Warehousing: Control the Release of Work for Dramatically Increased Output

It’s human nature to work quicker when there is a backlog of work or a deadline approaching. Equally, when the deadline is far away and there’s no pressing queues of work, people slow down. It is common across any workplace that if a person has one task left to do in a day, they will draw it out so that they complete it just before they finish work – then they can go home. This is referred to as Parkinson’s Law (work expands to fill the time available). When someone has lots to do, their productivity shoots through the roof! The natural pressure of not meeting your commitments makes you speed up. This is common human behaviour. You do it, I do it, we all do it.

In a warehouse, this behaviour manifests in different ways. When a warehouse receives a customer order, it needs to be picked, packed, and fulfilled. At the beginning of the day – assuming the previous day’s orders were all satisfied and there is no backlog – there tends to be no customer orders; therefore nothing to pick. As the day progresses, sales orders are placed but they are placed in random, unpredictable patterns. There is no way to tell that on Tuesday at two o’clock in the afternoon there will be a rush of orders. Sometimes there will be twenty orders at twelve o’clock and none at one o’clock – that’s the nature of how customers place orders. There are steps you can take to respond effectively, but generally this is not something you can predict; nor should you try to.

To operate a successful warehouse, you must be able to respond to customer orders coming in. One thing you can be sure of, is that later in the afternoon as the transport is due to arrive to collect these orders, the load on the picking and packing team intensifies. More and more orders will have been placed throughout the day and the cut-off time for those orders to be picked, packed, and despatched gets closer and closer. The ability to complete picks and packs becomes very valuable. You also know that when the load is light – at the beginning of the day or during quiet periods – resources have less to do, human nature kicks in, and they tend to slow down. Is this a bad thing? Yes! If you work in a warehouse, you will know there are always tasks that need doing that people never seem to do. Work expands to fill the time available which kills any opportunity to do these ‘other tasks’. Furthermore, from a system perspective, this is capacity you have lost and will never get back… This is especially true if when the team slowed down, they carried some picks, packs, and despatches over into those peak times later in the day. So, the question is when the rate of work is received sporadically, how do you give people a lot of work so that they don’t slow down? The short answer is that you don’t release the work to the team as it is received; hold it back and create a batch. This will allow you to operate using sprints.

When there is no control over the release of orders to a team of people, then the rate at which orders come in will determine the rate at which work is released to the resources. You know that when there is a queue of work, people tend to focus and speed up; you also know that multitasking and interruptions kill capacity. So, good conditions for achieving high output require enough work to keep people busy, and the work should be of the same type so that people do not have to chop and change between different activities. Applying this logic to a warehousing environment means you want enough orders to be picked, ready for packing so that the packers can focus on completing higher levels of output (i.e., orders being put in boxes/containers). The same principles can be applied to picking. You need a high number of pick notes, with full-kits available and goods on the shelves – then your pickers can focus on getting the goods to the staging area ready for packing. So, there are two criteria for achieving high output:  

  1. There must be enough work so that people stay motivated and don’t slow down.
  2. The work must all be of the same type, so people are not forced to start packing, then switch to printing labels, then switch again to chasing missing goods, then going to find packing tape, and so on.

When you create these two conditions, you create a sprint. There is enough work to keep your resources busy – not all day, but for a focused period of time (e.g., twenty or thirty minutes). Keeping the same type of work will allow people to do the same thing over and over for that short, concentrated burst. Printing labels, printing labels, printing labels; putting goods in boxes, putting goods in boxes, putting goods in boxes; and so on. These sprints will be staggered throughout the day – people will not be working flat-out on one operation over and over all day, only during sprints. It’s important to recognise that when you operate using sprints your output shoots through the roof. The team is uninterrupted, multitasking drops to zero and when there is a queue of work ready to go, there is a psychological pressure to get it all done. This leads to the next rule – only allow a sprint to begin when there is sufficient work to keep the team busy for those twenty to thirty minutes.

Resources are forbidden from starting the activity unless there is enough work to focus on. Then, when the work is ready, the team can count down and begin. This method is not about rushing and compromising quality, it is about focus and maintaining a steady pace of high output in the areas you need extra capacity. Clients often feedback to us that this system creates a healthy sense of competition within the team and makes for a more enjoyable, less stressful working environment.

The results of implementing sprints within your warehouse are significant. Capacity is focused and output skyrockets. Couple this with good measurements on new records for lines picked, boxes completed, despatches made – it adds some healthy competition between pickers, packers and despatchers in your warehouse. The sky is the limit.

By Phil Snelgrove, Lauren Wiles. © Goldratt UK, 2023.

You can click here to listen to the Warehouse Manager at Exporta Global explain what happened when they implemented these principles in their environment.

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