The idea that there is one single, ideal way to handle an order is a myth. Still, exceptions can be anticipated and systematized so that more of your warehousing and fulfillment operations can be automated. And that’s good for the bottom line.
There is no doubt that automation is changing traditional warehouse operations. Companies across all types of industries are looking for ways to improve throughput, maximize order accuracy, and shave valuable time off standard operations. What makes automation such a complex challenge is that there is rarely a single standard operating procedure (SOP). Contingencies and exceptions are, ironically, the norm. So these need to be automated as well.
One way to automate exceptions is to anticipate them and then trigger certain actions when they are detected. For example:
- Alternative packaging/branding. An eCommerce merchant sells items both direct-to-consumer and through a channel partner. When an order comes in from the channel partner, the packaging must be “white label” and must include a coupon for future purchase from that partner.
- Special orders. That same merchant wants to tag “VIP orders” totalling more than $500 to expedite fulfillment and maybe add a special “thank you” gift as well.
- Allocation rules. A seller of health and beauty products carries both soaps (infinite shelf life) and face creams (short shelf life). The face cream needs to be picked using FIFO (First In, First Out) while the soaps can use a more labor-optimized approach.
- Special handling and packing. A maker of housewares needs to flag orders containing fragile items, which require additional packaging material to guard against potential damage.
- Updates and delays. An online retailer wants to take shipping data, compare it with weather delays posted by carriers, and adjust shipping time estimates in real time.
- Inbound damage. A damaged shipment of goods comes in that is well beyond the allowable 1% benchmark. The items must be flagged and set aside, inventory levels updated, and a re-order put in place before current stock runs out.
What do these examples have in common? In each case, there is something out of the norm—an exception. Each exception needs to trigger certain special steps to ensure that it is handled properly. This is the logic no matter what the particular exception: A different order channel, amount, type, or destination.
Exceptions and Warehouse Management Software
Again, exceptions are to be expected in any operation. Good warehouse management software should allow you to set up rules for detecting these exceptions and trigger the appropriate actions. Only then can the right levels of automation be achieved.
For example, the designers here at Infoplus have built management by exception into our software from the beginning. Any kind of order, process, or event can be tagged and made to trigger further actions. This in turn minimizes the burden on managers, because the appropriate actions can be triggered without micromanaging the workforce. (And we all know how much of a time suck that kind of micromanagement can be.)
Systematizing these exceptions also places the knowledge of your operations in the system itself, rather than in the heads of your floor managers or warehouse hero. The result is a more robust and resilient operation where labor is fluid and human error is minimized.
In short, exceptions should be something that your warehouse management software can encode, not something that your managers keep in their heads. Being able to alter workflow when exceptions occur is a huge step toward automation—one that frees management time for many other important tasks.