Rapidly improve fulfillment operations to conquer ecommerce demand spikes

  • July 21, 2023
Blurred motion of forklift in warehouse

For many retailers and manufacturers, the accelerating shift to ecommerce is most obvious in fulfillment and delivery operations. Companies have been operating at peak season levels for the better part of a year. Before the traditional peak season hits, something has to give.

It wasn’t too long into the COVID-19 pandemic before it became apparent to many operations leaders that the growth in ecommerce volume would overtake operational capacity at some point in 2020. For those who have made it work up until now, here’s the good news: Some rapidly implementable solutions can provide immediate relief to your organization.

If your organization is looking for quick wins to improve your fulfillment and delivery efforts, consider the following list of diagnostic steps:

  • Rapidly assess your current state. Take a step back and take a critical look at your entire fulfillment process. Determine what procedures and methods are working and which ones could be improved. Use job shadowing and observation to assess how jobs and individual tasks can be made easier and done faster. Often, an assessment like this is best performed by a neutral and objective third party like NTT DATA.
  • Identify which processes (or steps) are the most time-consuming bottlenecks. Conduct quick-time studies as part of your observations. Identify what areas, activities or methods consume the most time or energy. Keep the Eight Lean Wastes in mind as you look for efficiency opportunities — defects, overproduction, waiting, unused talent, transportation, motion, over-processing.
  • Consider approaching time-consuming and wasteful tasks differently. Throw all ideas up on the board and give each one due consideration. Should you introduce any new material handling equipment (MHE)? Should you change the flow of material or the sequence of events? Keep in mind you’re trying to eliminate the bottlenecks and waste you’ve identified during your time studies and observations. Refer to your notes often to speed up this evaluation process.
  • Group your ideas into short-term and long-term opportunities. Usually you’ll find you have some of both. You’ll likely need to make a sound business case for the longer-term objectives. For this initial review, you’ll want to focus on the easy wins that make a substantive impact quickly before planning for longer-term solutions.
  • Start putting those ideas to work. Develop a testing plan for the opportunities you’ve identified as quick wins. Determine if you’ll need to procure MHE or other materials. It’s often a good idea to perform a quick test yourself before involving other associates. Set up any simulations needed and run several scenarios to assess the impact of your proposed changes.
  • Perform a pilot test for several days — the longer, the better. Start with one associate and then have more incorporate the change. Employ newly trained associates as advocates for procedural changes. Be sure to solicit feedback and be prepared to enthusiastically make changes on the fly.
  • Build a business case for envisioned long-term solutions. Start with the big-ticket items and identify needed MHE changes, the capital investment required to implement them and the impact on headcount of any possible changes. Finally, quantify the resulting productivity improvements and how they’ll offset the investments necessary to make them a reality.

Throughout this evaluation, it’s essential to get supervisory approval for the investigation’s scope and the desired efficiency increases. By following an agreed-upon operations assessment timeline, you’ll have the freedom to identify, test and quickly deploy scalable solutions that can be used across your network to unlock additional throughput capacity. Be sure to internalize the lessons learned from this experience — they can help you sustain similar growth levels in the future.

— By Allison Dow

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