Achieve Greater Team Productivity in the Warehouse | Zebra Blog

Warehouse Maturity Model Phase Two: Achieve Greater Team Productivity and Workflow Conformity

Every warehouse needs to empower workers to do more and move faster without making more mistakes, regardless of size. Making these small changes to your technology toolkit can make a big impact on individual and team capabilities when time is of the essence (and money is tight).

Two warehouse workers scan inventory while maintaining social distance
by Mark Wheeler
September 22, 2020

In my last blog post, I spoke about the dire need to modernize warehousing systems and workflows and introduced Zebra’s Warehouse Maturity Model as a roadmap for progression. 

Zebra`s Warehouse Maturity Model phases

However, not all warehouse operators will begin their transformation at the same time or from the same place. Nor is there a standard “upgrade” strategy that will be applicable to all. Every warehouse serves a different purpose, leverages different processes and relies on different technologies.

There is, however, a shared goal right now: increase the sophistication of technologies to achieve greater levels of visibility, utilize data to a greater extent and orchestrate operations wall-to-wall to ensure every asset and worker is visible, connected and fully optimized.

Sound familiar? That’s because I mentioned it in my last post as well. No matter how you get there, you’re trying to reach the same destination as every other warehouse operator.

So, let’s talk a bit about what Phase Two of the Zebra Warehouse Maturity Model entails, as the steps taken at this point in your journey can help accelerate outcomes from other phases.

Phase Two Goal: Achieve Greater Team Productivity and Workflow Conformity

While it’s true that there is no “I” in team, each individual’s productivity ultimately influences the maximum speed and output of your workforce as a single unit. That’s why continued warehouse maturation is dependent on your ability to take your transactional mobility strategy to “best-in-class” status by optimizing the use of mobility throughout your facility. That means the success factors you want to focus on in Phase Two are:

Operations

  • Improving consistency and accuracy
  • Leveraging task-specific devices and form factors
  • Unifying team communication and mobilizing managers
  • Increasing visibility of assets and workflow processes

Information Technology

  • Simplifying remote device management
  • Utilizing your IT resources to help get workers to full productivity faster

Though it sounds like a significant time and resource commitment for any size organization, especially for small-to-medium sized businesses (SMB), it’s really not. In fact, I think Phase Two is where all organizations stand to gain significant efficiencies from the technology investments and process changes they make.

If you’re relying on a lean team to sustain your business during growth periods, then you need to make it as easy as possible for workers to increase their speed, accuracy and productivity as order rates and inventory volumes rise. Fulfillment demands can surge far faster than you can hire, as many SMBs and large warehousing operations learned in the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic.

SMBs can deploy technology allowing workers the flexibility to cover more than one role when needed, whereas larger organizations will have the volume and velocity of orders to leverage mobile technology optimally selected to suit a specific task. In any size organization, realizing efficiencies from increased productivity without the traditional cost and complexity can help to eliminate or reduce the expense of overtime or temporary labor.

In that same vein, small thoughtful steps to expand technology utilization can make a huge difference on worker productivity and workflow compliance in the on-demand economy.

“A Super Simple Solution to a Big Problem.”

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: though warehouse modernization may seem too time- and resource-intensive to start right now (or ever), the goal is in fact to remove the burdens imposed by your legacy processes and systems, not create new ones. We want to identify and eliminate the complexities that disrupt workflows, hinder efficiency, limit growth and drive up operational costs – not contribute to them. You don’t have to rip and replace every single one of your mobile devices, software applications or back-end systems to drive business process improvements. In fact, many warehouse operators we’ve worked with have seen dramatic productivity and efficiency gains from incremental upgrades to existing solutions.

For example, one precision machining company switched to a Zebra® IQ Color and Zebra thermal printing solution to give its staff a way to clearly see whether or not shipments of like items were being kept together and shipped to the right location. It didn’t take long before the company was able to eliminate mis-shipments altogether.

In another scenario, a third-party logistics (3PL) services provider made periodic, but consistent, technology updates within its warehouses so that its retail business customers could give consumers more buying choices and its workers could keep up with the growing demand for rapid order fulfillment and receipt. After first replacing paper-based, product-tracking records with barcode scanning in the early 2000s, Saddle Creek Logistics Services then moved onto phase two of its warehouse modernization plan by adopting a number of new mobile computing and scanning device form factors that are purpose-built for warehouse work. Because the goal is to increase “warehouse associates’ productivity wherever possible to keep up with burgeoning order volume,” Saddle Creek wanted to ensure every worker had the right device form factor and feature set for his or her job. Today, Saddle Creek uses more than 1,500 Zebra® mobile computers, tablets and scanners for workflows from receiving to shipping, as you can read about here or see in the below video:

Though you may require a slightly different combination of technologies – and have a different set of goals – what you can learn from these two companies is the importance of locating gaps in existing data capture processes, identifying common errors that need to be corrected and see where there are efficiencies to be gained in each workflow. Taking a fresh look at your operations through the lens of “consistency and accuracy” will help you see how best to leverage task-specific mobile computing, scanning and printing devices in order to facilitate more efficient processes and team communications.

Now, I know what you’re thinking: capturing more data and increasing accuracy could result in more scanning actions, more time spent on each workflow, more physical effort and maybe even more resources. Let me ease those concerns. While the number of different technology combinations available is vast, it won’t be hard to find the right solutions if you carefully consider the key performance indicators (KPIs) you’re looking to improve alongside your data capture, labor and ecosystem needs. It will be easy to see which form factors and feature sets will:

  • Automatically speed up workflow processes;
  • Improve data capture accuracy;
  • Reduce the burden on IT; and
  • Make workers more skillful and impactful as individuals and a team.

In the words of one customer, these three fundamental technology investments will provide “the simplest solutions to the big problems” that warehouse operators are facing today:

  • Scan Once, See Everything: Making the move to 2D barcoding and scanning in receiving will allow for more data to be captured with one barcode. In most cases, your team has to confirm multiple pieces of data for each shipment. A single 2D barcode can provide information for the contents of an entire carton, eliminating the need for workers to open the carton and scan each individual item in the carton. In turn, more items can be scanned in less time and more operational intelligence collected with fewer people scanning.
  • Why Workers Want More Wearables (and You Should Too): Wearables provide the hands-free freedom needed to execute tasks faster. In fact, workers using multi-modal, speech-directed solutions tend to spend 15% less time overall fulfilling an order than those using a voice-only solution. That’s because they can verbally communicate their status and receive more heads-up visual guidance as they speed through the warehouse from one task to the next. In many cases, the mobile computers they’re already using can serve as the “host” device for the wearables, so the investment would be minimal to significantly increase workers’ capabilities. In fact, a new Workforce Connect integration with BlueParrott headsets means that you can give workers hands-free “push-to-talk” (PTT) capabilities on any Android device, including Zebra’s many different handheld computers. Just don’t forget about your more visual workers. Pairing a head-mounted display with something like Zebra FulfillmentEdge can also improve picking speed and accuracy by giving pickers specific instructions right in their line of sight using an intuitive graphical user interface.
  • Comfort Can Energize: Ergonomics impact both productivity and accuracy (in a good way). An eight- or ten-hour shift is a long time to hold a handheld device, let alone have to tilt, scan, tilt (again) and verify for that many hours. I was at a tradeshow last year and started talking to a fellow conference attendee. When I introduced myself as a Zebra employee, he told me that the TC8000 was revolutionary and a game-changer. The idea that someone thought of taking away the “tilt and verify” motion after scanning was really innovative. Think about all the seconds that add up when a worker doesn’t have to tilt, scan, verify and tilt again…over and over again. Now, it is merely scan, verify, scan, verify. Beyond the instant productivity gains, I can tell you this one small change significantly reduces the wear and tear on workers’ wrists – and that goes a long way to improving employee satisfaction and productivity as well. Plus, fitting workers on the loading dock with a lighter wearable ring scanner and mobile computer instead of a handheld device enables them to scan the cartons or pallets being loaded on trailers and into cargo containers hands free. This keeps them moving with the confidence that the right items are being loaded onto the right truck or container.
  • The Power of Touch: Some workers can’t go completely hands-free, and that’s okay. In these cases, take steps to increase utilization of touch-screen devices (and reduce keystrokes).  This can drastically reduce the number of interactions required to complete tasks on larger-screen handhelds and tablets. For example, you may want to mount a rugged tablet with a cordless Bluetooth® or corded extended-range scanner to lift trucks and pick carts for a touch-optimized, large screen data capture experience.
  • Augmented Reality and Real-Time Guidance Can Result in Real Productivity Gains: My colleague Pat Narendra did a great job outlining the benefits of augmented reality (AR) apps for warehouse picking in this blog post. And another colleague, Todd Boone, spoke earlier this year in a short sit-down video interview about how the Zebra FulfillmentEdge warehouse management and mobile workflow software combines with head-mounted displays to optimize order flow and workers’ instructions. Both of these solutions can enable more agility when urgent orders come in and increase workers’ accuracy of multi-order picks. In fact, warehouse workers using the Zebra FulfillmentEdge™ solution can pick up to 24% more orders per day. That’s because the software, which is powered by Zebra Savanna™, enables you to replace linear processes with dynamic work orders that factor in a worker’s location, all possible tasks that can be performed in that location and the priority of incoming orders. In other words, enterprise-grade head-mounted displays, ring- and wrist-scanners and mobile computers – when combined with visual and voice-directed applications – help workers know the best-next-step to take throughout the day. In that same vein, it can be very beneficial to leverage a larger form factor tablet or touch-optimized device with a graphical interface for returns management means that workers can process returns and get items back on the “shelf” faster. It’s difficult to go an entire day doing returns on a mobile computer with a green screen application.
  • As Dr. Seuss Might Say, Helping Your Workers “Print Here, There and Anywhere” is the Easiest Way to Keep Mobile Workers Moving without Having to Run Around Everywhere: My colleague Keith LeFebvre reminded us in a recent blog post that, “many workers who spend their days moving about on foot or four wheels actually need tools that enable them to complete any task on the spot, without leaving the spot they’re in at that moment.” This couldn’t be truer for warehouse workers. While they need the flexibility to move up and down aisles, in and out of cold storage and to and from loading docks, they must also be able to print a label or RFID tag in real time, while standing in front of a product or pallet, without having to scurry over to a desktop or industrial printer multiple times a day.

Mobile printers enable workers to continue working instead of hunting down stationary print stations. If you select the right supplies, you can even expedite their labeling applications. (The Zebra Z-Slip all-in-one packing slip can save up to 8 hours per day in shipping processes and help ensure compliance with shipping policies.) Driverless printing from Android mobile devices also makes it convenient to label items, boxes or pallets on the spot to help keep picked orders together and expedite shipping actions.

Don’t Forget: Device Uptime (or Downtime) Impacts Productivity.

Warehouse operators understand better than most just how important it is to spend the money on reliable technology systems. Device and application performance directly impact workers’ performance. That being said, I see device management solutions get de-prioritized all too often when budgets are tight. The problem is that most IT teams don’t have the bandwidth to proactively monitor the health of devices. They have a hard-enough time keeping up with the helpdesk ticket queue.

If you really want to increase worker productivity, and you’re spending the time and money to scale or enhance your mobility solutions, be sure you are doing two things:

  1. Choosing enterprise-grade devices that have built-in remote management tools, including device diagnostic and analytics tools.
  2.  Budgeting for third-party Managed Services support.

This is especially true if you’re a small business with an even smaller IT team.

It can be tempting to “save money” by opting for consumer-grade devices or trying to manage devices on your own. But if your devices aren’t receiving software or security updates in a timely fashion, they aren’t configured properly or they fail to work as they should for any reason, your workers (and business output) will be slowed down significantly. Plus, enterprise-grade devices are built from the inside out for use in warehousing environments. Consumer-grade devices are not, even if they are marketed for SMB business use.

The Takeaway

Phase Two of the Warehouse Maturity Model is all about optimizing the use of mobility, expansion and empowerment. Focus on giving each worker the technology tools he or she needs to move quickly and efficiently through workflows without sacrificing quality, safety or data security in the process. Doing so will give you the capability and agility to grow without setting you back too much financially.

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Want to learn more about the five phases of Zebra’s Warehouse Maturity Model? Listen to this recent webinar.

We also encourage you to stay tuned into the Your Edge blog in the coming weeks as supply chain experts discuss the challenges and solutions that you should prioritize in Phases three, four and five.

Missed Mark’s insights about Phase One of the Warehouse Maturity Model? You can read them here.

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Mark Wheeler
Mark Wheeler is the lead for warehouse and plant floor solutions for Zebra’s North American manufacturing vertical. Mark has more than 30 years in the industry, with deep expertise in warehouse and plant floor operations.
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