Can You Hear Me Now?

Although voice-directed picking may take distributors to higher logistics levels someday, operations managers should try listening to their warehouse personnel for now.

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 laugh 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 I 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: 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.

Voice-directed Picking

With voice-directed picking, you won't have workers walking through the warehouse saying, "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 U.S. warehouses for more than a decade now, and it has substantial benefits.

With voice-directed picking (VDP), spoken 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 these systems are great. As a consultant, I tell all my clients now 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.

Benefits of Voice

Many distributors want any Joe off of the street to be able to walk in and become productive within minutes — not weeks or months — no matter whether they speak English, French, Japanese or Spanish.

That's one of the benefits of voice-directing picking; 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 instruction in Spanish. Pickers who speak English will hear English through their headsets.

Another benefit to voice-directed picking is its hands-free/eyes-free use, unlike scanning technologies. Being hands-free is a big advantage. Many RF (radio frequency) devices are frequently damaged when picking pipe, for example. Eyes-free means the user is focused on the product/location and not on the RF device (while reading an instruction or keying digits) or reading a pick ticket. Hands-free/eyes-free also means fewer accidents on the job.

Eyes-free is also significant because most picking errors happen in RF and paper environments when the device is being returned to the holster. For example, the picker scans location No. 1, returns the RF device to the holster, and then looks up and picks the product from location No. 2. Nonetheless, most warehouses that utilize RF devices have more than 99 percent accuracy rates. The slight percentage increase in accuracy when converting to voice-directed picking will only have a recognizable impact on the bottom line in high-volume distribution centers — not in a warehouse with 300 orders per day.

Voice Training

Organizations have gone from 99.2 percent accuracy to 99.7 percent after implementing voice-directed-picking software. This accuracy increase is significant because it can reduce the number of errors by 70,000 or more orders per year in high-volume DCs. Nonetheless, voice-directed picking — 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-free and eyes-free if they get to the location where the item should be and the wrong product is in that location.

Industry experts will tell you the time it takes to train warehouse personnel on voice technology is much less than a paper or scanning environment. This is true, but they're really speaking in terms of training the system and not the individual. Of course, individual pickers still need to be taught the warehouse layout just as in a paper or scanning environment. And you still have to teach the picker the product just as you would in paper or scanning environment, unless you are using UPCs with RF barcode readers 100 percent of the time.

Unfortunately, very few warehouses actually have a training program. 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 cooked turkey."

During Thanksgiving dinner, the husband asked his wife's mother why she cut the legs off of the turkey before putting it in the oven. His mother-in-law replied, "That's how my mother cooked turkey." The husband slid down 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.

Benefits of Voice?

When comparing voice technology and RF scanning, productivity improvements 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 at 3.5 lines per order in an RF scanning environment, that means with voice-directing picking, an average picker could pick approximately 52 lines more per day in a voice-directed warehouse. With 10 pickers, you could reduce your workforce by one and still pull as many orders per day.

Here are a few other stats to consider, too: 55 percent of a picker's time is spent traveling to and from product locations. In a warehouse with a WMS (warehouse management system) using RF devices, pickers spend 70 percent of their time walking to the location, unholstering, key punching and reholstering. Only 30 percent of their time is with your most valuable asset — 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. 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 is. Then they begin making improvements to the layout, the training and the people. 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 start improvements that could have been made without the new software.

Can You Hear Me Now?

It shouldn't take implementing 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 importantly, 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 more quickly.

Consultants provide an analysis of the problem (what you consider complaints from your people) and provide you with an estimated return on investment for solutions to the problem (what you consider 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 if you will 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. Warehouse management systems are here for the long haul. More importantly, your people are here. You may hear what they say, but are you listening the same way you would if you were paying a consultant?