Each year, around this time, my colleagues and I stop to reflect on the milestones that our customers have made on their modernization journeys and contemplate how we can help manufacturers, warehouse operators, distributors, retailers and others continue to drive steady progress in the forthcoming year. But I don’t believe we can fairly assess this year’s actions against the past, at least not using the same lens as usual. Nor do I think companies can move forward in the same way they have in the past. Supply chain operations have been anything but ordinary in 2020, and I’m not sure 2021 is going to be the year we fully return to a pre-COVID-19 “normal.”
The e-commerce peak season began to accelerate when the lockdowns took effect in March and could very well extend to next March (and beyond) as consumers’ preference for online ordering is growing. And the holiday shopping season arguably kicked off the moment Halloween decorations started adorning homes, which in many locales was in August – before school even resumed.
In turn, many of your best-laid plans to upgrade or expand technology systems before the peak season may have been abandoned – or at least put on hold – due to circumstances beyond your control. In fact, many of you may have spent months reacting to the quickly changing consumption behaviors and omnichannel fulfillment demands that resulted from widespread shutdowns and safety concerns.
At some point, you’ll need to go back on the offense if you want to increase your operational agility, which is really the only thing you can control right now. More specifically, increasing technology utilization to improve operational visibility and, therefore, agility is the only way to prepare your operations for any more extreme changes that customers (and, more fundamentally, the pandemic) may dictate in the coming months. After all, no one really knows for sure what’s going to happen next.
Now, you may be inclined to take a “wait and see” approach before you spend money ripping, replacing or adding technology platforms in your warehouse or distribution center (DC). It’s risky to do anything that could further disrupt operations right now. Though I would have advised against waiting in past years, it’s actually a strategy I support – at least for the next couple of months. It’s unlikely that you’ve been able to pause and assess your current state, and it’s a bit too late to start a new technology implementation right now unless you’re supplementing existing systems to support seasonal workforce expansion.
However, you need to start watching and documenting what’s happening within your four walls and throughout your supply chain today if you don’t want to be behind the curve next year.
Embrace This Holiday Season as a Teachable Moment – and Catalyst for the Future
During the peak season, you should observe and dissect every action and outcome in real time – whether positive or negative. This will help you be ready to pull the trigger on any solution implementations or process refinements needed to get your business ready for 2021…as soon as the holiday rush subsides. After all, that isn’t time for a post-mortem.
I know that may seem easier said than done for small and growing businesses, but you most likely have a wealth of operational intelligence at your fingertips already. A combination of edge devices (i.e. mobile computers, tablets, wearables and scanners) and automated data capture technologies (i.e. RFID, sensors and Bluetooth Low Energy beacons) are probably feeding valuable data points into back-end systems for analysis around the clock.
If you have the right analytics tools in place, you should be able to see how well your workers and workflows are performing. You should also be able to correlate issues with specific actions or inactions taken at certain points of time and even reconcile losses in a way that allows for immediate corrective actions and future prevention. In other words, you may not have to guess at the “best next actions” to take to get your warehouse or DC up to speed with the changing times. The roadmap for technological innovation may be clear once you take a step back and look at things from a birds-eye view.
Then again, it may quickly become obvious that you don’t have the right tools in place to do any of the above. If you’re lacking visibility in any particular area – perhaps in receiving or inventory put away – or you realize that workers are guessing which best next actions to take because they’re lacking access to real-time operational intelligence, then it becomes even more critical to strategically assess each zone to see where you must first optimize and then automate data-driven processes.
Don’t just look at dashboards on a computer screen, though. Be a drone in your own facilities. Observe what’s happening and then sit down and assess your more subjective visual insights alongside the objective data sets generated by traditional reports. From there, it should be easy to prioritize technology investments based on the largest visibility or performance gaps as well as your business goals, such as improving asset utilization to expedite fulfillment actions or create more shelf space.
Don’t wait until January to see how things went during the holiday season. Watch what’s actually happening around you right now – scrutinize every action taken by every worker, partner and even customer, not just what a computer or even a few select people are telling you. Then come up with a strategic plan of action so that in Q1, you can confidently begin to implement technology solutions and workflow refinements that will give you the agility to sustain any supply or demand shifts that may occur in 2021 and beyond. Remember, technology is the great equalizer. Customers don’t know how big your company is, thanks to technology – assuming you know which technologies can give you the means to increase responsiveness and expand fulfillment capacity without compromising order accuracy or service quality.
If you’re not sure what you need to be looking for, or you need help with this discovery process, I highly recommend you call a technology solution provider, partner or consultant to help you get started. They can help you understand what to look for so that your modernization efforts are the result of well-informed decisions and not “best guesses” based on what’s worked well for others.