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I recently conducted a private seminar for a client and the topic of cycle counting came up. I was giving my standard talk about when to count and how many items to count to stay on track when I happened to glance over at the operations manager. I could tell that he was having a tough time grasping the timing and labor allocation required to perform a solid cycle count. It’s not uncommon for this to be a difficult sticking point within a company. His company has grown substantially over the years and the number of employees in the warehouse directly reflects that growth. Before I totally lost him, I asked, “Have you ever considered a second shift or at least staggered the one you have?” He slowly started to nod his head and I could see the wheels beginning to turn.

The operations manager had been toying with the idea of splitting up the shift for a great deal of time, but he was struggling with the justification and logistics of this operational change. As the company grew, it had to add a significant number of warehouse employees to keep pace, but its physical space did not grow with the escalating number of transactions. When a company keeps adding employees to maintain pace with the activity volume, there will eventually come a point of diminishing returns. With all of those people and equipment moving around the same physical space, the potential for mistakes and workplace accidents increases.

This is a fairly common problem with clients I have worked with over the years. They want to implement solid practices, like daily cycle counts, into their operations but can’t get past the constraints of the standard work day. By splitting the team into shifts, an organization will start to see opportunities for improvement projects it has always wanted to implement.

There are many ways to split up a warehouse team. I have worked with clients who have two or three distinct shifts in the warehouse. While this is more common in a distribution center environment, it can work well in a large selling branch. More commonly, companies create overlapping shifts designed to extend the workday. Both of these solutions have their advantages, but the warehouse works more efficiently outside the hours of the traditional ordertaking work day. Those companies that have come to this realization can attest to the amazing things that can happen in the few hours after the phone stops ringing. Without interruption, warehouse magic occurs.

If your company’s normal business hours are 7 a.m. to 4 p.m., consider splitting the crew up into two shifts. The early team might start at 5:30 a.m., take an hour lunch break and wrap up at 2:30 p.m. The swing crew might start at 11 a.m., take an hour meal break and wrap up at 8 p.m. The three-hour overlap provides the manager with an opportunity to allocate resources where they are needed most on any given day, such as a large truck shipment or a special order that requires greater attention.

Over the years, I have discovered that the real benefits of a split shift emerge after the closing bell. Once the sales team clears out, the efficiency level in the warehouse starts to ramp up. Extending the workday can result in thorough business closure. Rather than leaving loose ends for the next day, the team has the time to bring operations to their logical close. Workers can put away what has been received and pick what has been printed. The team can come really close to the “day’s work in a day” ideal.

As far as an activity schedule goes, there are several ways to put one together. I have one client that serves as a distribution center for its retail locations and handles all online order fulfillment. This company has chosen to process transfers in the day and customer orders in the evening. Splitting these functions has produced more rapid fulfilment and time for quality control. Order mistakes are almost non-existent and customer satisfaction has improved. I have seen other companies do just the opposite. They fill orders during the day and put away, count and transfer orders in the evening.

The company with which I recently worked should consider conducting cycle counts before the doors open, processing orders and receiving product during the bulk of the day and stocking shelves or stage orders for morning delivery in the evening. If its vehicles are secured, it should consider loading orders by route for the drivers. Task allocation really comes down to priority and external logistics. I would try to schedule activities with the greatest attention to detail for those hours outside of the traditional working day.

When pressed for an answer, I generally tell people that this kind of operational change is an option once you have eight or more employees in the warehouse. It could work with less employees, but I don’t like to see a situation in which an employee winds up working alone as too many bad things can happen. One of the biggest barriers to implementing the split-shift concept is supervision. It’s very important to pick a solid team leader for each shift as this person will have access to the building when a majority of the management will be out of the office. Creating an operational checklist is one of the best ways to make sure the building is properly opened and closed. Many branch managers take pen to paper or fingers to keyboard and create a detailed opening and closing checklist. This goes a long way to ease the apprehension associated with giving away keys to the building.

As an organization grows, its activities and projects multiply. Constraining it to the eight or nine hours typically associated with the business day creates continual frustration and ultimately results in lack of efficiency. Do yourself a favor and consider what a split shift would do for your warehouse. If you need help getting started, I am just an email or phone call away.