The selection of a suitable Warehouse Management Software (WMS) system is a key objective for many companies today. Properly fitting the correct software solution to the operation is critical, more so than for many other types of software. Perhaps nowhere else in an organization are business processes more unique to a company than within the four walls of the distribution center.
As we have seen, the majority of sub-optimal WMS implementations can be traced to a failure to properly define operational requirements up-front in the race to get a solution implemented. This blog series, “How to Choose the Right WMS,” outlines the steps of a proper WMS selection process. These steps make it easier to not only identify the right WMS – they also form a foundational framework for your WMS project that can save time and mitigate risk during implementation.
Step two, “Define Current State,” involves documenting the learnings from step one, “Discovery,” in a way that allows them to be used in subsequent phases. The detailed descriptions of operational requirements serve as the foundational building blocks which are used in numerous aspects of the project, right through software go-live, including: developing a Request for Proposal (RFP) for software vendors, ensuring functional alignment during implementation, developing and executing test scripts, developing and implementing a training program, and performing mock go-lives and data conversion.
Use Flow Charts Judiciously
Many companies choose to use flow-charts to document their business processes. Flow-charts can provide very useful representations of the interrelationship of process steps and decision points at a high level, and Commonwealth often uses them for this purpose. However, it is important to acknowledge that there are also many limitations to flow charts. Flow charts cannot easily represent granular details of how processes work: when too much detail is input into a flow chart, it becomes busy, hard to follow, and requires a very large piece of paper if the flow chart is printed!
Flow charts make very poor living documents. Many of the people who need to review and interact with the flow charts may not be proficient in using the flow charting software, and when processes must be added or modified, it can be challenging for multiple users to try to format the various bubbles, shapes, and arrows in a consistent way.
It is fair to point out that a purely text-based narrative of an operational process flow can also have limitations and may be hard to follow. Relationships between steps and logic branches can be hard to describe. Many companies find that the right balance here lies in creating a general outline of the major processes and logical branches using a flow chart with numbered boxes. Then, a more detailed text-based write-up can be created which references the flow chart and uses a consistent numbering scheme.
Create the Detailed Process Specification, Current State
Because of the need to re-use these process descriptions for so many purposes, Commonwealth believes that they must be documented in a format that lends itself well to editing, evolving, and re-purposing. Commonwealth has had good experience using a spreadsheet format where every detail of each step is assigned to a line on the spreadsheet. Most business workers have some degree of proficiency in using spreadsheet applications, and spreadsheets can be easily supplemented or modified without the need for extensive formatting changes. Spreadsheets can also be more readily adapted for other purposes (such as the creation of test scripts) when compared to flow charts or other types of documents. Commonwealth recommends that the following tasks be performed when defining the current state:
Create detailed descriptions of current processes using a Detailed Process Specification spreadsheet:
- Standard processes: Define the “normal” ways that the processes work 80% – 90% of the time.
- Exception processes: Define all of the various “exceptions to the rule” which take place. Where most WMS systems end up having functionality gaps is usually in the area of exception handling, so it is vital that these be properly documented.
- Common operator errors and resolution paths: Define the most common mistakes which currently are made in the distribution center, and the paths which are followed to resolve these today.
Review current processes and flag discussion items:
- Line-by-line audit: This audit is typically performed offline by process owners with a high degree of detail.
- Approval required by each business process owner: Each process owner must initial each line item on the Detailed Process Specification spreadsheet, and indicate either their agreement with it, or specify any changes or corrections which must be made.
- Discussion items are flagged: Any areas requiring further discussion are highlighted and flagged.
Review processes and finalize Detailed Process Specification for current state:
- This step takes place in a group setting in a conference room. All discussion points which were flagged in the offline process reviews are discussed in a group, and the group agrees on the final wording of descriptions for each step.
Notice Information Flow
As this process unfolds, it is important to pay special attention to the manner in which information flows to and from users:
- Do users have to read data off of a paper document?
- Must they look it up in a fixed computer terminal?
- Is it available on a wireless mobile device?
- Do users confirm tasks visually?
- Do they make written notes?
Be sure to capture the work behind the scenes if administrative staff have to key data into software systems after the warehouse work is done. Once the Detailed Process Specification spreadsheet is complete, revisit the exceptions again! Circulate the document to key staff members and ensure that no exception, no matter how small, has been left off.
Stay tuned. The next blog in this series, Define the Future State – The Third Step in Selecting the Right WMS, will outline how to design the processes which will be used in the future state of the distribution center. This is one of the most critical phases of the entire process. Can’t wait? Read the white paper, How to Choose the Right WMS – Part I: Distribution Center Process Optimization