Practical Ecommerce

How to Reduce Picking and Packing Errors

The picking and packing of ecommerce orders can be repetitive, mistake-prone work. But a well-designed workflow, using complementary software, can help reduce mistakes, provided that it supports the employees doing the work — not frustrate or hinder them.

This article will explain how to design a picking and packing process to reduce errors.

Designing the Work Flow

One of the most effective methods of eliminating errors is the Japanese idea of “poka-yoke,” which involves designing workflows to eliminate errors — not relying on the operator to do it. An example is the three-pin electrical plug. It could have been designed with three symmetrical pins in a circle, or three pins in a straight line. But both require thought and care to plug in correctly. The actual design uses three non-identical pins arranged in such a way it is impossible to get wrong. It requires no thought to use.

We use this principle in our fulfillment centers by barcoding all our storage locations. Our software won’t let an operator continue with a pick until he or she has scanned the correct location, forcing the operator to be in the right place before receiving the product details.

By placing barcodes on storage locations, a warehouse employee must first get to that location before he or she receives additional picking details, such as the product name and the quantity.

By placing barcodes on storage locations, a warehouse employee must first get to that location before he or she receives additional picking details, such as the product name and the quantity.

Less Text, More Images

We also use images to reduce eye and mental fatigue. The human brain does not typically work in a linear fashion, which is why humans often find maps or graphs preferable to wordy descriptions. An overload of text is likely to cause stress, a lack of interest, and poor productivity.

Much research has been carried out into the use of data visualization. Presenting tasks visually — versus text based — uses 20 percent less brainpower. By providing a highly visual interface — diagrams, photographs and visual cues — operators experience less fatigue, suffer less stress, and generally have both a higher pick accuracy and productivity.

For example, when packing complex orders containing multiple items, we break it down into stages and show a photo of one item at a time to pack, then the next and the next. It’s like a supermarket checkout in reverse. This means there’s only one visual clue to concentrate on getting right, rather than a list of many items at once.

Through visual interface, the brain receives the information in the most efficient way possible. The unused mental effort can be applied to special details, further reducing errors and giving the worker a satisfaction afforded from mastery. We present simple visuals initially, with more data provided as it becomes necessary — building information up slowly rather than expecting the operator to digest it all at once. We present screens in stages that follow from each other like a story, rather than a complex list of actions in a list.

There are many ways this type of interface has been implemented. This includes pictorial illustrations indicating the shelf location the product is likely to be on — rather than simply offering a numbered location — and using product photography to aid identification.

While a diagram of a shelving rack with an arrow showing the product’s location might seem imprecise and inaccurate, this method is faster and more reliable than providing a command such as “find shelf 5C-23.” The use of color and shapes can also be used in preference to numbers. Again, finding a red triangle is easier than finding, say, 5C-23 — amid many similar looking numbers.

Many Legacy Systems

The technology required to do many of these principles isn’t complex. But few merchants use these techniques, due presumably to lack of awareness or thought, and a reliance on legacy systems. Portable computers with a color screens and resolutions suitable for graphics are now readily available. But much of the software used in the fulfillment sector was written before such equipment was affordable.

Replacing older handhelds, or even paper, with tablet PCs is quite simple. Adding new modules to the existing picking and packing software is usually possible too. What isn’t so easy is changing the whole picking and packing process to one that allows a different way of working, one that involves lots of small updates rather than a single completion step.


James Hyde
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Comments ( 6 )

  1. Carlos Rivera August 10, 2012 Reply

    Work flows are important, especially when picking and packaging. It only takes one small mistake to ruin the sale and loose a customer. Shipping accuracy is CRITICAL!

    I have my own method of chaining tasks together to reduce errors and repetition complexity. Works pretty good, but you should expect an error every now and then.

  2. CJ August 13, 2012 Reply

    This is an excellent article. Many fulfillment centers seem almost scared of using new technologies, due to perceptions of increased cost or just plain ol’ laziness. What many people don’t seem to realize is how simple steps like the ones listed above, or small investments in new technologies can dramatically increase revenue in the long term.

    Fusion Fulfillment
    http://fusionfulfillment.com/fulfillment

  3. Steven Sashen April 2, 2013 Reply

    I’m looking for a good pick and pack software solution. My fantasy:

    Our shopping cart software prints a bar code or QR code representing the TOTAL items of an order on the packing slip.

    We scan that code, and then go to the shelves… if we add an incorrect item, the scanner alerts us. Ideally, the scanner (droid device?) shows images of the items in the order so you can see what you may have missed. Once we complete the order, the scanner alerts us.

    Any help?

    • Janna Skinner October 31, 2013 Reply

      Hi Steven,
      I just came across this article today and thought I’d provide a solution to what you, Jonathan, and Steffan have been looking for (and may have already found!). SalesWarp is an eCommerce Management Software that has pick and pack functionality built into it. SalesWarp integrates with your shopping cart and your warehouse to help you complete the fulfillment process from one system. When an order is received, you process it through order steps within SalesWarp. It creates a pick and pack slip for you, you scan the barcode on your screen and then scan each item on the slip. If you scan an incorrect item SalesWarp will notify you of the error. Once all items are scanned, this order step will be complete and you will advance to the next order step. We support all USB barcode scanners and phone scanners. This is just a very small function of our entire system, but worth looking into if you are in need of help in order, product, inventory, or customer management as well. Feel free to take a deeper look http://www.saleswarp.com/products/comparing-platforms/ or email me to get in touch. Thanks!

  4. Jonathan Cyr June 17, 2013 Reply

    @Steven Sashen did you ever find a solution? I too am in need of a similar solution. Although I’d prefer an iOS scanner. :)

  5. steffan12 June 25, 2013 Reply

    @Steven Sashen, I to would like to know if you found a solution or have made progress in finding one, we seem to be looking for the same system, any help gratefully received Steven.

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