15 Best Practices for Optimizing Your Order Picking Operation

No matter what industry you're in, there are a number of order picking best practices to improve your overall order fulfillment. Implementing one or more of the following order picking process refinements supports higher accuracy, increased productivity, greater throughput and faster cycle times in order picking—ultimately maximizing efficiency while boosting customer satisfaction.

1. Warehouse Organization - Focus on Facility Flow

Organize your warehouse based on the order in which inventory travels through each functional area. That is, receiving to storage/putaway to replenishment to order picking to sorting/consolidation to packing and staging for shipment to outbound. Each area should logically lead to the next, eliminating the need to double back or pass through a later process on the way to an earlier one, for example. Other best practices include hanging signage to help associates quickly identify where they are and where they need to be, give them a map if they are new (or if things have changed), keep storage locations neat and organized and make sure aisles aren’t blocked or too narrow—causing congestion and slowing things down.

For More: 18 Warehouse Organization Ideas to Boost Productivity and Morale


2. Establish a Receiving Process

Be sure to establish a receiving and inspection process that includes greater visibility into shipments, their contents and their scheduling, as well as more communication with dock staff about each shift’s activities and expectations. Setting firm delivery times with shippers, establishing time-to-unload goals (and meeting them), inspecting goods and sorting, classifying and staging them for forward pick replenishment or storage, and sending those items immediately on to their destination will ensure that pickers are continuously filling orders without delay, prevent traffic jams, and improve overall throughput.


3. Utilize Bins, Totes and Dividers

Whether it’s stored in on shelves, rack or in an automated system, sub-dividing inventory with reusable plastic bins, totes and dividers makes it easier to find what you’re looking for faster. They’re particularly ideal for sorting and storing bulk quantities of tiny items—such as nails, washers, O-rings and more—while simultaneously allowing more items to be stored in the same space. When properly labeled, totes, bins and dividers reduce search time in picking, and also keep their contents clean and protected from dust, debris and damage.

For More: Bins, Totes and Dividers for Better Inventory Management




4. Reduce Walking Time

Until it’s possible to beam associates from one location to another, chances are they’re going to be spending part of their day walking from one warehouse area to the next. In addition to properly arranging and slotting a facility, other ways to literally cut steps out of the process include locating items that are frequently picked together close to each other (staples and staplers, shampoo and conditioner, etc.). Further, having associates pick orders directly into shipping cartons can avoid the need to route all picks through a consolidation zone, eliminating more travel while saving time.

5. Improve Ergonomics with Goods-to-Person Technology

The average cost of a worker’s comp claim from a back injury can be as high as $80,000. It’s a lot cheaper to take a few simple steps and create a safer, more ergonomic workplace that reduces fatigue and minimizes strains. Among them: adding cushioned floor mats at locations where associates will be stationed on their feet for long periods of time; increasing frequency of training on how to lift and handle loads; and placing frequently picked items in the “Golden Zone,” or waist-high, to reduce the risk of injuries associated with reaching, pulling, bending or stooping.


For More: Goods to Person Picking


6. Choose the Correct Picking Strategy

Choosing the right picking strategy for your operation—other than one person picking one order at a time—will speed up order fulfillment because it allows more picks to be completed simultaneously. Batch picking involves grouping several orders that contain many of the same items, then sending one associate to make a single trip to fill them all. Zone picking,  pick and pass or parallel picking, assigns different workers to different locations in a facility. They pick only the required items stored in their area, placing them into a tote that is then passed to the next step within the process. The process repeats until the order is complete. Wave picking releases orders grouped by specific criteria (such as priority or regional destination) for fulfillment, breaking work into manageable chunks while meeting outbound carrier cutoff times.   



7. Utilize Light-Directed Technology

With the addition of light-directed or voice-directed picking systems, associates can more quickly find and pick the correct item in the right quantity. Light systems, such as pick-to-light and put-to-light modules, are mounted to a pick face, put wall or picking cart. They use a combination of alphanumeric codes and illuminated buttons that light up or blink to direct the picker to a specific location. Voice systems are wearable headsets with both earpiece and microphone. They “speak” commands to the picker in his or her native language about how many of which items to pick and their location; the picker speaks back a confirmation when the pick is complete.


For More: 5 Pick to Light Technologies for Laser Accuracy




8. Prioritize Timely Replenishment

Timely replenishment of forward pick zones and fast moving, frequently picked items should be scheduled throughout the day. This prevents pickers from standing idle as they wait for an item to be restocked from reserve storage. Further, scheduling retrieval of items for replenishment into other travel activities allows an associate already heading to the reserve storage area to grab needed items without making a special trip.


9. Utilize a Consolidation Area

Operations using any form of zoned picking—where individual items for multiple orders are picked simultaneously—will also need an area for sortation and consolidation of the picks into discrete orders. This is an overlooked area that is prime for efficiency gains. This area can easily be outfitted with a combination of static and automated equipment for a boost in space savings and productivity.


For More: Improve Order Fulfillment with Consolidation


10. Continuous Inventory Profiling

Armed with insight into the speed with which individual SKUs in your inventory move and in what quantity, you can properly slot—or group and locate—the items in the right area and storage medium. Inventory is typically profiled based on velocity, meaning how frequently it is picked. The faster an item’s velocity, the closer it should be to receiving and shipping areas, while slower movers should be relegated to either distant areas or highly-dense automated storage systems.


For More: SKU Management Best Practices: SKU Profiling




11. Implement ASRS to Reduce Costs

Investing in an automated storage and retrieval system (ASRS) typically pays off in roughly 18 months. That’s because Vertical Carousel Modules (VCMs), Horizontal Carousel Modules, Vertical Buffer Modules (VBMs) and Vertical Lift Modules (VLMs) deliver a variety of cost saving benefits. Among them, each system stores inventory in a highly dense footprint, saving as much as 85% of floor space by consolidating items previously stored in static shelving—space that can be reallocated to other activities. Further, because these automation technologies work on the goods-to-person principle and deliver required picks to an associate, travel and search time are significantly reduced. This allows a single operator to complete the picks that previously required multiple associates (who can now be reassigned to value-added tasks elsewhere). Alternately, the increase in individual productivity can help compensate for labor shortages.


12. Establish a Returns Management Process

Shopping online is here to stay—and in a big way. So are returns, with roughly 33% of all products bought through e-commerce channels sent back. Therefore, establishing a process for handling those returns is critical. This should include a designated area and quality control team to receive, unpack and inspect the items, then assign each a disposition classification such as: restock, repackage for re-sale in a secondary channel, repair, return to supplier, or recycle. Introducing an automated storage and retrieval system (ASRS) to temporarily store returns before, during or after classification can help further organize and speed up the process.


For More: Improve Returns Management with ASRS


13. Integrate Scan Verification

Using automatic identification and data collection (AIDC) technologies, such as handheld or fixed-location radio frequency (RF) scanners or camera-based imagers (instead of manually keying in product codes or cross-checking SKU numbers visually) to instantly validate an item based on its barcode dramatically increases accuracy. They read codes placed anywhere: on pick lists, single units, cases, pallets, totes, and their storage positions to verify the item that the worker has picked is indeed the right item required for the order. This reduces human picking errors and speeds up (or eliminates completely) the need for a quality check later in the order picking process.




14. Pick Directly into Shipping Cartons

Instead of picking required items into reusable plastic totes routed to a consolidation or pack-out station, pick some—or all—orders directly into shipping cartons. While doing effectively requires collecting and documenting each item’s unique dimensional information in the inventory management software so the system can determine the optimal box size for the order, it ultimately saves time at pack-out and gets orders out the door faster because they can be routed directly to outbound shipping.


15. Establish Key Performance Indicators (KPIs)

You can’t manage what you can’t measure. So use key performance indicators (KPIs) and metrics to benchmark your operations and identify areas for improvement. Most order picking KPIs cover: space (footprint and capacity utilization); throughput (how many picks or orders are completed in a given time frame); accuracy (both of physical inventory and picks); and labor (the cost of the people required to perform order fulfillment tasks). The best way to start your metrics journey is to determine what to measure, how to measure it, and how often.


Fore More: Top KPIs For Your Order Fulfillment Operation


For a Deeper Dive:8 Types of ASRS Technologies  

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