Getting ready for the peak season: How to ensure your DC is prepared

Australian Distribution Centres (DCs) face constant operational challenges to streamline their processes and become more efficient while looking for ways to continually improve customer satisfaction levels. These challenges are only heightened in the lead-up to the festive and summer season where the flow of goods in and out of local DCs can increase significantly and it’s imperative that retailer and individual customer orders are packed and shipped correctly.

To operate as leanly as possible, many DCs will employ a team of fulltime warehouse staff throughout the year, but also look to employ seasonal workers on a short term basis to help meet the demands of the industry’s traditional peak season in the lead up to the holiday period. While this process allows DCs to manage staff costs throughout the year, it unfortunately also puts pressure on DC managers to ensure that short term workers understand the warehouse processes, technologies and are able to operate as productively, accurately and efficiently as ongoing employees.

Given the heightened activity many warehouses experience in the lead-up to the Christmas season and the challenges around trying to incorporate less experienced seasonal workers, what should Australian DCs consider to help ensure they are ready for the peak season?

Eliminating errors through technology

The general process of placing an order, shipping the right product, in the right quantity, at the right time, and to the right destination doesn’t change for DCs whether they are operating in quiet or busy periods. What does change in periods of peak operation is that the pressure to ensure accurate order distribution is heightened, as returned incorrect or incomplete orders have to be repacked and redistributed, which not only places an additional operational burden on the DC, but also impacts on customer satisfaction levels at a critical time of the year. To help eliminate the possibility of errors occurring in general warehouse operations during peak season, DC managers need to ensure that their processes are supported by the right technologies, such as voice.

In a voice-enabled warehouse, workers wearing rugged headsets receive verbal direction on tasks to complete select workflows. Workers speak their responses back to the voice system which is trained to each user’s individual voice.

Voice systems enforce order accuracy through the use of random check digits. The check digits are placed directly by the product and must be read when a worker is at the appropriate picking location. The system won’t allow the worker to continue to the next picking location unless they read the appropriate digits, which results in up to 99.995 per cent accuracy at all times. The ability of voice systems to deliver picking accuracy means that the correct orders are processed for shipping more often which in turn means that there are fewer returns and credits to process.

In addition to greater levels of picking accuracy, voice users report productivity improvements well above 20 per cent, depending on the systems that voice replaces (paper/label systems or handheld scanning). Voice technology increases productivity by making workers more efficient as they no longer need to spend time writing manual reports or scanning a bar code or keying in data on a mobile computer. By eliminating the need to read a display screen, a paper pick list, or a purchase order, workers obtain their next task en route to the next location, thereby reducing downtime while travelling within the facility. Increased productivity offers a large increase in a DCs peak season throughput and therefore profits.

Seasonal worker considerations

Time is not a luxury that many DCs have when preparing seasonal workers for their roles on the warehouse floor. DC managers need workers to be able to come into their facility and begin their role with a minimal amount of fuss and training time. However, these short term workers can, at times, not have a great deal of workplace experience, which means equipment that is easy to learn and use on the warehouse floor is essential.

      

Voice solutions are one of the easiest and fastest technologies to train employees on and to use on the warehouse floor. Voice solutions use listening and speaking as the only mode of communication. It only requires the employee to set his or her voice template, a process that takes just minutes, so that the voice recognition software is able to voice-identify and recognise the user. Essentially, employees are brought in for training and by the end of the day they are confident using voice.

While most DCs currently train their staff on the warehouse floor, this doesn’t offer the opportunity to assess a newcomer’s skills, strengths and challenges during the training period in order to best match them with the most appropriate work tasks. To expedite the training process, some DCs are looking today to employment agencies to pre-train staff around common warehouse processes and technologies to ensure that short-term staff are able to start working from their first day.

Unlike traditional theory based, instructor-led courses, advanced practical training sessions offered by some employment firms provide a practical experience that emulates a live DC environment. Trainees learn what it feels like to work in the warehouse under a simulated environment, and can take comfort in the knowledge that help is available at any time throughout their learning process.

Working around your workers’ needs

With some warehouses employing staff from different ethnic backgrounds and with varied levels of understanding of English, any DC picking system (especially systems used with short term seasonal workers) that solely relies on English as the language for operation can present challenges and increase the risk of missed, or incorrect picks. With an advanced voice picking solution language is no longer a barrier because workers have a choice of following voice instructions delivered to them in either English or a variety of commonly spoken languages from around the world. This means that any picker has the option to hear instructions and carry out their work in a language they commonly understand, limiting any confusion which could result in mistaken picks and incorrect customer deliveries.

Are you ready for the peak season?

The lead-up to the summer holiday season presents Australian DCs with unique operational challenges around how best to accommodate an expanded short-term workforce and meet increased levels of customer orders. It is a critical time when many DCs can handle a significantly higher level of business and make, or break, their reputations. To ensure customer orders are distributed accurately and efficiently it is critical that Australian DCs closely consider the processes and technologies that they have in place and whether these are suited for the increased pressures of peak season.

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