Warehousing: Picking, Packing & Putting Away – Much Faster!

COVID-19 transformed society completely. The ‘new normal’ has seen a shift across a range of industries and sectors. People have learned to live their lives from the safety of their own homes. Work, learning, socialising, shopping… most areas of life have moved online. Retail is one industry where this shift is most apparent. Before the pandemic more and more people were ordering online; potentially COVID-19 simply accelerated a shift that was already developing. Regardless, coronavirus has meant that people are safer avoiding shops entirely and instead ordering their goods online to be delivered to their front door. This has put a strain on the picking and packing teams in the warehouses, and on the reverse side, the putting away of deliveries. The volume of orders needing picking and packing has increased dramatically but the capacity in the warehouses has largely remained the same or has even decreased as a direct result of COVID-19, through split shifts to allow for social distancing or self-isolating employees. The challenge then is how well are your team picking, packing and putting away? 

Any gap in your picking and packing capabilities will likely result in missed deliveries. If an order is not picked, packed and ready for dispatch by the time the courier or transportation truck departs, the order will have to wait for a later truck, or worse get shipped the next day. This would mean a delayed delivery to your customer, and as a result, a delayed sale. The same is true for your front-end, putting away deliveries arriving to your warehouse. When capacity is overloaded, putting new goods away is often a task which trends towards the bottom of teams’ priority lists. It’s more important to ensure deliveries make it out the door on time. Putting away is often neglected to the point that shelves remain empty whilst aisles begin to overflow with disorganised goods. This causes problems for future picking when items are not in their stock locations, instead they are sat unopened in boxes all over the warehouse and are blocking the aisles. So, the question you should be asking yourself is: what can be done to improve your picking and packing (and putting away) performance? 

First, you need to look at your team’s behaviour. Parkinson’s Law dictates that work expands to fill the time allotted. You also need to recognise that the rates of picking and packing fluctuate – people are not robots. Usually, collections of picked and packed orders are not equally spaced throughout the day. There are scheduled points in time during the afternoon or evening by which the transport needs to leave in order to achieve ‘next day delivery’. When there is a deadline, and there is a large amount of work to do, people tend to progress from slower, more relaxed working in the mornings to much faster, accelerated work as the deadline approaches. In addition, over the course of the day, orders continue to arrive meaning the number of items requiring picking and packing increases throughout the day. The workload increases whilst the time between the orders coming in and the courier leaving decreases. This is a dynamic and challenging environment, but there are a few things you can do. 

The temptation is to attempt to cope with the increasing load through gains in efficiencies. When the load is high (and growing) we want to be picking and packing large batches at a time; it is inefficient to only picking one or two items at a time. So, pick as late possible to get the biggest aggregation and the biggest batches, right? No! The danger here is that every order you delay in picking (which could have been picked and packed earlier in the day), is now completed later and adds to the size load as we approach the deadlines. So, the first thing you must do is stop batching! Be somewhat inefficient! Encourage your team to pick as early as possible; don’t allow any picks to be carried over to later in the day. Our Goldratt UK consultants implement focused buffers (windows) of time. For example, when an order arrives, within thirty minutes it must have been picked and packed – the clock starts running the moment it arrives, driving an as early as possible mindset. So, implement short, focused sprints for pickers and packers, regardless of volume. This will ensure no orders are carried over and delayed – you will be amazed the effect it has on your fulfilment rates and your OTIF. 

The next thing our consultants do is offload any preparation tasks from the picking windows. Often there will be inserts, invoices, complementary goods, etc. which need to be included in the box or container. Most of the time those items can be prepared ahead of time leaving the sprint windows clear to simply pick and pack the goods ordered. Even the boxes can be assembled prior to the pick window. This will decrease the load during the window and will massively increase the capability to complete more orders. 

Progressing on from this slightly, we would then implement full-kitting. This means having everything you need to finish – available to you at the beginning. So, in order to have a successful pick and pack there needs to be a complete set of box/envelope with the correct label, paperwork, parts, etc. Capacity is wasted when picking staff need to chase one or many of these things. Anything that does not have a full-kit at the time of a sprint is not allowed to be picked in that window. Only give people full-kitted picks and packs to be completed and again watch your ability to complete more order soar. 

Finally, to prevent any delays, you need to be efficiently managing any queues that arise. If there are multiple picking and packing stations, and the WIP (Work In Process) is building up at any one of those stations, encourage your team to swarm all over it. Queues are a collective responsibility; a queue does not just belong to the person/station who has the queue – make sure to help each other. Dealing with queues promptly and effectively will increase flow and help capacity and prevent blockages. So, recognise them, go to war on them, swarm all over them and prevent queues from becoming a problem. 

Introducing these four simple steps to your warehousing organisation can achieve some astounding results. You will see the number of picks being completed skyrocket, and they will be completed earlier too. The lead-time from an order arriving to it being picked and packed will massively decrease, and any lateness you currently have meeting transportation or deadlines will improve as a result. And all of this can be achieved without adding to your overhead cost! Implementing these solutions in a warehouse environment will give you a huge increase in output and dramatically improve your pick and pack performance. Some organisations even apply the sprint, offloading, full-kitting and queue management methods to their ‘putting away’ process too. You can decide whether that would be beneficial to your organisation, it would depend on whether your putting away of deliveries is done by bottleneck resources… 

Does this reflect your environment? Try and implement these methods yourself! Of course, if you find it difficult, we are here to help, get in contact by emailing [email protected]. If you would like to read a case study of when Goldratt UK used these methods with a client to achieve some amazing results, make sure you are following our LinkedIn – one is due to be published soon!

By Phil Snelgrove, Lauren Wiles