Ten Signs It’s Time for WMS: Part Two – An Incremental Approach to De-risk WMS Implementations


The leap from manual systems to a WMS can be trepidatious. However, the risks can be controlled by taking an agile, incremental, approach to implementation and by ensuring change management issues are proactively addressed.


( This article is excerpted from the complimentary report Ten Signs It’s Time to Automate Your Warehouse with WMS, available for download here. )

Agile Incremental Implementation

In part one of this series, we discussed the 10 signs that it’s time to automate your warehouse. Here in part two, we look at implementation risks and how to minimize them.

It is natural for a business owner to be wary of making the initial leap from a manual approach to a WMS, fearing the potential prospects of disrupting their warehouse, incurring large upfront capital expenses, creating a whole new system and set of processes and complexities (such as retraining their workforce), and doubts about whether the system can handle their particular way of doing business and variety of goods. These concerns are not unfounded, but they can be addressed by taking an incremental approach to implementation, properly addressing change management, using a cloud-based system, committing adequate resources, addressing data and integration properly, and ensuring that good testing is done before going live, thereby mitigating many of the risks. Figure 1 below shows how the journey to WMS and more sophisticated automation can happen in stages. Even within each of these stages, there are ways to break down the implementation into smaller pieces, taking one step at a time, as elaborated below.

Source: ChainLink Research
Figure 1 – Incremental Stages of Warehouse Automation

Note: This is not a complete list of all capabilities in a WMS and/or material handling systems. Further­more, most warehouses will not need or use all the capabilities shown at whatever stage they are at. The sequence of adoption may also vary from what is shown — a capability from a more advanced stage may co-exist with those at an earlier stage. For example, often a warehouse that has not yet implemented a full WMS may still have some material handling equipment (such as fork lifts or conveyors).

WMS, Not Just for Large Enterprises

There’s a common misconception that ‘WMS systems are only for the big boys. We’re too small to automate.’ However, there have been many developments in technology (e.g. cloud-based deployments, intuitive user interfaces) and implementation methodologies (e.g. agile implementation, industry-specific blueprints) that dramatically simplify adoption and lower the risks and upfront costs. This is not to say that there are no risks or that you don’t have to be diligent about implementation and change management. But the risk of staying with a manual approach that is not serving your business may well be much larger than the risk of implementing a WMS. If you answered yes to some of the questions in ‘ten signs’ mentioned in part one, then very likely you’re not too small to get started with a basic WMS system!

Starting Small and Quick

There is a growing trend towards more agile implementations3 of enterprise solutions. This is the ‘crawl, walk, run’ approach, starting off with the ‘minimum viable implementation’ of a solution. If there is a natural segmentation of the physical space and inventory in a DC, a company can start by doing WMS for only one segment of the warehouse or part of the business. For example, if there is a small e-commerce operation, with its own dedicated inventory, and a separate larger bulk store deliveries operation, the WMS implementation could start by managing only the e-commerce operation first. Then once that initial implementation is running well, the WMS could be expanded to manage the store deliveries as well. Another agile strategy is starting off with the simplest possible system configuration. For example, starting with two zones instead of twenty zones, or starting with a very simple set of business rules, and then building on that as you gain experience.

Change Management: The Key to Success

Source: ID 6349709
 © Endostock | Dreamstime.com

Moving from a manual paper-based approach to a WMS-driven approach entails a significant change for warehouse workers. Paying considerable attention to change management4 for the project is critical to success. It is important that workers and their direct supervisors are involved from near the beginning to get their input, help them understand why the new system is being put in, how it will impact their job, and ultimately have them fully buy into the new way. Workers should be given plenty of opportunities to discuss their concerns and give input and feedback. Always err on the side of over-communicating. Continuous communications and engaging the workforce takes time and effort but saves a lot of problems in the long run, including potential worker resistance, or outright revolt.

Creating Workers’ Trust and Confidence

An internal team with clearly defined roles and responsibilities should be formed and given the bandwidth to do their part of the implementation. This may mean bringing in extra help during the implementation. One or more warehouse workers, who are highly respected by their peers, should be recruited to be the super-users and local site champions5 involved in the discussions and design of the new system from the start. They receive training and in turn are responsible to train and help their coworkers. Be sure to allow enough time for training both the super-users and the rest of the warehouse workers before the go-live date. Training is preferably done within the context of their actual job tasks, rather than theoretical training. Advances in user interface design have made some of the modern WMSs more intuitive to use. However, workers still need to be trained on the new processes, including why things are being done in a new way, with a system that is much more prescriptive than they are used to.

Adapting to a WMS’s Prescriptive Approach

Prior to using a WMS, the environment is less structured and workers do their own workarounds as needed, making their own decisions on things like which sequence to pick items, which orders to pick, and other details. With a WMS, all these decisions are made for them. In the pre-WMS setting, workers have flexibility to manually record things after the fact. With a WMS, they scan items and locations at each step to record and verify correct execution at each step as they go. Hence, workers may think the new system is slowing them down with a more regimented process. Without proper education, they may not appreciate how much time and money is being saved both for others (reduced returns, etc.) but also for them personally in no longer having to search for items they can’t find or taking inefficient putaway and picking paths.

Getting the Needed Data/Integration and Testing

Implementing a WMS requires integrating data about incoming shipments, outbound orders, and product/package data (such as dimensions and weight). The integration of all this data needs to be factored into the project plan, since the WMS can’t do its job with incorrect or incomplete data. A system that is pre-integrated with your ERP and other systems will help tremendously in ensuring that all the needed data is there. Also critical for a smooth transition is having a thorough test plan and allowing sufficient time for testing all product flows, warehouse workflows, and integrations. Often it is the non-standard flows that get overlooked during an implementation and cause problems at go-live time. This includes how you handle exceptions such as short picks, wrong picks, substitute items, cancel order mid-pick, cancel order post-pick, before ship, and so forth. Choosing a WMS that has been pre-integrated with your ERP helps to dramatically reduce the amount of integration testing required, but you will still want to test out your specific configuration and workflows.

Additional Resources Needed During Implementation

There is no getting around the additional resources and warehouse staff’s time that is required to make the transition to a WMS. One strategy is to implement the WMS after a busy season, keeping on a few of the best of the temporary peak season staff so that the WMS can be successfully implemented during the slow season without impacting business. This approach can also reduce the risks and impact of any unexpected delays in the implementation.

Ensuring the Right Layout, Flow, and Processes

Source: ID 49290215
 © Wavebreakmedia Ltd | Dreamstime.com

A WMS system does not magically fix a warehouse’s wrong layout, poor slotting methods, and suboptimal flow and processes. When embarking on a WMS project, it is a good idea to engage an independent, knowledgeable expert who has completed several implementations before. They can not only help you in system selection, but also ensure that the critical success factors are all addressed, such as change management. That same person should be able to assess the physical layout and flow of your warehouse, your approach to slotting, and your overall warehouses processes. The physical basics must be addressed to get the full benefits of the WMS.

In the third and final part of this series, we will look at what attributes to look for in a WMS solution to help accelerate implementation and reduce risk, as well ideas on how to get started.


1 MHE = material handling equipment. — Return to article text above
2 AMHS = Automated Material Handling System. ASRS or AS/RS = automated storage and retrieval system. — Return to article text above
3 For more on Agile implementations see Agile ERP: Continuous Improvements Through Rapid, Incremental Implementations and Value Realization.Return to article text above
4 A good paper on this is Managing Change in the Warehouse: A Structured Change Management Methodology When Implementing a Warehouse Management System.Return to article text above
5 Some companies have had success in recruiting the most vocal critic of the new system as the super-user. Once convinced of the WMS’s merits, these ‘converts’ can be the best evangelists for the new system. — Return to article text above

To view other articles from this issue of the brief, click here.

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