Plan today for what you know you’re going to do tomorrow

In a just-in-time world, you may not be able to plan for everything you'll do tomorrow in your warehouse or DC. But planning in advance for those things you know you'll do can improve efficiencies.
By Bob Trebilcock, Executive Editor
August 18, 2010 - MMH Editorial

Things ain’t what they used to be.

Between lean warehousing, with its focus on doing more with less, and order fulfillment cycle times that have been reduced from days to hours, experienced DC managers often complain that they don’t have time to effectively plan their work loads like they used to.

Jim Apple, a partner and co-founder of The Progress Group, is sympathetic—to a point. “I see too many facilities where managers try to respond to today’s orders today,” says Apple. “That can’t ever be the most efficient way to work.”

Instead, Apple advocates a concept he calls “Plan today for what you know you’re going to do tomorrow.” The idea: While it’s true you don’t know everything you’re going to do tomorrow, you surely know some of the things you’re going to do and can plan for those.

“Some people think they don’t know what’s going to happen tomorrow because they don’t know everything that’s going to happen tomorrow,” says Apple. “But if they explore the issue, they’d find that they can plan 50% or 70% of the day.” That in turn gives you the opportunity to plan the staffing to match a steady workload spread evenly over the day.

How do you plan today for part of tomorrow? Apple offers a four tips.

1) Provide incentives for customers to postpone delivery: Everyone wants everything now. But there’s a difference between want and need. “I buy from a large catalog company,” says Apple. “Unless you’re willing to pay for overnight shipping, they only promise to ship your order in four to six days. That buys them time to plan tomorrow’s work today.”

2) Be cautious of highly automated processes whose efficiency depends on running at full speed. Automation is efficient. Manual is flexible. Somewhere in the middle is a happy medium that Apple calls “smart manual processes.” For example, Apple worked with an auto parts distributor in Ohio with one large central warehouse that replenished smaller warehouses around the state. Rather than install an automated conveyor and sortation system to crossdock incoming product to outbound shipping areas, pallets were simply stored in an accumulation area with other product clearly marked for delivery to that DC. “It all happened with just a little bit of information, yet it was effective and efficient,” says Apple.

3) Accumulate orders in a pool: Yes, it’s important to get orders out the door quickly. But Apple says you can create more efficient picking paths by holding single line orders, which are easier to process, until you accumulate enough orders for a batch.

4) Create a mini-warehouse, or independent line of flow, for orders that have common characteristics: “These might include a small sub-set of the product line, single lines or single units, or products utilizing the same shipping package or the same carrier mode,” says Apple. “This way, you can create a workstation for picking and packing as a single-step process, or, a separate conveyor line that may keep a high-volume flow of small cartons off the primary system.”

About the Author

Bob Trebilcock
Executive Editor

Bob Trebilcock, executive editor, has covered materials handling, technology and supply chain topics for Modern Materials Handling since 1984. More recently, Trebilcock became editorial director of Supply Chain Management Review. A graduate of Bowling Green State University, Trebilcock lives in Keene, NH. He can be reached at 603-357-0484.

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