abc Window Cleaning Supply is the largest and best professional window cleaning supplier in the US (I’m a bit bias since I work there!). For nearly 30 years, abc has shipped supplies to business customers all over the US and beyond. Over the last few years, abc has experienced huge growth which stretched many of our systems. One that became particularly stressed was our shipping and warehouse systems. Through changes to technology and physical processes, we were able to improve pulling and shipping efficiency by 41%, a stunning number that exceeded our expectations.

Defining The Pain

A key part of the process was thoroughly understanding and defining the pain points. This understanding became the guiding light that informed our team as we moved through the How later. In this stage, we took a deep dive into the What and Why. We talked with a logistics expert from FedEx, did extensive research of existing warehouse solutions, talked with our own staff, and drew from our own experience at abc.

In 2017, abc’s shipping volume was quickly overwhelming the systems that we had in place. The shipping counters took up a huge section of the warehouse and many warehouse employees were needed. A lot of the processes were manual, which was inefficient and prone to errors.

The Method & Challenges

I worked closely with our ERP expert and some third part vendors to improve our shipping capabilities. We thoroughly evaluated current technology and processes and interviewed employees and stakeholders to understand the problem space.  We identified several key opportunities:

Overly Manual Technology

First, shipping labels were produced after orders were packed because we thought package dimensions were critical. Through discussions with shipping automation vendors and with our FedEx rep, we realized that we could produce labels during initial printing and let FedEx correct dimensions as needed during shipping. We were stuck on this point for a while until our contact at ShipJunction pointed out the obvious. Sometimes obvious improvements are right there in front of you!

Pick tickets on board waiting for pickers to pull orders.
Here’s what the old pick tickets looked like (notice the lack of shipping labels!). This is a set of test orders that each picker pulled while being timed to form a baseline. This same set was then tested again with the new system.

Second, orders were pulled individually. We knew from the beginning that we wanted to do batch order pulling for smaller orders. Through online research and live demos, we evaluated numerous software solutions and identified ShipJunction as the best fit for batching orders, predicting needed boxes, and producing shipping labels.

Rolling carts for picking orders.
Rolling carts ready for batch picking.

Thinking through requirements thoroughly in the beginning really paid off during the software evaluation phase. We were able to quickly identify when a solution didn’t meet our needs and move on. (Check out this post for more on thinking things through first.)

Inefficient Physical Processes

First, unnecessary steps meant orders were handled too many times. Orders were pulled, placed onto counters, checked, and then packed. This required a huge amount of table space and meant that orders needed to be moved around multiple times (1: pulled to table, 2: table to box). We eliminated almost all of our tables and pulled orders on rolling carts. Orders could be checked directly on carts and then packed from the carts, eliminating one of the handlings.

Second, the number of tables meant that packers had to do a lot of walking. That was exhausting and time consuming. Because orders were switched to rolling carts, packers were able to stand at a pack station and were able to move much less. At the pack station, they were able to have their needed tools within easy reach.

Third, thanks to the pack stations, we were able to increase throughput with less equipment and a much smaller footprint. Previously, we needed tape dispensers, void fill, and other tools repeated at each chunk of tables. Packer would need to walk to the nearest dispenser and then back to the order they were packing. We now do with three pack stations what used to require as many as 50 shipping tables.

  • Initial Pack Station Concept
  • Shipping Pack Station Prototype
  • Pack Station with Picking Cart

If you’ve ever looked up pack stations online, you’ll know that they are crazy expensive. We created DIY pack stations that work great for a fraction of the price thought they aren’t quite as pretty.

Fourth, bin Locations weren’t set up for an efficient pick path. We changed them so that pullers could pass through an aisle once and get everything they needed for the batch of orders they were pulling. Previously, one aisle might be two letters (A for the right side and B for the left side). On the pick ticket, that could result in walking down the aisle twice. We changed each aisle to a single letter with even numbers one one side and odd numbers on the other (A-1 on the left, A-2 across from that on the right). We also alternated aisle directions so that pullers weaved back and forth through the warehouse.

Warehouse Staff Were Trained For All Job Functions

Through discussions with the operations manager and owner, we realized that packing and pulling required two different levels of skill and training. Previously, warehouse staff were trained in both which often took several weeks. By separating the two tasks, new hires were able to be trained in pulling and become productive much faster, often in a single day.

Implementation Challenges

Our biggest challenge was resistance from staff to change. We had been doing things a certain way for over a decade and people didn’t want to change. Descriptions of the future benefits were too abstract for people to consider and with our busy season approaching people were scared that eliminating our shipping tables would be crippling. The staff eventually embraced the changes once they started using the new systems. We knew we had made a breakthrough when they suggested that we get rid of even more tables than we already had!

Outcomes Delivered

Ultimately, physical product management is about delivering outcomes, not just researching, defining, and making changes. All of the changes that we made resulted in some huge efficiency gains.

The implementation was done between December 2017 and April 2018. We saw significant improvements in 2018, but the numbers in 2019, when everything was fully in place, are the most telling.

2018 vs 20172019 vs 20182019 vs 2017
Warehouse Employee Hours-30%-9%-36%
Number of Packages+7%+2%+9%
Number of Line Items+3%+0%+3%
Time Per Line Item-32%-9%-38%
Time Per Package-34%-11%-41%
Between 2017 and 2019, abc shipped 9% more packages with 36% less warehouse employee hours. Overall, time spent per package decreased by 41%!

Conclusion

Call me crazy, but rethinking, implementing, and looking back at the stats of a system is my idea of a good time! As with any efficiency project of this sort, it’s important to be open minded, collaborative, creative, and data driven. This project was certainly no exception. The combination of view points from staff and outside parties was key to achieving the gains that we had.

Packages on carts ready to be picked up for shipping.

Though there were tons of people that contributed, two huge shout outs. Eric Birdsall, who now does Netsuite consulting, was absolutely instrumental in the implementation. If you need help with Netsuite, give him a shout. Secondly, ShipJunction is the shipping automation tool that we selected. Their implementation team was one of the best I’ve ever worked with. ShipJunction is super customizable and their team can help you get what you need. They integrate with Netsuite and plenty of other tools, so check them out to see if they can help you.

Need help with your shipping, packing, and pulling? Reach out and let’s talk, I’d love to help!