CBRE, the world’s largest commercial real estate services firm, looked at the rise in fulfillment centers which directly impacts warehouse picking best practices. As demand for distribution centers and storage space rises – net absorption is projected to reach nearly 250 million sq. ft. in 2021 – additional space, inventory, and employees means more attention to safety. In fact, CBRE Research has found that “$1 billion in incremental e-commerce sales generates 1.25 million sq. ft. of warehouse space demand” (CBRE.)
What is warehouse order picking?
First, let’s define what picking is. Warehouse picking, or order picking, is the “stage in the order fulfillment process where items from a customer order are located and retrieved from a storage facility so that they can be packed and shipped.”(ShipBob.) In many cases this involves a pick ticket – either digital or hard copy – which tells the order picker what stock to pick, where it’s located within the warehouse, and the quantity needed.
Warehouse order picking is essential for the customer experience, so what are some best practices to follow in your fulfillment operation?
Best practice #1: Hire and train adept employees
Having staff that are well-trained and adept is critical in today’s warehouse facility. Different members of your team play different roles, and you likely individualize your employee training to accommodate those duties. It’s important that staff in all parts of your facility not only be well-trained, but conscientious – and this is true for those in the order picking role as well.
We asked Phil Cook, our warehouse manager, about the importance of well-trained and conscientious employees. He says,
“Well-trained, conscientious employees are critical no matter what you’re doing. Having someone constantly doing the wrong thing makes it extremely difficult. We are fortunate to have well-trained, motivated, and consistent order pickers at Adrian’s.”
Best practice #2: Warehouse design, slot planning, and putaway
When planning warehouse design, “safety first” is often the most important factor. Also, making sure the pallet racking fits the type of items you’ll be storing is crucial. For example, if you’re storing “large quantities of just a few SKUs, many deep rows are needed. If the inventory will be small quantities of many SKUs, mostly shallow rows with many faces is more practical” (Material Handling & Logistics).
In addition to the rack design, have enough room to stage outgoing shipments, receiving shipments, and to quarantine non-conforming goods. These staging areas should be large enough for the work that needs to be done in each, as “when space gets cramped there’s an urge to stick those products in picking slots, leading to errors and wasted time” Cook says.
Slot planning, planning where you put products away for easier picking, can be important if you have people and software sophisticated enough to use it. Cook explains,
“When I can slot plan, I minimize the amount of pallets one walks or drives by to pull the average order. And, for example, if you can design a warehouse with flow through racking, that facilitates simultaneous picking and put away.”
Putaway practices will determine your picking ability, so “close to the door and the floor” is a common way to think about this for your most often picked inventory. Cook says “I actually allocate a lot of our bigger orders in such a manner as to make them as easy to pick as possible when we’re busy, and to serve multiple purposes when we’re not. As in cleaning out a lot of low inventory locations in anticipation of cycle counting empty slots.”
Best practice #3: Automate as much as possible
Developments in warehouse automation over the past 40 years have led to much safer work places, and to the extent it’s possible, automating the warehouse order picking process can be not only safer but more profitable.
Some operations are profitable enough, and have the dollar density high enough, to use automated storage and retrieval systems. Both vertical and horizontal carousels are effective systems that make picking easier, especially for things that are outwardly similar and valuable, like jewelry. And, some cutting-edge distribution centers have pick to voice systems. Automation is a wonderful thing when it works properly, just be sure you are integrating automation and warehouse safety.
Warehouse management systems (WMS) are indispensable. This software offers the ability to streamline and automate inventory fulfillment processes and can allow greater profitability by doing so. Cook says,
“40,000 square feet is the maximum size warehouse you can operate on brains alone, and you’ll suck.”
The larger the warehouse or distribution center, the more robust the software system should be. Choosing the right WMS is key to an efficient order picking process.
Best practice #4: Listen to your order pickers
Mark Whitten, U.S. director of operations for Martinrea International, saw a significant increase in employee positivity after spending time speaking one-on-one with each of his 550 employees. Taking the time to set expectations of your staff and then asking for and listening to their feedback allows you to help them do their job better and be more satisfied.
“Managers should pull a few orders each month to appreciate challenges and learn ways to set staff up to succeed.” -Phil Cook, Warehouse Manager
That way, the supervisor can experience exactly what the order picker does and can make tangible changes to any stumbling blocks and increase productivity.
Best practice #5: Avoid the seven most expensive words
There’s something to be said about traditional, tried and true processes. Employees are familiar with them and many duties become rote; that typically means fewer errors. But, according to Cook, the seven most expensive words are “we have always done it this way.” In order fulfillment, we often don’t want to upset the apple cart once employees are trained on certain systems to do specific duties.
Offering new ideas or news ways of doing order picking can be met with obstinance due to fear of the unfamiliar. But, if we do not change, we do not grow. And if we do not grow, we fail. Cook has experience in changing this mindset. He says, “you can either adapt or move out of the way when it comes to changing outdated and cumbersome processes.”
Best practice BONUS tip: install equipment that makes picking safer
Making sure your inventory is secure and your order pickers stay safe is vital to your overall operation. Consider installing safety netting that slides across the front of the bay for easy picking. Or install warehouse safety netting to the back of racks to prevent stock from falling into the flue space.
In review, the five warehouse order picking best practices are smart warehouse design, well-trained and conscientious employees, automating your warehouse where possible, listening to your order pickers, and avoiding the “we have always done it this way” mentality.
→If you have a specific safety concern with your warehouse order picking contact us today and we’ll determine the best solution with you.