Training is the key to success when it comes to deploying warehouse management system (WMS) software. Experts say
new WMS products on the market are much easier to master than earlier versions and improved WMS training options abound.
"Training is not as arduous as before. The graphical user interfaces [GUIs] are better, more intuitive," said Simon Ellis, practice director, supply chain strategies at Framingham, Mass.-based International Data Corp. (IDC). Even the delivery of training has changed, he added, with more online training and voice-activated systems.
Greg Aimi, research director for supply chain at AMR Research in Boston, agreed: "There have been continuous improvements in GUIs and voice interfaces. Especially with voice, the goal is for hands-free and even eyes-free operation."
Still, as easy as WMS software has become, training remains a crucial factor for a successful deployment, according to Mark Bitikofer, programmer analyst from Hy-Ko Products, a Northfield, Ohio, maker of consumer signs.
Hy-Ko is a leader in its industry. It produces and ships close to 4,000 different low-cost items -- mainly signs and numbers -- within its warehouse environment and sells to many of the largest North American hardware, home center, grocery, drug and mass merchandise chains, including Wal-Mart.
How to prepare for WMS training
Knowing that it was moving from a long-entrenched paper-based system to an electronic, wireless system, Hy-Ko was prepared for the training challenge. "I came from the software side, so I knew what was involved," Bitikofer said. "You need thorough user training. That's the key to making or breaking a WMS project."
Bitikofer knows from experience. The first day he walked in the door, the new WMS project was unexpectedly dropped on his desk. Hy-Ko needed a modern WMS because the challenges associated with printing, distributing and keeping track of the huge number of paper pick tickets had become overwhelming. The paper-based system was limiting the company's growth.
After a lengthy review process, the company selected PowerHouse/WMS from Quality Software Systems Inc. (QSSI) along with the Psion Teklogix 7535 handheld computers and a Cisco wireless backbone. Bitikofer, the new hire, had walked into what amounted to a radical change in the warehouse operations, not just a new WMS.
What followed Bitikofer's arrival was a phased rollout of the new WMS in conjunction with a move into a new warehouse facility.
The first phase of the WMS implementation focused on products shipped to its biggest customer -- Wal-Mart, one of two types of customers -- large retailers and consumers -- that are directed to the nearest Hy-Ko retailer. With Wal-Mart working, Hy-Ko ran more tests and rolled out the WMS to accommodate shipments to all customers.
Mobile devices make WMS software selection easy
At the same time, warehouse staff had to get used to working with the mobile handheld devices instead of pieces of paper. Often, these kinds of changes generate resistance, but the Hy-Ko staff took right to it. For the first time, they had all the necessary data at their fingertips, letting them know what to do and where to go to fill their orders. "With the handhelds, people can now pick straight to the box," Bitikofer noted, eliminating the manual order separation and repacking process.
To get everyone trained, Hy-Ko used an experienced consultant and trained users who amounted to super users. The super user would train other warehouse staff. Years after the initial deployment, the company still employs super users for training. "When a new hire starts, a super user takes him around one-on-one," Bitikofer said. Workers learn both picking and packing.
When deploying a new WMS, change management is always necessary, analysts like Ellis and Aimi advise. When the new system presents a radical departure from existing practices, change management becomes essential. The experts advise beginning communications around the coming changes at the very start of the process.
As it turned out, the sales and marketing people had the hardest adjustment to the new electronic WMS. With the paper-based system, they would wander in and grab samples when they needed them. The new WMS wouldn't allow that. "Now they have to put in an order," Bitikofer said.
Looking back on the new WMS deployment, Bitikofer said he would do only a few things differently. "First, you have to clean up your data, especially part numbers," he said. "We had parts with duplicate codes."
"[Second] watch out for bad data," he said. "Spend time cleaning up the data before you deploy the system."
Today the system is working well but needs to be tweaked to reflect changes in Hy-Ko's business, such as a surge in small orders. Bitikofer doesn't expect it to be a problem.
About the author: Alan Radding researches, analyzes and writes about business and technology. His articles have appeared in The New York Times, BusinessWeek and numerous technology publications and on websites such as SearchManufacturingERP.com.