When you’re looking to improve warehouse order picking you may initially look to technology. One of the many things the behemoth online retailer Amazon is proud of and has set the industry standard for is speedy order fulfilment. These days when a customer makes a purchase from any ecommerce business they expect that their items will arrive very soon after their order is placed. While this may be not too difficult to achieve for the bigger industry players that are equipped with sophisticated warehouse robots and other types of order picking, packing and shipping technology, for the smaller players it’s often not so easy. Smaller operators still rely on a combination of manual processes and business information systems to manage order fulfilment.

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But just because a warehouse isn’t equipped with an arsenal of automation tools doesn’t mean that steps can’t be immediately taken to speed up the order fulfilment process. When it comes to order picking, for example, for most warehouses there are sizeable improvements that can be made that will get items shipped to customers faster than before.

improve warehouse order picking

And it’s not just in the area of ‘fast order fulfilment’ that order picking improvements can make a positive impact. According to René de Koster, Professor of Logistics and Operations Management at Rotterdam’s Erasmus University,

“Measured in time and money, order picking is without doubt the most costly activity in a typical warehouse. It is also the activity that plays the biggest role for customer satisfaction with the warehouse – and in the final analysis the entire supply chain.”

Indeed the Professor is right – it is estimated that for distribution centres and warehouses order picking consumes more than 50% of total operating costs. By boosting order fulfilment accuracy and efficiency, that percentage can be brought down, leading to increased profits.

So what can you do improve the speed, accuracy and efficiency of order picking in your warehouse? Here are some tips to get you started.

Review the layout of your warehouse

For the typical warehouse, the number of aisles, shelves, racks and SKUs expands and contracts over time, sometimes without sufficient thought been given to how small incremental changes may be impacting the way people, materials and machinery move throughout the facility. It may be time to take a birds-eye-view of your warehouse layout with the aim of determining whether the existing layout is the optimal one for getting key tasks done.

When it comes time to making changes, a good place to start may be to simply grab a pen and some paper and map out the new layout.

Ideally everything in the warehouse would be set out the way that it is for a sound reason. For example each aisle should be no wider or narrower than it needs to be, and each functional area should lead logically to the next one.

A well thought-out warehouse layout will maximise the value of each square metre within your facility, increase productivity, streamline your workflow and make the picking process more efficient than it otherwise would be. We have some great tips on bin locations that can also help you improve your warehouse layout.

Place high-demand items at front

high performing stock

While restocking may be easier and quicker when goods are organised according to their SKU numbers, this can and probably will lead to inefficient picking practices. Instead, identify your most popular (and therefore fastest-moving) items and group them together at a location that is most convenient for your pickers, most likely somewhere close to your packing station.

This same rule should apply to your least popular items which, as common sense would dictate, should be stored closer to the back of your warehouse.

One method you may want to apply is to store your inventory into either category A,B or C, with ‘A’ being your most popular items, ‘B’ being average sellers and ‘C’ being your slowest moving items.

Give due consideration to ergonomics

Order picking tasks are performed most efficiently and safely when warehouse operators take a smart approach to ergonomics.

When workers have to constantly repeat uncomfortable (or even painful) movements their productivity goes down and their risk of injury goes up. And if an injured picker needs to take time off work, that’s a further loss of productivity. (And let’s not forget the potential downside of a workers compensation claim!)

Awkward picker movements that can slow down productivity and risk injury are those that involve reaching, stooping, twisting, climbing, bending, pulling, etc. Keeping the need for such movements to a minimum can be achieved when facilities store as much as their inventory as possible within the ‘golden zone’. This refers to the area of the human body between the shoulders and the waist. Items stored within that zone are easy to access and minimise strain as they do not require any bending, reaching or lifting motions.

It is not only with regards to safety that the golden zone has its place. When items are stored within that zone they can be accessed quickly and with minimal effort, leading to enhanced productivity and speedier order fulfilment.

Store items that are frequently ordered together next to each other

Just as it wouldn’t make sense for bottles of soda water to be stored four aisles away from bottles of lemonade at your local supermarket, it doesn’t make sense for warehouse items that are often packed together to be aisles apart from each other.

Particularly when it comes to fast-moving items, significant reductions in picking time will be achieved by grouping together SKUs that are sold separately but are frequently ordered together.

order picking

Avoid mixing your SKUs

When your inventory includes lots of small items, it might seem to make sense to store them all in the one location. However this is usually not a good idea as it can lead to high rates of picking error, particularly if many of the items are similar in appearance or size. Also, having a picker search through a bin for the right item can take time, thereby reducing efficiency.

A better way to go is to give each SKU its own bin, regardless of its size.

Train, and listen to your employees

For many work-related tasks there’s a right way and a wrong way to go about it. The same goes for picking. Staff who are well-trained will get the job done most efficiently, so take the time to educate employees on best picking practices as they relate to your facility. As part of this process establish some key performance indicators (KPIs) that will best enable you to set goals and measure performance in relation to them. Share those KPIs with employees so that they have a solid grasp of what’s expected of them.

When hiring new staff, try as best you can to ensure that they’re not only capable of doing the job but are also conscientious and motivated to work to a high standard. This is because often mistakes and inefficiencies occur not because the employee is insufficiently competent but because they don’t care enough to get it right every time.

It is also worthwhile to routinely check in with your employees for feedback. Oftentimes it’s the workers, not the managers, who can best identify what’s working and not working on the warehouse floor and suggest areas where productivity, accuracy and safety can be improved.

To wrap up…

You must actively look to improve warehouse order picking wherever improvements can be made. Leaving everything just the way it is for extended periods of time is a sure way for inefficiencies to creep in, causing a drain in productivity and placing customer satisfaction at risk.

The good news is that the adoption of best practices in order picking and fulfilment doesn’t require a burdensome investment in money, time or other resources. In fact, much of it comes down to simply identifying where improvements can be made and taking the necessary, and usually straightforward, steps to making them.