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Picking Cart Pilot Leads To 20% Productivity Boost At The Cardinal Health New Jersey Warehouse

Wednesday, February 5, 2020   (0 Comments)
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Assigning an associate to pre-staging carts with picks before releasing to floor cuts gap time by 28%

Madeline McHugh, ValueLink® Supervisor in the Cardinal Health EMERGE Program Operations department, is never satisfied with the status quo. She’s constantly on the lookout for process improvements — big or small — that could yield significant boosts to her team’s efficiency and productivity.

In the Cardinal Health New Jersey medical supplies warehouse, the operation runs two shifts: inbound receiving from 5:00 a.m. to 1:30 p.m., and outbound shipping from 2:30 to 11:00 p.m. McHugh supervises the outbound shift with 16 direct reports and 34 associates. Her team is responsible for picking medical supplies to replenish a network of hospitals and other healthcare facilities.

For ten years each member of the outbound team followed the same process to get their daily pick assignments: report to a central point at the dock to retrieve a picking cart, pick up a set of labels indicating the number of items and quantities required, then place the corresponding number of required picking totes onto the cart before heading out into the warehouse aisles — armed with a hand-held, radio-frequency (RF) scanner — to pick. Once all picks on the cart were complete, the picker walked the cart to the loading dock to transfer the totes to a U-Boat cart loaded onto a trailer for delivery, then the entire process repeated itself.

“In my department the average is 70 picks per hour. In looking at ways to improve that, it became clear that a lot of time was wasted in loading the carts with the totes before heading out to pick,” she recalls. “It simply took the pickers a long time to build the carts.”

McHugh set a goal of a maximum five-minute gap time between building a cart and hitting the pick path. But associates weren’t hitting the mark.

Because the process is simple, McHugh initially wondered if the delay was due to casual chatter among the group as each picker each built his or her own cart. “My first approach was to try to motivate my associates to move faster, but that didn’t make a difference. Then, I tried loading a cart myself. That’s when I realized that it wasn’t possible to hit the five-minute gap goal with the current process.”

The issue, McHugh discovered, was congestion. With multiple pickers trying to build carts in the same area, a bottleneck had developed. For McHugh, an opportunity to pilot a different approach appeared.

Her idea? To have one associate start the shift 30 minutes early and build all the carts before the rest of the team arrived. That enables each picker to simply grab an RF scanner and a cart and go. Upon cart completion, a picker exchanges a full cart for a second, pre-staged one and returns to picking. Meanwhile, a designated associate positioned at the dock unloads picked totes from carts onto the outbound U-Boats, then re-loads empty carts with the next batch of pick totes and labels. During downtime at the dock, the associate also takes a cart out on the floor to pick.

In spite of concerns that removing an associate from picking during part of the shift to load and unload carts might negatively impact productivity, McHugh gave it a shot. As with the majority of the pilot projects she’s undertaken in the facility, she planned to only spend a month (at the most) testing the concept.

“The first day, the change was astonishing. Typically, by our first break at 5:30 p.m., we would be about halfway through loading the second truck. But, on the first day of the pilot, we were done with the second truck and almost halfway through the third by the first break,” she notes, adding that while reducing gap time was the primary focus of the pilot, she also evaluated truck cycle time as a secondary indicator of the endeavor’s success.

“The gap times saw some fluctuation in the first week because some of the pickers were resistant to the change — which is to be expected. However, within a couple of weeks, the pickers saw their productivities increasing from this process change,” reports McHugh. “With their buy-in, the gap times continued to decrease because they were no longer spending time loading or unloading their carts.”

As a result of the pilot, McHugh’s team achieved a 20% increase in productivity and a 28% reduction in gap time. Further, two of her direct reports were able to be reassigned to other areas of the warehouse. And, the efficiency boost also cut overtime hours, she adds.

“I’ve piloted many changes in my department because my management truly supports a continuous improvement mindset,” she explains. “That said, many of my pilots aren’t successful, either because they add too much complexity, or we discover that the amount of effort doesn’t make the expected benefit worth it. But it’s wonderful to work in an environment where we are encouraged to change processes — and I have the authority to make scheduling adjustments — which occasionally leads to incredible savings.”

For other operations managers considering testing process changes in their facilities, McHugh offers a few tips:

  • Get input from associates before making a change. “It helps them to take ownership as well as eases the adjustment period,” she says. “Often, associates will have their own ideas and suggestions about areas that could be improved. That feedback can be really helpful in identifying other bottlenecks.”

  • Make modifications as needed during the pilot based on associate feedback. “This helps to work out some of the minor issues as you’re refining the new process,” notes McHugh. “It may be tempting to give up but stick with it — particularly during those first few days, when changes are stressful and everyone’s struggling to adapt.”

  • Don’t be afraid to abandon the pilot ahead of schedule. “Although I plan to run each pilot for four to five weeks, if it becomes obvious after a couple of weeks that the change isn’t working or is causing unanticipated problems, I cancel it. It’s not worth negatively impacting the overall process,” she adds.