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Getting lean (but not mean) in your warehouse operation

cover for lean warehousing book

Sure, we’ve heard all the talk of lean manufacturing, but what about lean warehousing? I’ve been in facilities that have straightened production lines in pursuit of lean principles, and those lines included storage factors and materials handling, but I’ve never seen it specifically done in a distribution operation. Many warehousing operations have probably applied aspects of lean in the warehousing process, but how many have, from top to bottom, implemented a lean warehousing program?

The original concept of lean was designed for mass production of identical or similar items, so a straight conversion to warehousing, where volumes aren’t massive or standardized, isn’t a given. You can’t apply the science of lean exactly the same way, but you can definitely apply it.

It makes sense lean manufacturing is about processes that let you produce more with less, and without waste. What warehouse manager doesn’t want to do that? You can design storage areas, cross-docking systems, pick systems and shipping areas to function faster, with less energy expended and fewer labor hours used just as easily as you can a manufacturing line. The idea of lean is half a century old and is pretty much an accepted science in the manufacturing world, but it’s really starting to bubble to the surface in distribution.

Ken Ackerman’s book on the topic is inexpensive (about $59) and just 159 pages. His basic thesis is that “the ultimate goal of lean warehousing is to cut waste for a more effective use of the limited resources of time and space.” For manufacturing it is more about material waste, although you can certainly translate that to warehousing – you have utilities, labor, packaging materials, pallets, dunnage, and equipment wear. In a warehouse, you’ve got the basic trade-offs between time and space to consider. Space is limited, in Ackerman’s mind, but time is “elastic”. Using effective material handling, you can achieve the best balance between space utilization and time for your particular operation. Ackerman demonstrates how to apply lean principles to key distribution applications such as receiving, put-away, inventory replenishment, picking, packing and shipping.

If you’re more of a classroom learner, there are lean warehousing events. The Lean Enterprise Institute has classes specifically for lean warehouse operations in 2008 (the first is coming right up in Irving, Texas on 1/15/2008, while the second is a bit further out, in Pittsburgh on April 8. The seminars cost $800 and are a single day. They claim that “Exercises, real-world examples, and hands-on simulations will show you how to deploy the basic concepts and tools of a lean warehouse. Applying these fundamental elements can improve performance by 5% to 10%, reduce overtime, and improve on-time delivery to customers. You’ll also learn a process for identifying opportunities for further performance improvements through improved workforce allocation, 5S, and standardized work.”

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Scott Stone is a 23-year veteran of the material handling industry.