Picking errors are the silent assassin of warehouses: no-one sees or hears them at the time, but they’re going to kill your warehouse’s productivity regardless.
It’s all too tempting with pick errors to put them down to human error and move on. You may be handling thousands of orders a day, with many many products involved. We all make mistakes.
Warehouse picking systems and Warehouse Management Systems (WMS) can only fight the good fight against a lapse for so long. The odds are that, at some point, one of your workforce is going to go to the wrong location, or forget to scan something or pick up a big handful of 21 parts instead of 20. It’s part of the acceptable level of problems involved with running a warehouse. Or is it…
Whilst there are occasions where your picking errors will be down to human error, there is a good chance that, often, the root cause is more to do with your systems, processes, technology, environment or equipment.
There is an old management truism about looking for bad processes rather than looking for bad people. Never is that more true than when it comes to picking errors.
Here then are seven things we’ve seen work for businesses before. These are practical solutions for businesses to put in place which can start to reduce those grudgingly accepted ‘human errors’.
If you are not currently measuring how many picking errors are happening in any given period then it’s vital to your process that you introduce this as soon as possible.
You cannot reduce picking errors if you don’t know what level they are at at the moment. You’ll be working on assumptions, which is dangerous.
You’ll need to choose a consistent measure or measure several things to get a gauge of your picking error problems. It could be warehouse-based; something along the lines of what percentage of orders are picked right, first time. Alternatively, you will need to look outside of the warehouse at factors such as return rates and complaint rates.
A good WMS system will help with this, as well as with other factors when it comes to picking errors. Check what functionality you have available to measure and report on what is happening currently.
You need to have accountability in your warehouse workforce so that you can help people making picking errors to improve and so that workers not making picking errors don’t undergo unnecessary retraining or even disciplinary procedures.
At the same time you must foster a sense of openness amongst the warehouse workforce. People need to be able to hold their hands up and explain why they got something wrong, without fear of remedial action.
Remember: problems are typically process-created rather than people-created and you need your people to help you solve your process.
Think about how you can encourage the team to take more accountability and work together to solve any issues they’re currently encountering.
It’s unlikely that you’ll have a fully automated warehouse picking system – there will be human involvement somewhere along the way – so make sure that you’re collecting feedback as often as possible.
A tired, uncomfortable and demotivated workforce will make more errors than a well-rested, looked after, incentivised workforce, every time.
Small environment tweaks like providing comfortable floor matting in places where people stand for a long time, can make a big difference. You don’t need to promise the world here. Just show your workforce that you care about them by the attention you show to where they have to work and the rest will follow.
If you use warehouse order picking software then make sure you show your team regularly that their role is important too. You might have the best picking system in town, but it’s the workers that run it that matter.
Mapping your entire beginning to end process is a must any way, but when it comes to reducing pick errors it’s one of the best tools you’ll have.
Go through your process with a fine tooth comb, specifically attempting to spot areas where you are at greater risk of a pick error being created. There will be some obvious ones (at point of ‘goods in’ (see below) or at point of pick list generation, for example), but you may find others.
When looking back at the last month’s picking errors, see if you can directly assign those errors to any one of the risk points you’ve identified. Completing this process can help you to direct resources to the most problematic parts of your process.
Post-pick validation checks can help to eliminate orders going out incorrectly, but as you are essentially picking the order twice they do generate extra time in the picking process, even if they are carried out by an automated picking system.
Depending on how problematic your picking errors are for you, and how many you are making, may well dictate whether this is a necessary step or not. Weight checks or triple signatures (picker, checker, driver) are other alternatives in this area, depending on your process, workforce and the technology you have available. Again: assess your WMS and see what’s available to help you here.
When you’re looking at your processes it’s important to recognise that not everything that contributes to a pick error comes from your picking process.
Over time, many companies we’ve worked with have found that they actually end up looking more closely at the receiving process than they do the picking process. Goods inward being miscounted, assigned to the wrong location or any one of many other single errors can have a hugely detrimental impact on your pickers.
Do a full assessment of your receiving process, as you did with your whole warehouse process, and see if you can tweak it for greater accuracy.
Whilst you can (and should) spend a long time on your process, you’ll become very aware from quite early on that to reduce picking errors, you’ll need to secure the buy in and involvement from other areas of the business. Take the following example;
A company sells clothing, which comes in multiple sizes and colours. They keep getting returns that are the result of incorrect picks; people ordering extra small keep on receiving small. The warehouse has had a full look at its process and made every tweak they can, but there has barely been an improvement.
The Operations Manager takes a walk through the warehouse and picks up a few items of clothing at random. He notices the labels. The accounting team have to do stock checks occasionally and when they do, they mark the products they count with an ‘X’. On small products the added ‘X’ can make the label look like it’s an extra small product. They end up in the wrong bins and are selected incorrectly at picking.
This is just one example of how picking errors can begin outside of the warehouse and there are plenty of similar, unrelated instances just like this. Your quest to reduce picking errors is going to take you to many more areas of the business if you really want to get to the heart of the problem.