right_division Green SCM Distribution
Bookmark us
SCDigest Logo

Focus: Distribution/Materials Handling

Feature Article from Our Distribution and Materials Handling Subject Area - See All

From SCDigest's On-Target E-Magazine

- Dec. 4, 2012 -

Logistics News: Are there Hard to Find Workflow and Screenflow Inefficiencies in Your DC Operations?

Opportunities can be Difficult to Spot, but Can Deliver Real Productivity Gains; Key Question - How Configurable is Your WMS with Regard to RF Screenflow? 30% Gain in Cart Picking


SCDigest Editorial Staff

Most distribution centers are charged with delivering continuous year-over-year performance improvement to lower operating costs. Occasionally, managers at many of these DCs will bring in a consultant to audit current DC practices, layout and other factors impacting productivity levels.

Less common, but nevertheless often quite valuable, is to bring in an expert from the company's WMS provider (if an outside vendor was used) to audit how effectively the installed software is being used, and if changes in operations have moved ahead of how the software had been configured for the initial set of requirements.

SCDigest Says:

If the screenflow isn't efficient, than the overall workflow is not going to be efficient. That may be true in a given process for a given operation even at the outset of the system, but certainly there can be productivity leakage as things change over time.
What Do You Say?
Click Here to Send Us Your Comments
Click Here to Post or See Reader Feedback

Often overlooked in either of these types of audits is whether "workflows" (which we will define as the discrete steps in a process) and even more commonly "screenflows" (the fields and screens used by workers on wireless RF terminals to complete various tasks) are no longer optimal - and maybe never were from the start.

Those comments are triggered by a new study commissioned by Intermec, provider a of wireless, voice and other solutions, which found that on average, floor associates in a DC lose an average of 15 minutes per day in productivity from non-optimal workflows. The study was conducted for Intermec by research firm Vanson Bourne.

15 minutes per day may not sound like much, but it equals 3.1% of an 8 hour shift - and most companies would be more than pleased to find another 3% in potential productivity gains. The study notes that for a medium-sized warehouse with 50 workers, this productivity loss adds up to 415 man-days a year, and would obviously be proportionately higher number in DCs with more associates.

Part of the issue is surely just inertia - DC processes get put in place, and may simply not be reviewed for inefficiencies unless something is clearly not working. The study found that close to one in three (30%) of DCs had not conducted a review of workflow processes in their distribution centers within the past year. We are frankly surprised the number isn't higher than that.

So where are the workflow problems likely to be the greatest? Perhaps surprisingly, the top response from survey respondents was in "packing and loading," though order picking, which often accounts for 50% or more of DC labor costs, was a close second.

Mark Fralick, president of WMS consulting and implementation firm GetUsROI and an SCDigest contributor, thinks to find workflow problems managers need to be looking more closely at the entire process.

"The thing that I still see in facilities is a failure to focus work. Maybe the actual workflow is fine, but it is what happens prior to and after the main work flow, say picking, that causes the inefficiency," Fralick says.

"So for example, let's say you are using a cart system for cluster picks. My thing on this is - let's get the pickers picking. They should not be building carts. So, focus the effort . Have dedicated cart builders setting up the boxes, printing the labels and the packing list, whatever else is needed, and then hand them off to dedicated pickers," Fralick advised.

That way, Fralick says, when the picker is finished with one cart, he or she just grabs the next cart that is ready to go - they never stop picking.

"We recently implemented an intelligent cart system for one of our customers after I noted this was exactly what was happening in their DC, and we increase picking efficiency by a whopping 30%," Fralick says.

He says companies should think of it this way - If you had workers using a $40,000 aisle vehicle, would you want them stopping every 20 to30 minutes to have them build wood pallets? Obviously not, Fralick says, as that would lead to poor use of an expensive vehicle resource.

"You would want that vehicle in the aisle, moving product all day long," Fralick says. "So, why would you do that same sort of thing with cart pickers?"

Workflow Versus Screen Flow

Complicated this discussion is that in a DC, the actual process (workflow) is often driven by the "screenflow" a workers sees and uses on the on the floor.

(Distribution/Materials Handling Story Continues Below )


Download Longbow Advantage

Business Briefs



The Keys to WMS Success,

Maximizing JDA WMS

Performance and More






If that screenflow isn't efficient, than the overall workflow is not going to be efficient. That may be true in a given process for a given operation even at the outset of the system, but certainly there can be productivity leakage as things change over time.

"Yes, it's a little bit of a chicken and egg thing between screenflow and workflow," Fralick says. "What can happen is that as little changes in screenflow and prompts are made to accommodate changing requirements, over time the entire process can become inefficient in ways that are hard to see."

Fralick says the growing need for value-added services in the DC in a common area where new screens need to be added to the existing flow, and then those sub-flows have their own screen flows, and in the end the total process becomes far from optimal.

And finding these productivity leaks in screenflow is not easy. They may not be caught at all in a normal DC audit even by an experience consultant, or even in software effectiveness audits by WMS providers, which tend to focus on higher level capabilities being used or not and how the overall system configuration might be enhanced.

"You really have to get down into the weeds to find these sorts of issues," Fralick says. "They won't be obvious at all most times from simply observing a process. It takes real work to understand what is going on," he says.

Screenflow Configurability Getting Better

Until recently, RF screen content and flows were hard coded into the WMS product. This is also true if companies are using emulators to move ERP or other enterprise system screens to mobile devices. There might be some level of configuration based on settings (for example, if ASN receiving is turned on, that would be a different WMS screenflow than if it is not), but there were only so many such options.

For companies with those older systems, of which there are thousands, that means to change the screenflow software modifications must be made either by the WMS vendor or internal IT staff for in-house programs. The cost and effort to make these changes can certainly be a barrier to improving the workflow to get some productivity gains back.

Still, not enough companies do the work to understand the costs and benefits and see if there is a payback from making the screenflow change as opportunities for improvement are discovered.

Slowly but surely, leading WMS vendors are adding more configurability into that screen flow to reduce or eliminate the need for those modifications as needs change or process inefficiencies are discovered .

For example, Scott Zickert, Supply Chain Product Manager for WMS provider RedPrairie, says "We have a number of ways in which RF screenflow can be configured currently. For example, users can configure how fields within an RF form function, such as how certain information may default based on the value of a previously entered field. Or special instructions can be presented to users at various points of the user flow, such as audit instructions, pallet build instructions or special handling instructions."

That last capability is one in which a lot of flexibility could be achieved to meet new requirements, and Zickert says RedPrairie is working on additional screenflow capabilities that will further reduce the need for professional services work or customization to meet changing requirements.

WMS provider Softeon says it has also built a lot of flexibility into its RF screen flows.


Softeon's WMS platform supports configurable options to alter screenflows


"Fields in individual RF screens can be completely configured - hidden, enabled, mandated, etc.," says Softeon Vice President Shyam Krishna. "In addition, we use a rules-based engine that can trigger new RF screenflows based on specific events or customer-specific requirements in the DC."


As an example of the latter, the Softeon rules-engine could be configured trigger a unique RF screenflow for say value-added service requirements, not only for a specific customer but also a specific product category for that customer.

Voice technology provider Vocollect has an interesting approach to this question with a new VoiceExpress solution released earlier this year. VoiceExpress is an RF screen mapper that can take existing RF screens and fields and convert them into voice commands and responses. While the main focus is on making the transition from RF to voice easier and faster, in the process the company discovered it could also drive efficiency by taking what was multiple RF screens and in effect combining them for more productive processing.

The bottom line: there may indeed be a lot of opportunity to drive productivity gains through closer analysis of current workflows in the DC, but that analysis in many cases will also require a close look at RF screen flow as well. But depending on what WMS technology they have, companies will find varying degrees of flexibility and effort to make needed changes.

How often do you review DC workflow processes? Do you agree there may be good opportunities for productivity gains from such an effort? Have current RF screenflows been a limiting factor in continuous improvement? Let us know your thoughts at the Feedback button below or in the Feedback section. Anonymity will be provided upon request.

Recent Feedback


No Feedback on this article yet