Distribution center worker cross-training: Relieving the bottleneck
By Adam Hertzman

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On my first day of class in Operations 101 at business school, my professor taught us about bottlenecks — situations in which your ability to move inventory through a system is limited by a single constraint, or bottleneck. Relieve the choke point, we were told, and more inventory flows through the entire system.


Who is typically responsible for bottlenecks in your facility?
  • 1. Receivers
  • 2. Forklift operators
  • 3. Selectors
  • 4. Other

Imagine my surprise later in my career upon visiting so many distribution centers (DCs) to see them treat each task in isolation. Receivers do receiving and gain incentives based on receiving. Forklift operators put away pallets and gain incentives based on pallet volume putaway. Selectors pick items and benefit when they do so quickly and accurately.

The potential for successful execution of such individual tasks has come a long way in the last decade through the addition of engineered labor standards, incentives and technology. However, many process issues still remain, stemming largely from interactions between tasks rather than problems within tasks.

An all-too-frequent example happens in selection. When work backs up in forklift operations, full pallets do not move into place in time the next for the next order, so the selectors find their next slot empty. Some warehouse management systems allow these workers to skip the slot or automatically reroute to other picks, but both of these solutions reduce productivity. Skipping the slot means returning to it later or sending a "scratch runner" back to pick up a missed item. Rerouting adds travel time, and every wasted second costs money.

Why don't more DC managers reallocate manpower based on these bottlenecks? Part of the problem stems from the lack of cross-training. The lack of common technologies across the DC makes cross-training difficult. Workers would need to learn to use tablets in receiving, fork-mounted computers and long-range scanners in putaway and replenishment, and short-range RF scanners in selection.

Fortunately, an emerging slate of new technologies solves this problem. A recent innovation is the introduction of voice-enabled computers incorporating hands-free scanning. The far simpler task of navigating a task by voice — rather than learning a complicated series of key entries and screens — makes these wearable computers easy enough to use that workers can be trained across functions within hours instead of days or weeks.

How can DC managers take advantage of this type of cross-training? The first step for the DC manager is to analyze places in the operation with overlapping tasks. For example, if trucks come in to the DC in two waves in the morning, there may be a period between waves in which the manager can switch workers to putaway and then back to receiving.

Later, a small set of selectors might be trained on forklifts and switched between selection and putaway or let-downs as needed. The critical point of this analysis is to identify places where bottlenecks in one task are slowing down productivity in another task.

In the next step, the DC manager must evaluate the ease of cross-training. Important issues to consider include workforce turnover, technology capabilities and time to switch between tasks. High turnover works against the benefits of cross-training because of the training investment.

The critical issue in technology is ease of use — an area in which voice, pick-to-light and even goods-to-man automation have inherent advantages. The final issue is time to switch between tasks, an area in which the ability to share the same technology across the entire DC creates enormous advantages and in which voice technology provides the clearest advantages.

DC managers should look for a technology that solves all three problems. For example, voice reduces workforce turnover because the ease of use and hands-free, eyes-free nature of the work makes the job safer and less burdensome for the worker.

The simplicity of voice-directed commands rather than navigating lots of different screens makes it easier to train workers on many different workflows with voice (as well as improving safety through eyes-free operations in forklifts). Finally, the ability to supplement mostly voice-directed work with occasional scanning allows our customers to deploy the same device door-to-door across the entire DC.

Some companies have also successfully utilized voice to interleave tasks and eliminate idle worker time even further. For example, while a worker waits for an order, instead of just standing around, he can perform a cycle-count and save the company tremendous time on formally scheduled cycle-counts and on other inventory activities.

Cross-training to perform other workflows offers benefits beyond just relieving the bottlenecks and staying ahead of the curve on inventory management. Foremost among these, cross-training adds the kind of career paths within the DC so critical to retaining younger workers. Second, cross-trained employees provide a buffer if and when other parts of the DC experience absenteeism or open positions — such as allowing a selector to fill in for a critical forklift vacancy.

A final benefit to cross-training is greater understanding among the workforce about the interconnected nature of the supply chain. Helping workers to understand how the mistakes they make upstream may affect other workers in the DC and customers or stores downstream gives these workers more of a sense of ownership in outcomes.

That sense of ownership, in turn, helps to boost morale and employee retention as well as personal initiative to solve problems. A number of forward-thinking DC managers have found productivity gains every year from voice by using the technology to solve problems across workflows with solutions often suggested by engaged workers themselves.

Ultimately, the responsibility of seeing the DC as an interconnected operation falls to all of us as the logistics experts rather than just to the front-line workers. Steps towards understanding where the bottleneck sits within the DC can lead to productivity and accuracy improvements for every step downstream of the bottleneck. Then, applying proven technology, training and process changes can make these productivity and accuracy improvements a reality.

Adam Hertzman is market analyst and pricing manager for Vocollect, based in Pittsburgh. Vocollect provides voice solutions for mobile workers with operations worldwide.