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Technology or Process: Find the Shortest Road to Efficiency & Productivity

Technology is not a silver bullet to bring down every business problem.Instead, process drives cost savings and technology enables better processes. The two cannot be separated. Process and procedure produce the benefit; whereas, technology provides the capability to not only deploy such a process, but also to establish processes in the form of a system that is easy for operators to follow.

It is very important to ensure that the process that is being deployed produces expected results, irrespective of the technology. Otherwise, excellent technology only ensures that poor processes are being done with great efficiency. So don't look for game changing technology. Instead, establish a clear process that works for your scenario first. Then, look for technology that will help execute that process consistently. 

Of course, every supply chain, distribution center (DC), and organization is different. For example, voice picking significantly increases picking productivity because pickers don't have to look at their screens reducing motion used. They can hear the next location through their headset and keep going to the next location. Efficient process produces the gain. However, if a DC manager put the same technology in putaway, pulling or receiving, without considering the process followed, the gain would not be the same.

Consider another technology: KIVA robots from Amazon Robotics. The invention of these robots created some interesting possibility. By changing the process, the technology created huge efficiency. However, it started with the process. The idea was simple: What if, instead of going to a pick location, the pick location came to the operator. No more energy spent walking between bins, and huge space savings since bins can be stored in dense layout. Then, as I fulfill orders, a robot would bring the necessary bins. By considering SKU velocity, the system can also ensure that high activity bins remain close, with less active bins behind, to increase efficiency. 

Source: Amazon Robotics.

Source: Amazon Robotics.

Although a technology deployment, this type of system is not just technology for technology sake. Instead, the technology enabled better processes. Further it solved the problem of expensive real estate since bins can be stacked on top of one another and still retrieved quickly. And of course, automated processes are simply faster.

My organization provides mobile tools for DC operators and supervisors.  As with these other examples, the tablets we produce enhance the existing process. Supervisors can be on the floor with associates more often because they are no longer tied to their desks. The wearable devices provide configurable keys that can address specific functions. Rather than searching for the multiple buttons needed, the operator can enter one character—and on-demand videos offers lessons to learn how to deal with exception scenarios. These are better processes enabled by technological advances. 

For example, we did a pilot for a leading retailer that tested our devices in their Sorter area. They quickly realized that with supervisors on then line more, and with the use of communication technologies such as texting and Facetime, they could move one of the area supervisors somewhere else. That translated into a $50,0000 annual savings.   

Leaders have to focus on process improvements that provide measurable benefit and the technologies that make those processes possible. Of course, corporate culture matters too. When a company focuses on improving processes daily, personnel are inspired to come up with better processes.

Further, we've learned that technology tools are important to tech-savvy millennial workers. These workers are finding opportunities to use simple technology very effectively. In one of our deployments, for example, we found a solid gold example of the differences between the generations. This customer had a Generation X first shift manager and a millennial second shift manager. The company deployed our wearable devices in their DC for pulling orders.

The first shift manager used an electric golf cart to get around to his employees and coach them. He would watch their work and coach them improve efficiency. The second shift manager, on the other hand, asked his pullers to recover themselves using the video recording capability of the system, which he reviewed later. He offered feedback based on the video but had time for his other work as well. Everyone was more efficient. In this case, the older work force might have had more wisdom experience, but the younger leveraged new ideas and technology.

I would love to hear your thoughts on the sweet spot where technology and process come together.  How have you managed the process versus technology challenges in your supply chain? Let us know in the comments section below. 

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