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Temporary Change Can Become Standard Operating Procedure

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The team at XYZ Industries ran a fairly efficient warehouse floor, often processing as many as 60 orders per day. When new people were hired for a seasonal rush, the floor manager put together a simple paper artifact to facilitate training. That temporary fix became a major boon to productivity and was adopted as SOP—Standard Operating Procedure.

XYZ Industries resells systems and components as an exclusive channel partner to a major manufacturer. Virtually all of their incoming inventory arrives on a weekly basis in a couple of major shipments. A sales team accepts orders via telephone and fax, and enters them into a software tracking system. Employees working on the floor review each order and then retrieve each item from the inventory. The order is packaged and marked for shipment. All in all, the process seemed fluid, but when a few new workers were hired, transferring the institutional knowledge presented a challenge: learning the organizational pattern of the entire warehouse.


© Flickr user Gwan Kho

Unfortunately for the new hires, many of the storage locations were historical rather than logical so understanding and adopting the system was difficult. To complicate matters, the product codes did not have much meaning, so codes such as RX-542C and RX-542K were easily confused with one another. In the end, large orders were becoming more time consuming to fill. The new workers were making multiple trips around the warehouse because they had forgotten to retrieve some item, and shipments were sometimes confused or misdirected to the wrong location. All in all, it was taking longer than expected to complete tasks, which inevitably increased the error rate. It eventually climbed to at least one bad order every week.

In an attempt to mend this broken process, the warehouse manager, Cory, came up with a clever idea to train his new staff members. Instead of having them remember the order, Cory added a report to the sales tracking system that employees were to print and carry around the warehouse while filling an order.  This piece of paper served as a checklist. It helped to increase work quality and decrease fulfillment time.

Printed documents that move around an office are commonplace in many corporate environments. In medical offices, the document contains patient data and is often called a superbill. In manufacturing facilities, the artifact keeps track of part data is referred to as a traveler. In government and academia, these documents establish authority for action and are sometimes called a change order or simply a form. As the paper moves, people mark it in predefined ways to record progress. Essentially, the artifact helps to improve productivity by showing that work has been completed.

Here’s the report Cory designed for XYZ Industries:

consultants discuss report

This document represents a tremendous improvement over the old process. Whereas before, employees would take a look at the order screen on the computer, commit the current items to memory, and then wander around the warehouse looking for products. Now, the order fulfillment process begins with printing the report and marking it accordingly per step. For example, a diagonal cross mark is used in the “Packed” column to indicate that some inventory has been pulled off the shelf. Once a secondary confirmation has been made, the initial slash is turned into an “X” as a mark of completion. The “Remaining” column states the number of items that should still be available after the order is filled, which helps employees catch inventory issues early. The “Shipped” column is initialed when all order items are packed together. Cory designed this new system for training purposes and expected to stop “wasting paper” after a few weeks. However, the document was so useful to everyone on the team, they decided to make it a regular practice. “In the two months we’ve been using it, we haven’t had a single error,” Cory explained. “That’s unprecedented.”

The story of XYZ Industries is another case of metawork. Just contemplating the nature of work—even just for the purpose of making some training materials—can have tremendous impact on productivity and satisfaction. The warehouse team is able to expedite more orders faster and with fewer errors. Doing good work not only helps the organization succeed, but helps individuals feel good about the work they do!

Cory’s form is a great start, but it’s only the beginning of possible improvements. For example, the use of the “Remaining” column could be tracked to determine how frequently the warehouse needs to conduct a complete manual inventory. This could save many person-hours each month, and is more likely to be accurate since it’s not as grueling as spending the entire day counting boxes. The design of the form could be improved as well. Since the “Packed” and “Shipped” columns are so close together, it’s easy for someone in a hurry to confirm something incorrectly. Moving the fields apart (or shuffling the form randomly) will provide a stronger incentive to be detail-oriented. Items could be listed in the order they appear in the warehouse, not the order they were placed by the customer. Presently, the process ends by re-keying order information so as to produce a shipping label; however, XYZ owns a barcode reader. Therefore, why not include a barcode on the form to increase speed and accuracy when printing UPS and FedEx stickers?

There are many more opportunities for improvement beyond this piece of paper. First, the warehouse could be re-organized so similar products are stored farther apart, which will surely reduce the chances of confusing a BX-502C product code with a BX-502D+ one. Second, with some heavy duty masking tape or paint, XYZ Industries could mark off space reserved for particular storage or work activity. With well defined zones in place, the operation becomes more defined. Just think, if there’s a mark on the floor where outgoing packages should be placed, it’s hard for someone to put a box down halfway across a line. And finally, many limitations on productivity and satisfaction happen in the sales process. For example, when an XYZ customer needs a new shipment, they either place a phone call or send in their request to the company’s fax line. XYZ sales representatives must answer these calls or pick up paper faxes, then re-enter 100% of all incoming orders into their computer system. Although XYZ Industries may eventually create an e-commerce website to allow for client self-service, in the meantime they can improve this process tremendously. Each member of the sales team could have their own private fax line at minimal cost. Optical character recognition (OCR) software that can read incoming orders is relatively commonplace. In summary: Order entry is not sales. Company representatives should spend their time talking to customers and closing deals, not typing information about the sale.

XYZ Industries took the first step toward improving productivity by creating an artifact. This was only meant as “training wheels” for some new employees, but the change had such a positive effect it became standard operating procedure. As simple as it sounds, improvement begins by thinking about work. Make your job more satisfying and more productive through contemplation, action and evaluation. Change for the better. Contact AccelaWork’s small business consultants to learn more.

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Robby Slaughter
Robby Slaughter is a workflow and productivity expert. He is a nationally known speaker on topics related to personal productivity, corporate efficiency and employee engagement. Robby is the founder of AccelaWork, a company which provides speakers and consultants to a wide variety of organizations, including Fortune 500 companies, regional non-profits, small businesses and individual entrepreneurs. Robby has written numerous articles for national magazines and has over one hundred published pieces. He is also the author of several books, including Failure: The Secret to Success. He has also been interviewed by international news outlets including the Wall Street Journal. Robby’s newest book is The Battle For Your Email Inbox.
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