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May 6, 2021

Thriving Despite Chaos: Warehouse Management in Critical Times

During critical times, how can an effective warehouse manager meet the conflicting demands of a rapid increase in order volume, staff shortages, fewer resources, remote working challenges, and maintaining team safety and motivation? Here are some ideas for tackling several of these problems simultaneously even as the situation changes beneath you.

As every business owner knows, even in the best of circumstances, things don’t always run smoothly. Managing daily warehouse operations can feel like a constant exercise in crisis management by itself. But a real emergency, affecting all aspects of operations, is the ultimate test of a company, its people, and its processes.

When warehouse operations are optimized for efficiency to begin with, it is much easier to adapt to the “new normal” of a critical situation. Managers will have the tools in place to adjust, pivot, ramp up, or scale back as needed. Those who have not prepared, but instead spend their time putting out the latest fire, will struggle. Sadly, some will fail. 

Planning to ensure business continuity for your warehouse(s) in the event of an unforeseen emergency is like saving for a rainy day: If bad things happen, you’ll be glad you planned ahead. This kind of planning plus flexibility is the crux of modern warehouse management.

Warehouse Management Issues Can Happen at Any Scale

Any number of problems can befall a company, forcing it to shift its focus, its priorities, and its methods, without the luxury of time to plan. These can range from internal issues that are specific to one business all the way up to national emergencies that impact everyone.

  • An individual business may lose a major client, have a public relations failure, or suffer a security breach.
  • An industry might have widespread product recalls, or an erosion of public trust.
  • A region can experience a natural disaster like an earthquake, wildfire, tornado, or hurricane.
  • The entire country might declare a national emergency like a war, or the 2020 COVID-19 pandemic.

No matter the scope, companies that will make it through tough circumstances share an ability to be responsive and flexible. Most importantly, they have proactively optimized their warehouse setup and operations, taking full advantage of WMS, automation, and integration.

5 Challenges Faced By Manufacturers and 3PL Companies 

During times of crisis, businesses face five critical logistics issues surrounding volume, staff, resources, remote working, and team preservation. The extent of these issues and how they impact the company will depend upon the type of emergency and the product(s) the company is making or selling. For this article, we’re going to use the example of a critical situation where a company remains operational, producing goods that are in extremely high demand with reduced staff and resources. The business must deal with:

  1. A rapid increase in volume.
  2. A staff shortage.
  3. Fewer resources.
  4. Staff and/or clients working remotely.
  5. Maintaining team safety and motivation.

Handling a Spike in Volume

A crisis can result in a sudden and urgent need for certain products. They may be essential to the situation, or something non-essential that nonetheless experiences high demand. Thus, when a crisis happens, companies must be able to scale, and quickly. While higher volumes can typically create backorders, in an emergency the result can be a shortage. Manufacturers can have a hard time keeping up with demand. Success will mean being able to both plan ahead and change tactics on a dime.

Change is no stranger to the logistics business; businesses anticipate changes in demand all the time. Preparing for seasonal items (like charcoal grills for BBQ season) is a good example. 

Reacting to a crisis is like planning for a seasonal increase, but without warning. And on steroids. And the types of products that experience an upsurge in demand can be unpredictable. For example, during hurricane or tornado season, with a chance of power outages, increased sales of generators makes sense. So why does WalMart make sure the shelves are filled with Strawberry PopTarts too? They are compact, wrapped securely in foil, can be eaten hot or cold, kids will eat them, and strawberry is a well liked flavor. WalMart has learned that people stock up on Strawberry PopTarts when storms are predicted. (Who knew?)

Businesses that have fully optimized their operations for efficiency are better poised to cope with a sudden surge. A stream-lined warehouse layout with defined areas and clear pick paths can increase productivity easier than one that is disorganized and doesn’t work well to begin with.

Warehouse management software is essential, as is implementing automation wherever possible, and integration across the entire company. Real-time inventory data will show how much product is available, exactly where it is and where it needs to be. WMS generated pick paths will allow for fast and accurate picking. 

Key Performance Indicators are always important, but in this new normal some KPIs may become more critical than others. For example, in an all-hands-on-deck type emergency, where the product is essential, order lead time might be more important than revenue per employee in the minds of management. Having a WMS that tracks a wide range of indicators is a definite advantage. Being able to customize the data reports in a crisis is even better.

Making the Most of a Reduced Staff

The availability of staff doesn’t always increase along with the demand for a product. In fact, in times of crisis, there could be a marked decrease in employees who can make it into the facility to do the work. 

WMS modules that predict staffing needs and direct personnel to the appropriate tasks will become critical. It will provide the data that will signal when management should call in reinforcements by requesting temporary workers or starting hiring and onboarding procedures.

When staff is short, companies that have embraced automation will do better with an onslaught of orders. Automation, when done properly, relieves staff of tasks that are repetitive, dangerous, or error-prone, freeing them up to do more important things like planning and strategizing. 

From a human resource management standpoint, a company must sometimes be ready to adjust their priorities. For example, due to circumstances, perhaps production of one product must be halted in favor by another, more important item. Having staff that is well-trained on automated processes gives a company the flexibility to delegate tasks, and easily move people to the positions where they are most needed.

Ramping Up Productivity with Fewer Resources

During a critical time, businesses are sometimes faced with a reduction of their usual resources. They may be short-staffed as mentioned in the previous section, or may be dealing with power outages, gas shortages, or internet disruption. If the emergency is one that affects multiple businesses, it is not uncommon for important vendors and shipping companies to be stretched thin, too. 

Other than a generator or an alternate power source, there’s not much that can be done if there’s no electricity. But there are some things to do to anticipate and prepare for the possibility of problems in the supply chain. 

WMS that is integrated not only across a business organization, but also with the rest of its supply chain can be the key to keeping things flowing. Alerts can indicate when raw materials are running low and initiate automatic replenishment from vendors. The timing of alerts can be tweaked as production speeds up. 

Data collected can also give valuable insight into their vendors’ supply levels and when it might be wise to seek out an alternative source. Having a roster of reliable suppliers that can be called upon to step in when needed can keep things going on the production line. 

The same is true of shipping companies. A preferred shipping partner may be incapacitated or simply having difficulty keeping up with a sharp increase in deliveries. Manufacturers and distributors can’t afford to have products packed and stacking up in shipping bays without trucks to carry them to retailers or consumers. They must be ready to call in alternate or additional help to transport their goods. A critical feature to look for in Warehouse Management Software is the ability to determine when it’s appropriate to switch carriers and choose an alternate for you.  

During a time where resources are disrupted, businesses may need to pivot how they deliver their products to consumers. Traffic may switch from one channel to another, or a brand new channel may have to be opened. Companies may need to boost their e-commerce presence, especially if their product traditionally sells best directly to consumers. Take wineries and distilleries, for example. When tasting rooms and on-site retail were forced to close in 2020, they had to think fast. With some tweaks to the way they handled warehousing and logistics, some were able to begin selling and even offering tastings online. 

Likewise, many restaurants found ways to quickly set up online ordering and payment processes to stay in business. This may work in reverse, too. Customers may suddenly opt to seek a product in a brick and mortar store if online commerce becomes impossible for some reason.

Meeting the Challenge of Going Remote

Difficult times often make it necessary to get creative and improvise. In an emergency, workers may have to do their jobs from alternate corporate locations, or even from home. For a company that is not currently set up for remote work, a sudden change like this can be jarring for management, staff, and customers. But if they can’t get it together and make it work, they could be killing the business.

Decades ago, companies had huge, mainframe computers, housed on-site. Many used proprietary software designed specifically for that company. Now, cloud-based WMS allows personnel to do a good number of jobs from anywhere. That, plus teleconferencing products like Skype and Zoom give employees the tools to do their jobs and communicate with the rest of the team.

Logging into company software from a remote location allows for business as usual. Analytics provide warehouse managers with inventory and operations visibility in real time. This lets them make critical decisions from afar. Working remotely, staff can get data and push notifications that will give them a clear picture of the current situation in the warehouse. Based on that information, they can create pick paths, assign staff for additional shifts, place orders online, and numerous other tasks without setting foot on the company’s property.

Warehouse managers who want to prepare for the worst-case scenario are wise to examine tasks from the perspective of remote work. What can—and can’t—be done from somewhere other than on site? 

Remote working procedures may never have to be implemented. But there is a great degree of comfort in knowing that they can be. Remote preparedness can mean the difference between staying in business and shutting the doors.

Supporting Teams

The most important resource of any company is its people. At the heart of productivity and profits are the teams that show up to work every day. They are responsible for every step in a product’s journey to the marketplace and must be supported. This is especially true during critical times.

Protecting personnel wellbeing. Employees may need time off to take care of their own issues brought on by the crisis. Or they may be required to stay home for safety reasons. Those who do make it in to work may be given additional tasks and more responsibilities. Productivity needs to continue and possibly increase, while staff is asked to do more with fewer resources.

Providing a supportive environment. Aside from monetary support, a warehouse or manufacturing facility supports its staff by investing in optimizing efficiency. Well thought out warehouse setups, automated solutions, and integration can all make their jobs easier and safer on a regular basis. An operation that works properly is going to more easily adapt to the stresses brought on by a crisis. 

Well-planned processes and training supports staff by making it easy to add additional staff, which is likely to be necessary as volumes increase. WMS can pinpoint exactly where more help is needed or where errors are occurring. This will help prevent one area of a warehouse being overworked, while another area doesn’t have enough to stay busy.

WMS can also adjust picking methods and pick paths to ramp up productivity and allow for additional employees moving through the warehouse at the same time. Or, on the flip-side, it can time wave picking so fewer employees are on the floor at once, as was necessary during the 2020 pandemic.

Communication is key. If the emergency prevents in-person conversations, or team meetings, having an alternate way to communicate data and important information remotely will be key. Integration of software throughout the company will keep everyone informed and on the same page—crisis or not.

Communication is crucial, whether it is remote or face-to-face. Employees need to know what’s going on, what the corporation’s plans are, and exactly what is expected of them. Leveling with staff in times of crisis is important, even when the news isn’t great. That goes for vendors, customers, and the general public too. Supporting teams during a crisis is an important part of making sure that a company survives. 

The Keys to Surviving a Crisis

The bottom line is that companies that already have smooth and efficient layouts and procedures will have a better time adapting to whatever crisis comes its way. In addition, they need to ponder those “what if?” scenarios and put plans in place before an emergency.

Putting the tools in place is great, but they must also be used to their full potential. Implementing only a few WMS modules while continuing to do other tasks manually isn’t the best practice in normal times, let alone during a crisis. Following the advice to optimize efficiency through warehouse layout, automation, and integration can be the difference between success and failure.

Finally, recognize that the only thing constant is change. Remain flexible and prepared to pivot when necessary. It’s a policy that will pay off during critical times.

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