Supporting the day-to-day operations within the four walls of a warehouse is no easy task, but it can get particularly onerous when your hands are tied behind your back.
But that’s exactly what happens when you expect a warehouse management systems (WMS) to perform as expected without fully tapping all of its functionalities.
“From what I’ve seen, the average operation uses no more than 65% of the functions available in its WMS,” says veteran logistics and warehousing expert John Hill, a consultant with St. Onge Co.
In some cases, he adds, logistics and supply chain professionals start out with good intentions to fully optimize the WMS, only to back off that gas pedal once the software is installed and in use.
While some companies do a reasonably good job of implementing WMS, they don’t always maintain the same enthusiasm or zeal that the original implementation team brought to the party, so to speak,” says Hill.
The good news is that there are ways to bring out the best in your WMS without having to invest more money in the system.
Over the next few paragraphs, we’ll look at the basic functionalities that WMS handles and show you five new ways your software can make your warehouse operations work better, smarter and faster.
Importance of Getting More
At its core, WMS gives warehouse managers and staff a centralized system where numerous tasks can be initiated, carried out, tracked and monitored using a desktop, laptop, tablet, mobile device – or a combination of all four.
Under the overall umbrella of controlling and tracking the transfer and storage of materials in a warehouse, WMS handles tasks like receiving goods, tracking inventory, efficient product slotting and storage, and labor management.
By automating processes like picking and shipping – and ensuring that the right items are delivered to the right recipients and at the right time – WMS helps companies improve overall customer service. The latter is a particularly important point in today’s omni-channel distribution environment, where e-commerce orders must be fulfilled quickly, efficiently and accurately right down to the individual item level.
Now, just because WMS can handle all of these tasks and more doesn’t mean that the operations running them are fully leveraging these systems. As Hill points out, nearly 35% of the typical capabilities of a WMS go unused on a daily basis – a fact that can keep companies from realizing ROI goals from a piece of software that usually requires a fairly substantial investment in both time and money.
“If you’ve done your homework, developed clear and understandable requirements, and you’ve come up with a checklist of what you expect from your WMS and how you expect it to perform, then getting the most out of your system really shouldn’t be rocket science”
5 Key Capabilities to Explore
When developing that initial WMS “checklist,” Hill says that managers should go beyond just a page or two of basic requirements. In fact, depending on the level of detail required, he says the document can run up to 200 pages in length (or longer), and should include real metrics that speak directly to the company’s key decision makers.
Following are five capabilities that you won’t want to overlook when laying out the expectations for your WMS and using it on a day-to-day basis.
- Address e-commerce management challenges: As the struggle to find the best possible distribution strategy for traditional and e-commerce shipments continues, companies are turning to WMS to help solve that issue. “Storing, managing and fulfilling e-commerce within the four walls of the warehouse is a pretty aggravating topic for some operations right now,” says Joe Vernon, senior manager, North America supply chain technology for Capgemini. “This is also an opportunity area for the company that figures out how to efficiently manage the flow of goods, sync their inventory, and balance demand loads – all of which can be enabled by a robust WMS.”
- Improve wave picking: WMS can help companies hone their wave picking processes (i.e., where employees group orders into “batches” and then make a single pass through the warehouse to collect all of the related items). “Right now, there are a lot of rules being built into the software that allow shippers to be more creative about how they handle wave picking,” Vernon points out, “but you have to spend the time to learn how to do it.” To overcome this challenge and make the best use of WMS wave picking support features, Vernon tells companies to do regular (every year or two) optimization tune-ups. “Have someone come in, look at what your system is doing and what it could be doing,” says Vernon. “Then, look at how the WMS can help optimize tasks like sortation, particularly if your company is challenged in that area.”
- Maximize analytics and metrics: Your WMS records and stores a lot of data on a daily basis, but are you getting the most out of this information? Probably not, says Hill, who sees WMS metrics capabilities as one of the system’s strongest points in today’s data-centric business world. Hill cautions logistics professionals to focus on their own operations and benchmarks, instead of always trying to figure out what the competition is doing. “Even if you’re serving the same vertical market, using the same sized yard, and shipping in the same volumes, there are going to be nuances from one shipper to the next,” he says. A better use of WMS metrics, he adds, is to use the information to set internal standards and to justify new technology and equipment investments – bar code readers or conveyor systems. Then, once those investments have been made and the associated equipment put in place, your WMS can help measure improved performance levels and ROI. “Once things have been up and running for a little while, you can see whether you’re obtaining new performance levels from the WMS, doing a good job of spotting trucks at the back door, or enabling your customers to schedule their vehicles for DC pickups,” says Hill. “In most cases, these WMS analytic capabilities are available right out of the box.”
- Maximize the people factor: Any software system is only as good as the people who use it on a day-to-day basis. As Hill pointed out earlier, in many cases the “champion” who spearheads a system’s installation and implementation may not always be around long enough to see the solution used to its peak capabilities. For this and other reasons, Hill says that companies should always get their managers and employees involved in both the early and ongoing stages of WMS use. Recently, for example, he was called upon to visit a company where a new warehouse manager – not the one who was there during implementation – was frustrated by the performance of his WMS. In complaining that the solution wasn’t properly handling the data related to task completions, the warehouse manager told Hill: “We’re not a bunch of clerks here. Our job is to move goods, not do data entry.” This is just one example of how human intervention can affect an operation’s ability to truly optimize its WMS. “People really do make a difference,” says Hill, “and not just the employees who are out on the floor doing the work and using the WMS.”
- Leverage the mobile revolution: As more companies integrate mobile devices and applications into their day-today activities, WMS vendors have stepped up to the plate and folded more mobileenabled capabilities into their solutions. Hill points to Manhattan Associates and HighJump as two of the companies that are making strides in this area right now. “No matter where I go, I’m hearing about new applications being developed to allow pickers and other warehouse workers to use their smart phones with iOS or Android applications,” says Clint Reiser, research analyst with ARC Advisory Group. “Particularly with Android, the hardware that runs these apps can be very affordable.” As an added benefit, most employees are already using smart phones in their personal lives and can “get up to speed very quickly.” This last point is particularly important for seasonal warehouses that use a high volume of temporary workers. “A lot of logistics managers are looking to leverage these and other capabilities that are being made possible by modern mobility in the warehouse,” says Reiser.
There’s More to Come
As he looks to the future, Reiser expects WMS vendors to come up with new ways to make their solutions an even more integral part of the warehouse and DC. He points to continued integration with distributed order management (DOM) and the increased use of graphical user interfaces – visual ways of interacting with a computer using items such as windows, icons and menus – as two of the newer developments within the WMS space.
“Manhattan, HighJump and JDA are three of the vendors that are finding new ways to give warehouse managers ‘quick glimpses’ of different metrics, and helping them drill down on areas of specific interest and initiate actions as needed – like moving labor around or releasing waves,” says Reiser.
“With these user interface improvements, operations will be able to better leverage their WMS’s analytical capabilities.”