The Most Critical Aspect of any Distribution Operation

As supply chain consultants, we are exposed to nearly every industry and have the unique opportunity to see hundreds of different warehousing and distribution operations. We get to see the different operations for exactly one reason: our clients want us to help improve them.

The most common item we recommend improving is the cleanliness and orderliness of a warehouse. Maintaining a clean and orderly operation is much more important than just the optics (though the optics are important - imagine taking a potential client or business partner through a dark warehouse with trash on the floor!).

A clean and orderly operation drives the culture of accountability and effort. When nothing is disorganized or out of place, it makes it that much harder for someone to purposely misplace something or work inefficiently. When cleanliness is stressed, it follows to all aspects of the operation, from receiving to stretch-wrapping the pallet going out. 

To me, it is the same as my desk. When I come in mornings to a crisp, clean and organized desk, it leads to a productive day. When I come in to a disorganized and cluttered desk, the more likely I am to miss something and the less in-control I feel.

The Key Components of an Agile Supply Chain

The agile concept started in software development as an iterative method requiring collaboration to create an end product. Lately, the agile concept has been shifting to nearly all facets of business, including the supply chain.

The key concepts to an agile supply chain, and agile business, as well, are: Technologies, Empowerment/Culture, Customer-Centricity/Flexibility and Partner Relationships.

Technologies: A key component of an agile supply chain is visibility. Companies and employees must be able to quickly react and change course based on real-time data. To do this, of course, the right technologies are needed to track and display critical data points.

Empowerment/Culture: As good as real-time data may be, it is useless if the company culture is very rigid and employees are not empowered to make decisions. To have an agile supply chain, companies must have a flat hierarchy where employees always feel empowered to make critical decisions without excessive oversight. Additionally, there must always be a culture of continuous improvement internally.

Customer-Centricity and Flexibility: From a greater business aspect, companies must listen to their customers and tailor their business to their customers' needs. From the aspect of the supply chain, the supply chain must be able to easily accommodate customers' changing needs quickly and flexibly.

Partner Relationships: Whether any supply chain activities are outsourced or everything is in-house, there will always be partnerships and suppliers to work with. To maintain an agile supply chain, the relationships with all partners and suppliers must be extremely close. The partners and suppliers will grow as you grow, and the closer and more collaborative that they are worked with, the better work and adaptiveness they will offer.

The agile concept is growing similar to the lean concept, but don't confuse the two - they are similar but different. We will save that topic for another blog.

The Warehouse Rack Layout Aisle Width Decision

As warehouse consultants, we are fortunate to visit and improve hundreds of distribution operations. The majority, but not all, of the operations require forklifts of some sort. Upon starting my career, one of the things I expected to see in the operations was more standardization of forklift types and, by extension, aisle width. However, that is not the case. Operations of similar applications and volumes can often have different forklifts and aisle widths. Here, I’ll explore some reasons why this may be:

Facility – Oftentimes, the facility may be the constraint. When creating pallet rack layouts, column lines cannot be in the aisles and are best buried in the flue spaces. As such, sometimes the column grid guides the aisle width decision. Also, the facility could have limited height, encouraging bulk floor storage where possible, which limits the truck types used.

Warehouse Management System (WMS) – Some types of racking, such as double deep, drive-in or pushback, require additional functionality to the WMS. Without the functionality, many types of rack cannot be used optimally, which affects the truck type and aisle spacing.

Item Profile – If an item is heavy or bulky, it may require a certain type of truck (for example, a counterbalance instead of a reach) or an extra-long aisle for maneuverability. The reverse is true if an item is too small and only fits in shelving.

Inventory Profile – If the inventory profile contains many pallets of few SKUs as opposed to many SKUs of few pallets, it affects the optimal racking method, thus affecting aisle width and truck decision.

Order Profile – If items are picked in full pallets as opposed to each or case quantities, the best picking method will then drive the truck and rack selection.

Though two operations may appear similar, there are many factors that go into selecting the right aisle width and forklift type. It is not a one size fits all solution nor an easy decision - it requires analysis of several variables.