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About the Author

Cliff Holste is Supply Chain Digest's Material Handling Editor. With more than 30 years experience in designing and implementing material handling and order picking systems in distribution, Holste has worked with dozens of large and smaller companies to improve distribution performance.

Logistics News

By Cliff Holste

November 20, 2013

For Many Businesses the Overriding Question is - Where Do We Go From Here?

Adopting Continuous Improvement Practices

Holste Says:

It is much better to pay attention to whatever affects performance, efficiency, and safety in the workplace, and make continuous improvements.
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Previous Columns by Cliff Holste

Sorting It Out: Automatic Conveyor Speed Control - Speed Varies to Accommodate Carton Flow

Sorting It Out: Increasing System Throughput Capacity - The Fix Maybe Easier Than You Think

Sorting It Out: Poor System Performance May Be the Accumulated Affect of Many Small Problems

Sorting It Out: Guidelines for Achieving a Successful Audit

Sorting It Out: Understanding the "Value" of the Distribution Center Audit


It’s a perfectly legitimate concern that many operations managers have especially at the end of a challenging year. There are the obvious signs of trouble: productivity degradation, declining shipping capacity, greater overtime, higher than normal absenteeism, poor moral, a cluttered warehouse, etc. Perhaps you should invest in improving these specific areas. But, you’re not sure that the effort will yield any measurable result. No doubt it will improve working conditions for those involved and that’s a good thing. But in the end will the squeeze be worth the juice?

You might think that it’s hard to justify investing in marginal improvement projects if people are willing to tolerate the current conditions. However, you need to take into consideration what work is not getting done or goals not being met because of the time and energy being consumed by inefficient and out dated operations.

How much are you limiting growth potential with the current physical, emotional and energy constraints? This didn’t happen overnight. Years of complacency often results in the problems referenced above and a business at risk. This is especially true when the economy improves and the hard working people you currently have choose to leave for better working conditions.

In a more robust economy, will you be able to find replacements that are as willing and capable?

How long will it take to find, screen, and train them?

How long will it take for them to become acclimated to the distribution environment and productive? If you are currently hiring temporary and/or seasonal workers then you know how problematic this can be.

Just because people are getting the job done doesn’t mean they don’t need more up-to-date tools and systems to help them. Don’t let strongly committed employees lull you into a sense of complacency. It is much better to pay attention to whatever affects performance, efficiency, and safety in the workplace, and make continuous improvements.

Adopting a Continuous Improvement Plan

Start by commissioning a team made up of individuals from the various functional departments plus a few who have no direct association (such as manufacturing, accounting) in order to get a fresh “out-of-the-box” perspective. Then task them with coming up with improvement suggestions. Let them know that you are looking for ideas such as:

  • Adopting basic industry standard processing improvements, such as: ASNs, EDI, WMS, along with newer technologies like product/container 2D matrix code technology - see “Supply Chains Benefit from Adoption of 2D Matrix Code Technology” 
  • Follow work orders through the various operations looking for tasks that are physically challenging. Then recommend alternatives for automating or mechanizing them. For instance, it may only require changing the elevation of a picking container to make it easier to reach inside.
  • Recording and prioritizing safety issues, errors, exceptions. Then search for the cause (not the blame).
  • Develop and recommend solutions that can be implemented on a continuous basis without major interruptions.

To negate the possibility of the “not invented here” syndrome in addition to the typical internal politics, it may be beneficial to have an outside industry expert/consultant direct this effort.

Final Thoughts

A business that is dependent on the daily extra efforts of it’s over stretched workforce is a business at risk. Making improvements to create jobs that can be done safely, efficiently and consistently correct is just good business. Often, it just comes down to a commitment of time to think of better more innovative ways to get things done.


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