Warehouse operators are understandably cautious about adopting new technology. Move too fast and they risk investing in technology that never delivers on its promise. Plus, many have experienced technology implementations that disrupt warehouse operations or face internal resistance that undermines their value. In short, the risks too often are perceived to outweigh the benefits.
Now, however, that is changing as the continuing labor shortage creates more urgency around warehouse productivity and key technologies have matured to the point where they can be deployed with minimal risk and almost immediate benefits. One technology that has reached this tipping point is forklift fleet and operator management.
This was recently demonstrated by Kane Is Able (KANE), a leading 3PL with 6 million square feet of warehouse and distribution space in all major U.S. markets. Driven by the goals of enhancing productivity, safety and accountability, the company successfully implemented Crown Equipment’s InfoLink® forklift fleet and operator management system in one of its busiest distribution centers.
Not only did the implementation deliver almost immediate benefits, it was accomplished with zero disruption to ongoing operations. Here are eight best practices that led to that success.
1. Define Clear Goals
“Our primary goal is always safety – every day and on every shift,” said Jerry McMyne, director of operations & support at Kane Is Able. “That goal is closely followed by increasing the productivity of our associates and assets. We have a culture that emphasizes safety first and we believed the increased accountability a forklift fleet management system provides could ensure every vehicle is properly inspected prior to operation and that management is aware of every impact.”
These objectives gave the initiative a clear focus that paid immediate dividends. By monitoring forklift utilization, the company was able to right-size the fleet at the distribution center where the system was implemented, allowing 25 percent of the forklifts at that site to be moved to other locations. The company was also able to improve operator productivity and saw a significant reduction in damage to racks created by forklift impacts.
2. Listen to Everybody
While the material handling team at KANE championed the adoption of the forklift fleet management system, the company culture encourages collaborative decision making in which everyone gets a voice. “We take our time and do our research,” said McMyne. “We tend to involve everybody in decisions, from the CEO to forklift operators, so we get a variety of viewpoints before we move forward, and everybody understands the process before it is put in place. ‘Avoid surprises’ is part of our company’s guiding principles, called the KANE Code, and that applies to warehouses changes as well as it does to our approach to customer service.”
3. Think Ahead
The fleet management system uses telematics-based devices integrated with the forklift to communicate data on the health, performance and utilization of equipment to a central management system. While the devices can be retrofitted on existing trucks, implementation is simplified when the trucks are already prepped for the technology. When KANE recently refreshed its forklift fleet, it ordered InfoLink-ready forklifts even though it hadn’t yet made the decision to implement the technology. “We want to continue to evolve our operation and make decisions that support our long-term goals,” McMyne said. The company had also recently standardized on two models for their reach trucks and one model for pallet trucks to provide greater operating flexibility across its clients. This standardization made it possible to fully leverage the asset optimization capabilities of the new system.
4. Partner Smart
As a 3PL, KANE views their relationship with customers as a partnership and made sure customers were comfortable with the implementation plan. They also selected a technology partner with experience, proven processes and local support. “We felt comfortable with Crown because they had a process, they were prepared, and they put in the time,” said McMyne. “They treated us the way we treat our customers.”
5. Pilot Meaningfully
Like many companies, KANE chose a limited deployment for its initial use of the technology. But it chose one of its most demanding distribution centers for that deployment. The almost one-million square-foot facility in which the fleet and operator management system was installed is one of the company’s busiest, featuring a mix of narrow aisle and bulk storage space. “We chose the environment where we could derive the most value from the technology, not the easiest one,” said McMyne.
6. Be Prepared
One of the biggest keys to the success of the implementation, according to McMyne, was the advance preparation. “Crown had a very detailed process, which included extensive communication between our team and theirs,” McMyne said. “They worked in a way that didn’t affect our operations at all and once we were ready to go live it was very fast with zero hiccups. That gave everyone involved a lot more confidence in the system. I can’t overstate the importance of the prep work that was done in advance of activating the system.”
7. Engage Operators
“This system was the focus of our stand-up meetings prior to every shift for the first two weeks after it was installed, and Crown had a representative at every meeting,” McMyne said. “That gave our operators a chance to ask questions based on their experience with the technology. We had a few operators who were a little resistant, but we explained to them that our goal wasn’t to look over their shoulder but to help them, so they could finish their shift on time and not have to work late. Those operators turned out to be the biggest advocates of the system.” McMyne went on to explain that for most operators, particularly younger ones, the addition of the management system was seen as natural. “They are using technology in every area of their life so why wouldn’t they use it at work? We believe the system makes us a more attractive work environment for forklift operators, which are becoming harder to find.”
8. Act on the Data
It’s one thing to have data on operator productivity and safety and another to use it. McMyne and his team made sure they were using the data to investigate impacts when they occurred and understand why some operators are more productive than others. One surprising finding: the most productive operators were often the messiest, leaving shrink wrap and other material behind in the aisles for others to clean up. After that was corrected, those operators remained the most productive, but were no longer negatively impacting the productivity of others.
By leveraging a strong corporate culture, meaningful partnerships and sound planning, KANE was able to implement a forklift fleet management system across more than 60 trucks without disrupting its ability to serve customers. The company optimized the utilization of forklifts in the distribution center, allowing it to re-locate assets to other locations that needed them. They also experienced a significant reduction in impacts, and improved operator productivity to reduce the need for extended shifts.
While warehouse operators are smart to move cautiously when it comes to new technology, forklift fleet and operator management is one technology whose time has arrived.