When you’ve been in a discipline for a long time, you forget sometimes that not everyone is as immersed in a topic as you are.  I was reminded of this when I was asked to participate in a webinar on warehouse management system (WMS) task management, slotting optimization, and labor management with Tom Kozenski, VP of Product Strategy at RedPrairie.  The webinar will air September 29th at 11:30 ET and will be moderated by Dan Gilmore at Supply Chain Digest (click here to register).

Improved productivity is one of the primary benefits of a WMS, and task management is the core functionality that drives labor efficiencies.  If a WMS does not have task management, then it is not, by definition, a warehouse management system.  That said, there is a big difference between how low-cost solutions approach task management and how functionally-rich solutions approach it.  In lower-priced solutions, orders are usually grouped into waves and then passed on to pickers to complete.  This type of task management does not promote productivity, but it is perfectly suitable for smaller, less complex, low volume warehouses.

More advanced forms of task management look at the next best activity for an employee to perform based on that worker’s permission, the priority of the work to be done, and the physical proximity of a worker to task locations.  The larger the facility, and the more tasks that can queue up, the greater the productivity improvements driven by advanced task management.  In many cases, productivity is further enhanced by changing the layout and flow of the warehouse.   

Permission can take a few different forms.  It can mean that certain workers are not trained to perform certain activities or are not permitted in certain areas of a warehouse (e.g., a caged area where high value goods are kept).  Or workers might be paired with certain types of material handling equipment.  There may be a limited number of high lift forklifts, for example, and if a task involves moving a pallet from a high rack, then only a worker driving that type of equipment has permission to do that task. 

Priority reflects the importance of a task.  Rush orders, for example, could be given a higher priority than regular orders; picking could take priority over pallet put-aways; replenishing a forward-pick location that falls below a minimum inventory level can have the highest priority.  In high volume distribution centers (DCs) with good task management a worker will show up to fill a forward-pick location just before it empties out.  In DCs without it, you will often see workers in a unit picking zone (as opposed to a case or pallet picking zone) setting aside totes to be picked later because of locations that have run out of inventory.  In contrast, with good task management, the way workers move through a DC resembles the kind of coordination you see in synchronized swimming.   

Proximity is based on location logic and minimizing the distances workers travel in a warehouse.  So, for instance, a food distributor might need to build a dozen mixed SKU/case pallets for a customer.  They may have three employees working on that order.  If each of the workers can pick from aisles that are close together, instead of having to travel from one end of the warehouse to the other, they can be much more productive.

Permission, priority, and proximity work together to enable various advanced productivity practices like task interleaving and different types of cross docking (topics I’ll address in future postings). 

However, there is often a “shakeout” period whenever new, and perhaps more complex, processes are introduced into an existing warehouse.  For example, software glitches may occur.  Advanced task management involves a complex hierarchy of rules that can sometimes interact in unexpected ways.  But more importantly, cultural issues need to be addressed carefully.  The software can not only change the way floor-level workers operate, but also the duties of managers.  And it is often the case that productivity will actually drop initially, before climbing above what was previously possible.  Therefore, expectations need to be properly set.