorities and ensure processes completed on a timely basis. Consider replenishments: replenishments need to be completed on time to avoid waiting and delays caused by empty bins. It is paramount to ensure the bin locations are full before the pickers start picking. It helps to assign a second or third shift that focuses entirely on replenishments.  By prioritizing replenishments with a WMS organizations can further streamline the process and avoid trouble spots.

Inventory accuracy through daily cycle counts

Inventory accuracy within the facility is one of the most important factor for optimizing operations. Maintaining a 99% accuracy rate within the building not only imrpoves operations, but also instills rigor and discipline in workers. When the product is in the right bin location and in the right reserve location, pickers are not chasing ghosts and can focus all their time on picking. Deploying a dedicated cycle count team as part of the 2nd or 3rd shift to count pick locations to make sure the inventory count is 100% accurate in the bin locations helps a lot to avoid chasing ghosts, especially during the picking process. 

2 comments on “Best Practices for Order Picking in Distribution

  1. RituGupta
    October 11, 2018

    Thinking about the situation, I personally would not be able to come up with an alternative for manually picking out orders in a shop or even in a factory or storage warehouse for that matter. I mean, sure you can automate it, but how many businesses would actually be able to afford that kind of sophisticated technology or AI that needs to be installed to have such a system running in their companies? It's going to be hand and manual -picking for a long while more to come I reckon!

  2. markgrogan
    February 28, 2019

    There are so many different processes involved in supply chain that need to work hand-in-hand with one another. It only takes a single step that gets disrupted to break down the entire chain of events. Therefore, it becomes an essential to ensure any bottlenecks get tackled right there at the very spot to prevent eventual failure.

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