Monthly Archives: December 2012

10 Tips to Make Physical Inventory Counts Less Painful and More Accurate

Warehouse Physical Inventory Count

Given the option of getting a voluntary root canal instead of physically counting inventory, many of you would likely being calling your dentist right now. Certainly, physical inventory can be a painful process, especially for the many small businesses doing their best just to get orders out the door. However, accurate inventory can help reduce a long list of problems with which many small businesses are familiar:

  • Wasting time looking for items
  • Holding extra inventory as a safety stock against inaccurate numbers
  • Avoiding orders for older items because you’re not sure you still have what your system says you do
  • Expediting reorders because you suddenly can’t find any more of the product

Below are ten tips that will make physical inventory counting much smoother, so you can quickly get back to helping your company make money.

1 – Make Inventory Accuracy a Higher Priority than Order Fulfillment

Raising the priority of accurate inventory is perhaps the most important, yet most difficult, step in inventory accuracy. Many inventory problems arise from pushing a transaction through the system with the intent of going back and fixing the numbers later. In the rush of other emergencies, however, we often forget to go back and correct the numbers in the system. This leads to missed production entries, negative lines of inventory, and a whole mess of other problems. Only by putting systems in place that will prevent an employee from moving forward without the necessary system transaction can you effectively keep accurate records of inventory.

One example of success that my team recently implemented was changing our accounting system so that it will not process any shipment that contains more inventory than we have on hand. For example, if we’re trying to ship 15 of an item, but our system says we only have 5 in stock, then an alert will pop up and force us to fix the problem before moving forward. This helps us address problems before the product goes out the door. By forcing us to address missed production entries before the product leaves, our modified system helped us eliminate most of our major inventory issues.

2 – Put Everything in a Marked Location

When the time comes to count inventory, having everything in a marked location is a necessity. Those loose boxes and stray pallets without a home are often the problems that come back to haunt you while you try to reconcile. Even if you must make new, temporary locations for the duration of the count, put everything in a well-marked and defined place, and leave it there.

3 – Reduce Inventory as Much as Possible

Do all you can to count as little inventory as possible. Whether it’s holding up an inbound shipment a couple days, or shipping extra in the days prior to the count, counting less means fewer chances for mistakes. You’ll also want to be sure to not receive or ship any product during the count, since this can easily cause discrepancies.

4 – Count Overstock Locations Beforehand

Even before the count has started, counting the overstock locations beforehand can mean much less counting on the days that inventory is frozen. Fully stocking the picking locations first, then wrapping and marking the count of overstock location can drastically reduce the stress on count day. However, be sure that if inventory is taken from the overstock location, the count tag is either removed or adjusted to the lower quantity.

5 – Be Visual with Counts

With so many people counting, keeping track of what has and has not been counted can often be difficult. To avoid confusion, be extra generous with visual labels and controls. Large count tags, bright colors, and unmistakably clear signs can save you hours of confusion later on. Especially if you are bringing in employees or temps unfamiliar with your product, erring on the side of too big and obvious can be well worth the expense. If something is not in inventory, mark it so even those with the poorest of eyesight can easily understand to not count the product.

6 – Have Someone Familiar with the Product on Every Count Team

Another problem that I often encounter is the unit of measure of items to count. Is an assortment of 24 items in inventory as 1 pack or 24 eaches? While box markings can help, nothing replaces an experienced team member. If you bring in additional people to help count, be sure to include someone who knows the products well on each team. Partnerships with one experienced person and one new work well.

7 – Be Quick and Creative with Immaterial Counts

Weighing Immaterial Items

Some small items aren’t worth the effort to count individually. Whether its tiny plastic bags, plastic hooks, tons of grain, or gallons of chemicals, physically counting out the amount is often not worth the value of the product. For large quantities of small items, a sensitive scale is the best method. Weighing out a sample and then calculating piece count from the total weight is accurate enough for an inexpensive component. For large quantities that are difficult to weigh, calculating volume by lead lines and extrapolating is preferable to simply guessing.

8 – Audit Counts Right After the Count Starts

Auditing counts are essential to ensure each team is counting the products correctly. However, if you wait until all the counting is done, you can’t do much but go back and recount whatever that team counted. Instead, auditing counts from each team soon after they start gives you an opportunity to correct any problems and train more to avoid future miscounts.

9 – Discipline Yourself to Regular Cycle Counts

As your to-do list grows, taking time to cycle count is likely to slip to the very bottom of your priorities. However, installing incentives and consequences to ensure regular cycle counts happen will not only reduce the pain of a complete physical count, but also give you more confidence in your system’s numbers throughout the year. Whether you schedule your cycle counts based on ABC analysis, items likely to have problems, or some other method suited to your business, rotating through items helps catch inventory issues before they become larger problems.

10 – Review Problems and Change

Finally, after you’ve recorded your last counts and everything is reconciled in your system, take a few minutes to reflect. Gather the team together and review what problems you encountered. What went well? What caused problems? Most importantly, what can you put in place to avoid these same problems in the future? Each small change you put in place today can save your team headaches in the future.

What other tips do you have for making physical inventory counts smooth and painless? Share your comment below, and be sure to subscribe to receive our future articles.

Before China Shuts Down, Prepare Your Supply Chain for Chinese New Year So You Can Celebrate Instead of Stress

Year Date of Chinese New year
2013 Sunday, February 10
2014 Friday, January 31
2015 Thursday, February 19
2016 Monday, February 8
2017 Saturday, January 28
2018 Friday, February 16
2019 Tuesday, February 5
2020 Saturday, January 25

The December holidays’ spike in consumer purchases often stretches the operations of small and large businesses. However, just a month afterward, Chinese New Year has a mammoth impact on Asian suppliers and customers. Consequently, any supply chain that involves Asian links, especially Chinese links, should prepare for the disruption in supply and the possible increase in demand.

Chinese New Year Length and Timing

Beginning on the first day of the traditional Chinese Lunar calendar, Chinese New Year (CNY) usually lands between January 22 and February 19. However, in order to give employees time to return home to their families, most Chinese companies close one to two weeks prior to the actual date. In addition to closing early, they often remain closed for an additional two weeks after the specific CNY date. Even after they open, factories rarely have enough employees return in time to produce at full capacity. Sometimes factories resume production with as much as two-thirds of the workforce not yet returned. Depending on the labor market, some of those employees may never return to their former job.

Chinese New Year for Chinese Employees

For employees, CNY is a welcome vacation that tops those offered by most US companies. The entire country begins to shut down one to two weeks before the big day. Travelling home can be quite difficult, often taking 3 to 7 days by train to arrive at hometowns with waiting families. Fortunately, many factories pay their workers an addition month’s pay as a bonus right before the holiday. This benefit is why some Chinese companies will ask for payment of all upcoming invoices before the CNY holiday. The managers and business owners usually do not need to return to a distant home, since their families often live nearby. Nevertheless, they will often take at least a week away from work, which essentially means email silence for at least a week, if not more, with your Chinese associates.

Supply Chains at a Stand Still

Imagine an abandoned airport with FedEx and Cargo planes scattered around the tarmac. Pilots have shut down, locked up, and exited their planes. They join their crews and head home for CNY. In a week or two, the pilots and support staff will return, and the planes will simply turn back on and continue with their deliveries. No matter how much you beg, freight simply cannot move for the week around CNY. FedEx, UPS, and DHL usually post the expected delays on their websites, so be sure to utilize that information.

In addition to airfreight delays, sea freight can get even more congested if you don’t plan well in advance. Shipments must be at port at least 10 days before CNY to ensure shipment before the break starts. Shipments must also be booked at least two weeks in advance because space will quickly fill up. If you ship a large amount around that time, then congestion will likely bump at least one of your shipments to a later ship date, often a week after CNY. Most ports open again for normal shipping about one week after CNY. Check with your freight forwarder on what advice it has to minimize disruptions and plan for the delays.

How to Prepare Your Supply Chain for Chinese New Year

Increase Inventory

Unfortunately, if you rely solely on Chinese vendors for your inventory, you will likely need to increase your inventory for the CNY season. This is the least desirable option, but often the one most companies take. Instead of shipping a huge amount of product right before CNY, consider increasing stocks slightly, and have your factory prepare a shipment to leave immediately after CNY. This can smooth out the bump and minimize the needed investment.

Consider Other Sources

Instead of buying additional inventory, look at other possible suppliers to help bridge the gap. Dual sourcing in different geographic locations, as previously covered in an article on how to avoid supply chain disruptions, is the benchmark for a robust sourcing strategy. Whether you develop a domestic vendor, or just a non-Asian option, switching to your second source for the month China shuts down may help prepare your supply chain for additional future disruptions.

Explore Other Creative Solutions

Depending on your market, you may be able to minimize disruptions from CNY by creatively approaching the problem. Later January and Early February are not traditional peak seasons for most industries. Accordingly, you may be able to offer incentives to clear out older inventory, or focus on another aspect of the business, to help mitigate CNY’s impact.

Open up the Chinese Market

As the Chinese market expands to imports, CNY may actually come to be a boost, rather than a burden, to your business. While most traditional gifts are food items, CNY spending is similar to the holiday spending in the US, and thus presents opportunities to grow sales of your product. China Daily reported that luxury import purchases in 2012 reached $7.2 billion, a number expected to grow significantly in the future. Getting your products into the Chinese market in time for CNY shipping may be just what’s needed to boost your company’s first quarter sales.

What experiences has your company had with the Chinese New Year? What other advice can you add? Share your comment below, and subscribe here to future articles.

You Should Read This Book Every Year – A Review of It’s Not Luck by Eliyahu Goldratt

If Plato and Socrates enrolled in a top MBA school, they’d likely drop out and produce something similar to It’s Not Luck by Eliyahu M. Goldratt. Written as a sequel to The Goal, It’s Not Luck uses an extended story approach to teach Goldratt’s problem-solving technique called the Thinking Process. Specifically, Goldratt shows how the Thinking Process can not only help sales and marketing revitalizing stalling businesses, but also help solve personal problems. The principles the book explores are so critical, that you should add this title to your list of books to revisit every year.

About It’s Not Luck

The book starts with a corporate board meeting in which a conglomerate decides to sell three of its companies, of which Alex Rogo, the main character, is in charge. Using the principles he learned from the Theory of Constraints, Rogo discovers unique ways to turn around each company quickly by dramatically increasing sales with no additional resources. He does this through mapping out the current reality of each company and then logically addressing the issues that keep them from truly solving their customers’ pains. An excellent summary of the problem solving method, called the Current Reality Tree, is available on a site by Jim Davis. What results from using this method is a logical formula for success. While not a prescriptive checklist, the answer is instead a set of principles general enough to carry far beyond the situations presented in the story.

Positive Impressions

This book is an enjoyable and motivating read because of its format, its broad application, and its evidence that success is not luck. Goldratt takes some rather complicated subjects and slowly spoons them out through a well-written story. While not quite Victor Hugo in symbolism, the story is engaging enough that you look forward to picking it up again. Particularly interesting is watching Alex Rogo apply the problem solving techniques to issues in his family life before applying them to business issues. Deciding whether to let his son borrow his car, helping his teenage daughter navigate boyfriend drama, and evaluating the purchase of a car to share with a friend are all canvases that Goldratt uses to paint the logic-tree method. Once introduced, the methods are much easier to follow later when they take on sales and marketing problems. The most positive takeaway is the assertion and evidence that success in business is not luck, but instead disciplined and creative problem solving that can be reproduced in nearly any industry.

Memorable Quotes

As concise snippets of wisdom, quotes have a powerful way of helping us remember important principles and lessons. Here are five quotes from It’s Not Luck that provide special wisdom.

“I can’t rely on [management] alone. And there is no point waiting for developments. I’ll have to find a way to influence them in the right direction.” p. 14

Often when we are not in charge, we rely on others to make tough choices and act. Equally often, however, we should act and make positive changes happen, even if it’s someone else’s responsibility.

“You’ll always find her busy, but never without time.” p. 58

Alex Rogo said this about his wife. She had embraced the problem-solving techniques espoused in the book and become a successful marriage counselor. This description exemplifies a constant life goal that many of us, myself included, strive to reach: busy, but always available.

“If you are constantly fire-fighting, you have the impression that you are surrounded by many, many problems.” “[But when] you follow the recipe, and you end up with a clear identification of the core problems.” p. 94-95

Referencing the problem solving techniques explained in the book, Goldratt captures the pain of constantly fighting fires. After careful analysis, we often realize that just a few root causes create most of the pain and emergencies we deal with each day. Using the 5 Whys is an excellent way to reach those problems. Incidentally, the Current Reality Tree method is closely related to the 5 Whys technique.

“It’s very important not to ignore these nasty reservations. Each one of them is a pearl, because if we do take them seriously, if we write each reservation as a logical Negative Branch, we can identify everything that can go wrong.” p.173

This quote ties precisely into another excellent quote, that problems are gold to be treasured. Without acknowledging and addressing problems, improvement relies solely on luck. Fortunately, the reverse is also true: addressing problems ensures improvement will occur.

“We didn’t have time for mistakes, so we had to spend extra time planning.” p. 265

Although I enjoy jumping into problems and live testing ideas, some extra time planning up front usually saves a large amount of pain later on. The old adage is often true – haste make waste.

Concluding Thoughts

The final pages elaborate and revise The Goal‘s key conclusion. The goal of a company isn’t just to make money. Rather, all companies have three basic goals:

  • “Make money now as well as in the future”
  • “Provide a secure and satisfying environment for employees now as well as in the future”
  • “Provide satisfaction to the market now as well as in the future”

Often, important decisions benefit only one or two of these goals. The key to building a great organization then is to find creative solutions that accomplish all three goals. Only then, can a company endure challenges and grow to thrive through them.

The business climate will only continue to grow more competitive and difficult to navigate. As supply chains grow and problems seem to multiply, It’s Not Luck reminds us in a powerful way that any challenge can be overcome. Whether you need to remember how to use the problem solving techniques explained in this book, or you just need to revisit examples of how to successfully jolt a company to triumph, It’s Not Luck is an excellent source of motivation and problem solving tools to review each year.

What thoughts do you have? Please share in a comment, and subscribe to future posts.

How to Ship to Walmart, Target, Walgreens, and Other Big-box Retailers – Part 3 of 3

Shipping to Big Box Retailers

Part Three – Shipping the Order

Congratulations, you’ve received your first order from a new big-box retailer. In part one and two of this series, I described how to bring an order into your system, pick it, and label the product properly. With all of that completed correctly, we move onto the final steps of shipping an order to the big-box retailer.

Specifically, this article will touch on whether to ship via small package or on a pallet, common customer shipping requirements, advance ship notices (ASNs), and paperwork you’ll want to keep for future reference. As with the previous two parts, this article is no substitution for your customer’s routing guide, which is the ultimate authority to any questions you have. Nevertheless, the topics below will help guide you and your team through the process and avoid many costly mistakes.

To Palletize or Not to Palletize?

One of the first major decisions you need to make when shipping your order is whether to ship via a small package carrier (FedEx or UPS), or on a pallet. If the order is large, then palletizing it is the obvious choice. However, when the order is small, that decision becomes less clear.

If the customer is paying for freight, then they likely have firm guidelines about when orders should go small package or palletized. Consult the customer’s routing guide; the rules vary widely for each customer. For example, if the order is over fifteen cases, or weighs more than 150 lbs. total, then several retailers require the order to be shipped on a pallet. However, others put the threshold at 20 or 25 cases, and as much as 300 lbs.

If you are paying freight, then the customer’s case count or weight limit often does not apply, and you can ship whichever method is cheapest or most reliable. However, several big-box stores will refuse shipments over a certain weight, even if you are paying the freight bill.

Small Package Shipping Considerations

When using small package carriers to ship, usually FedEx or UPS, you’ll want to consider several important points. First is the actual shipping label. Because small package shipments do not require a formal bill of lading, many retailers require the shipping label and packing list to include specific information. For example, the customer’s PO#, department, or order type may need to be printed into the specified fields on the label. Even if not required, entering them can help avoid mistakes at the customer’s distribution center (DC), so I recommend it whenever possible.

Another consideration is whether to band the boxes together or not. Often, banding small boxes together can save money with small carriers because they round up the package weight. Thus, two packages that weigh 4.1 lbs. each would cost the same as two 5 lbs. packages. Bound together though, the bill would charge for one 9 lb. box. While this method can sometimes save money, there are many retailers that will fine vendors that send them boxes bound together. Check with your customer, and run price calculations, to see if this method will indeed save you money, and if your customer will accept banded boxes.

Pallet Shipping Considerations

“A” Good Base

If your order is big enough, then you then have to consider the requirements for shipping on a pallet. To begin with, you’ll need a high-quality pallet to stack the product on. Most large retailers require #1 or Grade A pallets. Essentially, these are pallets in very good condition that have not experienced any damage and have all their original parts in strong, sturdy condition. Any pallets that have visible damage or missing parts are not Grade A and should not be sent to customers that require them. Some retailers accept two-way pallets (pallets that can only be picked up on the short ends, as pictured), but many require four-way pallets.

Stacking the Product – Pallet Height Limits

Once you’ve found a good pallet that will meet the customer’s requirements, stack the product on the pallet to evenly distribute the weight and support the product. Most retailers do not allow any overhang, so be careful to stack everything within the 40 x 48 inch space. As the product stacks up, you’ll want to consider pallet height requirements. Most large retailers limit how high pallets can be in order to maximize their DC’s racking space. Some retailers will publish this limit in their vendor guide, but often you must call the DC and ask what their limit is. This varies widely by retailer. The lowest I’ve seen is 55 inches (60 inches including the 5-inch pallet). Some allow as high as 96 inches. The most difficult customers are the few who have different requirements for each DC. CVS is an example of this. My team calls each DC to get a pallet-height limit, which sometimes changes. We could ship shorter pallets to all the DCs, which is what we often do, but sometimes stacking the pallet a bit higher can save us a significant amount in freight costs.

Once the pallet is built, be sure to securely shrink wrap it to protect the product while in transit. If the product is light, secure the product very well to the pallet with several layers of shrink wrap. This will prevent it from coming off the pallet when it is moved.

Some retailers require black shrink wrap, especially if the product is a high-value item. Black shrink wrap hides the product from those moving it, which can reduce theft or other problems.

Advance Ship Notices (ASNs)

As discussed in part 1, most large retailers communicate with vendors via EDI (Electronic Data Interchange). An increasing number of big-box stores are requiring  vendors to send advance ship notices (ASNs) when they ship orders. An ASN is an EDI document (EDI document number 856) that tells the customer how each order was shipped. More than just a tracking number, ASNs detail the carrier, tracking information, and ship date, as well as a detailed breakdown of how the order was packaged. Vendors usually require special ASN labels that show a serial shipping container code (SSCC-18) that is 18 digits long. These codes are unique to each package or pallet sent to a customer, and the customer’s receiving department can know exactly what is contained in the pallet or package by scanning the 18-digit barcode. One of the key benefits of ASNs is that they easily communicate such detailed information that they reduce the work load on the receiving end, as well as decrease opportunities for error. The label shown here is an example of an ASN label with the 18-digit barcode at the bottom. If your customer requires an ASN label, it will have very detailed requirements, which should further explain what you would need to put on the label. Additionally, many retailers recognize the limits on small suppliers, and many offer a free, web-based ASN system that allows you to print labels from the vendor’s website.

Scheduling the Shipment and Delivery

Preferred Carriers

If you’ve submitted routing for the order (as discussed in part 1), then you will likely receive instruction on which carrier to use. However, if you must choose your own carrier, you may want to check if the customer has any preferred carriers. Many have a handful of favorite carriers, which reduces congestion at their receiving docks and helps avoid errors from unfamiliar shipping companies. Some retailers will not accept shipments from carriers not on their approved list. Others will grant special leniencies if you use their preferred carriers. For example, if a shipment leaves your warehouse on time with a customer’s preferred carrier but still arrives late at the destination DC, some vendors will not issue a fine. Be sure to note which freight carriers to use and to implement a process that ensures only those carriers are used. Even if preferred carriers are slightly more expensive, they are often cheaper overall when considering the potential fines or issues with a problem shipment.

Delivery Appointments

Another requirement for many retailers is a delivery appointment. Usually, the trucking company handles the delivery appointment, often coordinating the delivery a day or two in advance or arrival. However, some retailers require you to call and schedule the delivery before you even ship the product. In this case, be sure to communicate clearly with the trucking company about the scheduled appointment.

Signed, Sealed, Delivered

Packing Lists and Bills of Lading

With the order correctly labeled and packaged, you’re ready to hand over the product to the freight company. Your job is almost done if you’re using a small package carrier, but you still have a few more important steps ahead if you are shipping a palletized load, most involving paperwork. The packing list should go in a marked pouch on the lead carton so that the receiver can quickly find it. In addition, many retailers will require you to put specific information on the packing list and bill of lading. Be sure to follow all these requirements to avoid chargebacks and fines.

A Foolproof Paper Trail

A common problem when shipping to large retailers is loss or damage of product when they receive it. Sometimes the product really is lost in transit, but other times the receiver may miscount your product when receiving it. When this happens, the customer will usually take a deduction from your invoice or fine you through a chargeback for the product that they did not receive. You can still obtain the money from these deductions or chargebacks if you have the proper paperwork, signatures, and information. Specifically, place a seal on the trailer and record the seal number, and instruct the driver to count your product and sign accordingly on each bill of lading. If you are having frequent problems, take detailed pictures of your loads when they leave for additional proof that you shipped the order complete. Recording all this information will help you easily dispute chargebacks or file freight claims with carriers. If you have all your paperwork in order, then in most situations you will likely receive compensation from either the customer or carrier.

Tracking the Order

The final step in the process is tracking your order and ensuring delivery. Tracking orders helps to find delays, which can often be resolved quickly by calling the carrier. Most retailers are much happier when you call and inform them that the carrier will be a day late, but that you have resolved the issue, than if they have to call you two weeks after the product should have arrived asking where it is. Once the product has delivered, print and file a copy of the proof of delivery (POD). Sometimes large retailers will fine you for shipments that arrived many months ago. To prove that you fulfilled the order, you will often need a POD. However, many carriers delete and purge their records after 9 to 12 months, so without a printed copy, you may never be able to prove delivery. Although most PODs will just sit in a  file, the few that you do need will often justify the cost of tracking each shipment to your larger customers.

Final Thoughts

Shipping to big-box retailers can require a lot of effort and staff. This three-part series has given an overview of how to receive an order into your system, prepare and label the order, and ship it to the destination. Always keep in mind that the goal is to move your product efficiently through your customers’ supply chains and into consumers’ homes. Most of the customer requirements have this same goal in mind – even if they sometimes feel like hoops to jump through. You should consider adding to your standard fulfillment process anything that reduces opportunities for error, improves efficiency and accuracy, or helps your customer’s team correctly receive and process your product. By collaborating, sometimes even visiting, with your customer’s receiving team, you may come up with additional ideas on how to better move your product through the supply chain.

What experiences do you have with shipping to big-box retailers? What additional questions do you have? Although my team has shipped to several dozen large customers, we also are always looking for advice and opportunities to improve.

Please leave your success stories or questions below in a comment, and click here to receive future Supply Chain Cowboy articles by email.