By Veronica Houtmann

The logistics field continues to see a tremendous increase in the use of technology throughout distribution centers and as a result has moved away from many of the more manual and physically demanding activities. Automation makes it easier to accomplish tasks, reach loftier operational goals and reimagine what is possible in the interaction between associates and technology. In our labor management projects we break down performance improvement opportunities into three components: utilization, methodology and pace. These components address these common workplace questions:

  • Is an associate’s time well used? (Utilization)
  • Is the associate doing the job in the best way? (Methodology)
  • Is the associate using an appropriate and healthy amount of effort? (Pace)

As we enter the new world of increasing automation of buildings and processes, these areas offer unique opportunities for improvement for your operation regardless of whether you’ve already fully adopted automation or are still in the process of implementing it.

Utilization

Highly automated buildings can enable improved associate utilization tracking. It’s now common for a majority of associates in automated buildings to repeatedly interact with either a workstation monitor or handheld device to complete their job. Readily available technology allows for associates to provide timely input regarding their direct and indirect time usage. This alone improves utilization and activity tracking data.

An even newer application of automation software provides for indirect time to be automatically tracked. If a workstation has exhausted the tasks for a particular associate, the labor management system (LMS) automatically records their time as an indirect time activity and then automatically puts them back into their direct time activity upon their next systemic interaction once work arrives. Your current warehouse management system (WMS) or LMS software provider may have similar capabilities that are not configured for your operation. It’s worth looking into; the improvement in data quality will support your supervisors in communication, better staffing decisions and coaching conversations.

Methodology

In today’s more advanced distribution centers, most travel time is eliminated, creating shorter work cycles and higher individual throughput. MHE providers will advertise “machine rates” but in our experience the actual units per hour achieved can vary widely from these rates and from associate to associate. Getting the most out of your investment requires identifying, standardizing and training on the best methods for each job. This demands a time commitment but it will pay off in multiple ways as automation embodies the spirit of work smarter not harder.

We have observed methods that are physically easier to complete and have provided a +50% improvement when learned and implemented over a more familiar baseline method. For example, at a unit induct station we noticed associates laboring to use two hands to obtain and scan an item then place it to a sorter belt. Their whole bodies rotated with the item throughout the cycle. These associates were routinely outperformed by another associate who never broke a sweat or looked fatigued. What was her secret? She picked the item with one hand than handed it off to her other hand to scan and place to the belt. Within days the whole team inducted using this physically easier and higher performing method. Investigate whether your preferred methods documents are up to date and optimized for each of your operations. What diamonds in the rough remain to be found that will benefit both your associates and your bottom line?

Pace

Automation also transforms the performance factor of pace. Not all jobs are equal. What we mean by this is that some highly automated job functions provide a sense of rhythm. At a goods-to-person station once the unit is picked the tote rolls away and a new tote presents itself. This type of movement can function like a metronome or pacing mechanism, subtly inviting the associate to complete the task with each arrival. We’ve observed some associates rock back and forth or even dance (if there’s music on!) while they work. However, if you move an associate to a more manual area where they must provide their own internal pace, their performance may decline.

All leaders know that different people thrive in different roles and may struggle in others. When looking at various jobs in your building consider whether certain tasks need more self-starting associates or if newer and less motivated associates would benefit from the structure provided by the material handling automation.  

Each of the three components of performance—utilization, methods and pace—need to be reevaluated in light of transforming warehouses equipped with more capable technology and automation. Understanding the nuances and opportunities latent in the relationship between your labor force and your automation can unlock unexpected efficiencies and improve workplace satisfaction and success for your associates and your leadership teams.  

Getting labor to integrate with automation is just the first step in setting up your DC to be prepared for the future; the next step is understanding how the role of labor will change in future distribution centers. Read on to the second post of the series to see what changes you should be anticipating and how you can respond.