Last year the Supply Chain team was given a challenge: improve outbound performance by 30% over the previous year. We started by making assumptions about our teams and practices and the inevitable happened -- nothing. We stagnated this way for a few months, then decided to go onsite to one of our fulfillment centers to dissect our processes and talk to the teams that were doing the job every day. Insert the Blitz.
What is a Fulfillment Center Blitz?
A Blitz in our definition is a fast-moving freight train of activity, like your favorite linebacker dissecting a defense. Members of our Supply Chain and Software teams collaborate at one of our fulfillment centers to:
- Identify pain points in our supply chain processes causing inefficiencies
- Brainstorm to identify solutions
- Develop new workflows and tools
- Immediately implement solutions
A Blitz concentrates on a specific aspect of supply chain workflows, such as outbound or inbound, and focuses on a single metric to improve. Our Outbound Blitzes focus on boosting the speed at which we can get products out of our fulfillment centers and into the hands of our customers. Meanwhile the Inbound Blitzes focus on streamlining the processes for receiving products from vendors and storing them in our fulfillment centers.
What does a Software Engineer do on a Blitz?
As a software engineer on Spreetail’s Supply Chain team, I participated in an outbound blitz at our Pennsylvania Fulfillment Center and an inbound blitz at our Nevada Fulfillment Center. I had opportunities to get a first-hand look at fulfillment center workflows, identify improvements in existing tools, gather requirements for new products, and work with fulfillment center team members to roll out new projects during these Blitzes.
My primary focus during the most recent Nevada Inbound Blitz was working with fulfillment center team members to roll out a new picking strategy. A picking strategy isn’t typically a part of inbound processes, but a key component of a Blitz is flexibility. All Blitz participants begin with an open mind and focus on areas where they can make the largest impact. For me, that was taking advantage of being onsite at the fulfillment center to deploy a new system that we have been developing for much of this year -- even though that system falls under outbound processes, not inbound.
The system uses a new picking strategy to cluster batches of products to pick based on their locations in the fulfillment center. The goal is to decrease the feet between items picked by a team member, therefore decreasing the walking distance to complete a batch and increasing the speed products can be picked, packed, and sent out the door. The system does this through the following steps:
- Form batches of items to pick by grouping nearby sections of the fulfillment center that are dense with picks. This is achieved using batching and clustering algorithms.
- Provide a routed path between the items. This is achieved through routing algorithms and tools.
Much of my time at the Nevada Inbound Blitz was dedicated to the system’s deployment plan composed of the following steps:
- Update the devices used in our fulfillment centers to connect to the system.
- Walk through using the new pick system with fulfillment center team members.
- Provide onsite support and quickly identify and fix bugs.
- Build tools to track picking data and compare with existing strategies.
- Gather user feedback.
- Prioritize, scope, and develop improvements from the feedback.
Each of these steps were sped up immensely by having a software engineer onsite to help with any potential issue that could have risen (I’m looking at you Murphy’s Law).
Deploying the new picking system was just one of my areas of focus on the Nevada Blitz, but it gives a taste of the wide range of responsibilities that Spreetailers can have in their roles. Two aspects of Spreetail’s mantra are “Raise Your Bar” and “Pursue Challenges.” You can expect something new every day at work -- a new challenge, a new responsibility, a new project. Even though many tasks I have undertaken on the Blitzes don’t fall under a normal job description for a software engineer, these tasks have pushed me to develop new skills and expand my knowledge of supply chain operations. Thus, enabling me to impact the business and surrounding community through more ways than writing code.
Are these Blitzes worth it?
We knew it would take a lot of time and effort to get all the stakeholders onsite together. Because of this, we made sure to track process improvement wins -- with boards showing progress, giving real-time feedback, and conducting real-time training. Here is a list of benefits we’ve observed from the Blitzes:
- Sharing knowledge across business partners, fulfillment center team members, and software engineers leading to better alignment across teams.
- New product definition, white-boarding, prioritizing, and planning.
- Sharing effective operational tactics used by a fulfillment center to others in the network.
- Guiding fulfillment center leaders and team members through new workflows and tools.
- Gaining immediate feedback from a wide range of sources to quickly develop new tools.
- Cross-departmental and cross-site team bonding.
Specifically, we observed a dramatic improvement in the quantity of labels our fulfillment centers could ship per hour as a result of our Outbound Blitzes. In four days of onsite action, the Fulfillment and Operations teams had a 30% gain in productivity. Now we are targeting similar results related to the rate at which we move product from a trailer and onto our shelves from our Inbound Blitzes.
This time around we tried something new and invited power users to our Lincoln, Nebraska office for a Software Blitz. Users were able to identify areas of opportunity for development, so we can spend more time on rollout and training while onsite. We’ve also focused on the unload process: ergonomics, flow, and backlog prevention. Dwell time is our enemy on the receiving docks and our aim is to decrease to under 30 minutes of dwell and receive at a rate of 100 cartons per hour. That’s about a 30% improvement year over year on inbound rate. By hitting dwell and rate, our products will be for sale faster, helping to increase our bottom-line impact. We want these outcomes from our first two Blitzes to be repeated again and again across our network.
By the end of Q2 in 2020, our Supply Chain teams, Software teams, and power users will have blitzed three fulfillment centers. We can’t wait to go onsite again and work with our teams to make an impact on our inbound processes over the next few months.