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The Power of Observation Can Improve Your Supply Chain

Jul 10, 2019

Most of us consider ourselves observant, but how much of the world around us do we really notice? Do you remember what your neighbor was wearing when you waved to him this morning? Did the barista at the coffee shop have a smile on her face when she handed you your morning brew? Who was sitting across from you on the subway?

If you can’t answer these questions, that’s okay; you’re not alone. In today’s busy world, it’s easy to be so laser-focused on the task in front of us that we don’t see what’s happening around us. With so many things competing for our attention, like work deadlines, family commitments and that upcoming vacation, it’s easy to get distracted.

While observation plays an essential part in our personal lives, it’s also vital to our professional lives. Improvement does not occur without first awareness of the need to improve. 

When people work in a distribution or fulfillment operation day in and day out, they tend to overlook things that may be an apparent inefficiency. If your company is running stagnant for a while or isn’t experiencing improvements in productivity or quality, it could be because management and workforce leaders are not clearly observing the operation. Ask yourself if you have looked at WMS screen layouts with an eye toward efficiency. For example, are there extra mouse clicks required to access information? Is vital data available on one screen, or do you and your team have to click through multiple screens to glean enough information to make decisions?

You might also ask yourself how often you observe the activities of your workforce as they go about their jobs. Are they walking long distances to start picking a new order or group of orders? Do you see them frequently walking or driving to the far reaches of the distribution center to complete picking or other activities? Are there excess scans associated with some repetitive activities?

But if you’re truly observant, you’ll be able to look at your distribution center environment with a “new set of eyes” to quickly identify inefficiencies and redundancies. An observant employee can bring an outside perspective even if they’re ingrained in the organization.

Gaining an Outside Perspective
Regardless of how observant you are, an outside perspective can be a valuable way to identify inefficiencies in your supply chain operation. The right partner can bring experience from past projects and customer relationships to provide a new viewpoint on how to improve.

4SIGHT has vast experience observing customers and clients in their environments across a wide array of industries and distribution channels. We’ve learned what’s holding them back and what’s helping them succeed, based on their particular products, customers and business requirements. Armed with these observations and experiences, we’re well suited to provide expert guidance and advice on how to improve your supply chain.

The observations and key learnings we’ve acquired from our previous projects put us in a unique position to help current and future clients. For example, during the design phase of a Warehouse Management System, Transportation Management System or Labor Management System, the observations about what worked for previous clients with similar environments help us make better decisions during future design engagements.

This experience is vital for companies looking to wade into new technologies. 4SIGHT has developed or consulted on solutions leveraging emerging technologies, including artificial intelligence, blockchain and omni-channel, and we can apply this knowledge to help you evolve your global supply chain.

An Assessment Methodology Built on Observation
4SIGHT believes in observation so much that we’ve built a five-step supply chain assessment methodology around it. We routinely perform operations assessments that provide recommendations to help companies decide whether or not they’d like to take specific actions. The assessment gives them peace of mind that they’re taking the steps needed to improve their business. Then, if they decide to move forward, we engage in more in-depth discussions to further define improvements and determine ROI on specific recommendations. 

We identify improvement opportunities by spending time on our customers’ distribution center floor, meeting with managers and associates, and observing every aspect of the operation. We assess whether lift truck operators frequently drive long distances without product, listen to order pickers discuss how far they have to walk every day or hearing supervisors comment about the amount of overtime their department has had to work to keep up. These are all symptoms that improvement opportunities exist. Our experience enables us to dig deep enough to uncover the root causes of these types of challenges and then develop effective, proven recommendations to improve.

In addition to these more apparent observations, we also collect and analyze data, which uncovers further opportunities. For example, reviewing pick location replenishment frequency data can identify pick locations that need to be increased in capacity to reduce the number of stockouts that occur during picking and, at the same time, reduce replenishment labor.

We often find that smaller, incremental improvements identified by our observations, cumulatively drive substantial gains in throughput capacity, efficiency or both. Of course, our observations can help us discover more significant opportunities as well. For example, in a recent project, we recommended a customer convert from cluster picking to batch picking and sorting with automated and semi-automated equipment to save over $3 million per year in labor.

How We Can Help
The ability to observe what is happening around you is vital to improving the global supply chain. We’d love to talk to you about how we can help you assess the current state of your supply chain operation through thorough and in-depth upfront analysis. Whether you’re looking to improve productivity, optimize transportation spend or expand your ability to support omni-channel commerce, we can help you understand what changes to make and how to develop a business case required to justify the investment.

Contact us to get started.

How Observant Are You?
Let’s find out. Take a look at these ten questions and see how well you observe common situations you probably encounter every day in your warehouse.

  1. How many receiving and shipping dock doors are in your distribution center?
  2. How many levels are there in your reserve pallet racking?
  3. How does a picker skip a pick if stock is not available in the pick location? How many steps are required?
  4. How much time passes between the stated start time and the first productive activity is completed in each department?
  5. How far do your pickers walk to complete a pick tour?
  6. How many WMS steps are required to build a pallet for LTL shipping?
  7. What SKU is replenished the most frequently in your forward pick area? How many times?
  8. How quickly do your associates work? For example, do they work at 70% of their potential, 90% or 110%?
  9. How many lift trucks are parked in maintenance for repairs at any given time?
  10. How frequently do you see an associate waiting for another associate to move from a staging or pick location so he/she can access it?

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