Can You Hear Me Now: The True Role of Voice-directed Picking in Warehouse Management
Ren Jones - February 9, 2007
Much to my wife's dismay, television commercials intrigue me. While she wants to mute them, I want to watch them—not just for the laughs, but because they often reflect a version of reality. Who can forget the classic Wendy's commercial with the old woman at the counter yelling, "Where's the beef?" As a kid, I laughed every time I saw it.
The commercials that intrigue me now are those that extol the reliability of the Verizon Wireless network—the ones with the guy walking all over the world asking, "Can you hear me now?" Every time I see one of those commercials, I picture warehouse personnel talking to anyone in the company that doesn't work in the warehouse, such as people in sales and purchasing, or even a supervisor. Often, warehouse folks talk about ways to improve productivity in the warehouse, but no one listens.
With voice-directed picking (VDP), you won't see workers walking through the warehouse asking, "Can you hear me now?" Instead, you'll see them walking through the aisles repeating "check digits" for the location from which they are picking.
Voice-directed technology is not as new as some may think. It has been used in US warehouses for more than a decade now, and it has substantial benefits.
With VDP, verbal picking instructions come from the earpiece of a headset worn by each picker. A microphone mouthpiece then enables the picker to reciprocate communication to the wireless computer worn on his or her belt. The wireless computer, in turn, relays data to the warehouse management system (WMS).
Vendors of voice-directed systems will tell you that these systems are great. As a consultant, I now tell all my clients who are evaluating a system that the system will only be as good as the people running it. Running a warehouse is not rocket science, but the wrong people working the right system will produce the wrong results.
Many distributors want any "Joe" off the street to be able to walk into a warehouse and become productive within minutes—not weeks or months—whether they speak English, French, Japanese, or Spanish.
This is one of the benefits of VDP; it can be used by people who speak different native languages within the same warehouse. Folks who speak Spanish will hear picking instructions in their native language, and respond to those instructions in Spanish. Pickers who speak English will hear English instructions through their headsets.
Other benefits to VDP are its hands-free and eyes-free features, unlike scanning technologies. Being hands-free is a big advantage. Many radio frequency (RF) devices are frequently damaged when, say, picking pipe, for example. Eyes-free means the user is focused on the product or location and not on reading an instruction, keying digits into the RF device, or on reading or writing a pick ticket. Hands-free and eyes-free also means fewer accidents on the job. An operator driving a forklift into a rack because he or she was looking at a screen, or a picker inadvertently walking into product for the same reason are just a couple examples of accidents that can be avoided.
Eyes-free is also a significant feature because most picking errors happen in RF and paper environments when the device is being returned to the holster. For example, the picker scans the first location, returns the RF device to the holster, and then looks up and picks the product from the second location. Nonetheless, most warehouses that use RF devices have more than 99 percent picking accuracy rates. The slight percentage increase in accuracy when converting to VDP will only have a recognizable impact on the bottom line in high-volume distribution centers—not in a warehouse with a mere 300 orders per day.
Organizations generating a high volume of orders, though, have gone from 99.2 percent picking accuracy to 99.7 percent after implementing VDP software. This accuracy increase is significant because it reduces the number of errors by 70,000 or more orders per year in these organizations.
Nonetheless, VDP—like scanning—will only be as accurate as your receivers force the technology to be. It doesn't matter if your pickers have their hands and eyes "free" if they get to the location where an item should be and the wrong product is in that location.
Industry experts will tell you that the time it takes to train warehouse personnel on voice technology is much less than training them to work in a paper or scanning environment. This is true, but these industry experts are really speaking in terms of training the system, not the individual. Of course, individual pickers still need to be taught the warehouse layout, just as they need in a paper or scanning environment. And you still have to teach the picker about the product, just as you would in a paper or scanning environment, unless you are using universal product codes (UPCs) with RF bar code readers 100 percent of the time.
Unfortunately, very few warehouses actually have training programs. Most use the "follow-Jim-around" training method. The new picker is told, "Follow Jim around, and he will show you what you need to know." But how did Jim learn?
It reminds me of a story I once heard about a wife who cut the legs off the Thanksgiving turkey before putting it in the oven. When her husband asked, "Why?" she replied, "That's the way my mother and grandmother cook turkey."
During Thanksgiving dinner, the husband asked his wife's mother why she cuts the legs off the turkey before putting it in the oven. His mother-in-law replied, "That's how my mother cooks turkey."
The husband moved down to the other end of the dinner table and asked his wife's grandmother, "Why do you cut the legs off the turkey before putting it in the oven?"
The grandmother laughed and responded, "I didn't always cook turkey that way. I had a small oven and a big turkey. It wouldn't fit in the oven unless I cut off the legs."
In other words, who knows what Jim is teaching the new guy? Just because Jim is the best picker doesn't mean he is a good trainer.
When comparing voice technology with RF scanning, improvements in productivity are the biggest benefits mentioned by industry experts. In an RF scanning environment, pickers spend approximately 15 percent of their picking time using an RF terminal.
If each picker picked an average of 100 orders per day with 3.5 lines per order in an RF scanning environment, that means that with VDP, an average picker could pick approximately fifty-two lines more per day in a voice-directed warehouse. With ten pickers, you could reduce your workforce by one person and still pull as many orders per day.
Here are a few other stats to consider: 55 percent of a picker's time is spent traveling to and from product locations. In a warehouse with a WMS that uses RF devices, pickers spend 70 percent of their time walking to a location and unholstering, key punching, and reholstering their devices. Only 30 percent of their time is with your most valuable asset—your inventory.
What do these stats tell you? I hear them saying, "Focus on the layout of your facility, and don't be so quick to buy the newest thing."
Purchasing any technology for your warehouse is only the beginning of your continuous improvement process. Vendors and consultants can flaunt these statistics because warehouse logistics are continually improving. Once software is purchased, operations managers begin to realize just how messed up the warehouse actually is. Then they begin making improvements to its layout and to the training of the warehouse staff. When the vendor comes back and asks, "How is the system we sold you doing?" the response is, "Great!" In actuality, the system may very well have been the catalyst to the start of improvements that could have been made without the new software.
Can You Hear Me Now?
It shouldn't need to take the implementation of voice technology software for operations managers to begin listening to warehouse personnel. Your warehouse folks may not be as articulate as the "experts." They may not be able to quote facts and figures. But they know something more important than any industry expert, including me: They know your product. They know your warehouse. And most important, they know your customer.
A consultant is nothing more than an antiquated version of voice technology. Consultants listen to your people because you don't, and they attach a quantifiable value to the issues so they will be addressed by you more quickly.
Consultants provide an analysis of the problem (what you consider to be complaints from your people) and provide you with an estimated return on investment for solutions to the problem (what you consider to be a waste of money when suggested by your people).
Listen to Your People
Yes, a consultant can provide unbiased input, but your people are the real experts, and you would see that if you would just listen to them. Don't be like the owner who told the picker trying to provide feedback to a problem, "If I were listening, I would hear you loud and clear!"
Voice technology is going to be around for a long time and warehouse management systems are here for the long haul as well. More important, your people are here to stay. You may hear what they are saying, but are you listening the same way you would to a hired consultant?
About the Author
Ren Jones is the founder of Total Logistics Solutions Inc., a warehouse efficiency consulting company headquartered in Burbank, California (US). Jones can be reached at (818) 353-2962 or by e-mail at Rene.firstname.lastname@example.org. Visit his firm's web site at http://www.logisticsociety.com.