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You know better than anybody that the layman would probably never believe how complicated distribution center management can be. Excelling in this sector requires an eye for details as well as the ability to balance business needs with the needs of the human element within your organization. Below are 12 distribution center best practices and other ideas to help you look for ways to make your operations and work environment sing like the well-oiled machines they are.

1. Make Safety Part of Your Culture

There are other considerations to which we might be tempted to give top billing, but safety is the only one that makes the cut. It’s simply not something you can take for granted.

If nothing else, your workers should never feel like you have unrealistic expectations of them. Order picking and distribution of any kind is a time-sensitive business, but when workers feel rushed, corners get cut — and that’s when injuries happen.

2. Prevent Theft and Encourage Whistleblowing

Speaking of your team, trust might feel hard to come by. Unfortunately, you might have problems with inventory shrinkage that you don’t even know about and won’t have to face until an order picker comes up short, and one of your customers has to look elsewhere. Your work environment should assume a “trust-but-verify” approach when it comes to theft and fraud.

3. Ask Your Vendors for Insight

Your vendors can provide a wealth of information you didn’t know you needed or even had access to. Who manufactures the skids you use each day? How about the racking and the machinery? There’s a good chance something in your facility isn’t being utilized to its full potential. Strengthening partnerships and information-sharing with the OEMs you rely on could prove to be valuable.

4. Reconsider Operational and Facility-Related Needs

There may be times of the year when your operations are taxed beyond capacity. In times like these, you should take a close look at your building and what you require of it at any given time of year.

Thinking this way can yield new ideas that might relieve operational disruptions, seasonal fluctuations and more, such as using narrower racking in portions of your warehouse where you store slower-moving merchandise to make more room for critical operations.

5. Take Preventative Maintenance Seriously

If we can help it, we don’t wait until something goes wrong with our bodies to seek out a doctor. The same has to be true of the machines we work with daily. Each piece of equipment should have an operational and maintenance checklist for the user to complete before each time the machine is powered on. It’s not just a safety concern — you’ll also be able to anticipate downtime by becoming aware of mechanical issues as they develop.

6. Technology Implementation

Technology is practically in our blood these days. If your piece of the operation is of sufficient size, you need to be thinking about what emerging technologies can bring to the table. Consider the aforementioned question of maintenance, for example. Some machines these days can keep an eye on their own innards and alert you when a part is close to the end of its operational life.

And that’s just the beginning, really. We’ll never tell you to add technology for its own sake, but if it delivers peace of mind for asset tracking in the nuclear industry, it can work for you, too.

7. Collect Data Automatically

The more you can eliminate sources of human error — such as taking notes on scraps of paper — the better off you’ll be. This part of the distribution center best practices concerns the automated collection of key data in your operations.

The benefits of using small pieces of technology such as RFID tags and barcodes are clear: They save on labor and lower incidences of error. Any type of data you rely upon for operations should be as easy to read, record, and account for as possible.

8. Reduce Changes of Custody

In an ideal world, products would simply vanish from the assembly line and reappear wherever in the world they happen to be needed. Since that’s not possible yet, we need to consider the next-best thing:

Reduce the number of “touches” your operation requires.

Reducing touches in shipping might mean your pickers “pick” to a shipping receptacle instead of an intermediate carton or tote. Ironing out small incidences of duplicated work requires some imagination, but it’s worth the effort.

9. Strive for Simultaneous Deliveries of Multiple-Part Orders

Nobody likes having products sit on the dock for longer than is required. You should be looking for ways to ensure multiple portions of a single order arrive at your dock as closely as possible — simultaneously if you can manage it. Imagine the benefits of moving freight from one truck to the next without first having it sit in limbo on your floor.

10. Take a Hands-on Approach to Returns

If you oversee a warehouse, it’s in your best interests to take a hands-on approach when it comes to returned merchandise. Why? Because doing so will give you a clearer understanding of what’s coming into your facility and what’s leaving it. You’ll know which products can be turned around and resold, which ones need to be reordered and whether you have products sitting around that could be repaired or disposed of.

11. Ditch Inventory for Ongoing Cycle Counts

We’ve all sat, stood, and squatted through the long after-hours drudgery of a full inventory count. Technology may finally have delivered us from this tradition. Hand scanners and barcodes are just one way you can implement an ongoing cycle count instead of relying on quarterly or annual inventory counts. Some companies still do both, but many facilities may find that they can phase out “doing inventory” altogether.

12. Don’t Take Anything for Granted

Even today, distribution managers are sometimes tempted to hit the cruise control button and then assume things won’t change. But the truth is, your operation won’t survive unless you’re constantly reevaluating what you’re doing and how you’re doing it in a greater context. Corporate forecasts change fast and consumer habits change even faster. If there’s something you can do today that will reduce effort or complication next week, don’t wait until then to consider it.

In fact, the world changes fast enough these days that even the smallest alteration to our business operations, habits, practices, and ethics can bring about consequential changes. Operating a distribution facility isn’t just another job — it’s a role that makes modern life possible.