Flow Rooms: Getting More From Warehouse Automation

# # # # # # # #

A high performing flow room brings rigour and confidence to all aspects of warehouse operations. 

A flow room helps manage warehouse automation better. It controls the flow of orders through an automated warehouse from inbound through to dispatch.

Traditionally, warehouses would increase their workforce to manage a rise in demand. But in the last 18 months, warehouses have had to implement social distancing in the face of surging online demand and stock availability issues. Bringing more people into the warehouse was not an option; their automation needed to work harder.

Any business building new warehouses, or upgrading their current existing facilities, will be looking at how automation can improve operations; a flow room will help to manage that automation better. A good flow room team is in control of everything that happens in the warehouse from an operational perspective. It makes timely business critical decisions, providing senior management with updates on how the operation is performing and managing the peaks and troughs in demand to ensure efficient flow through the warehouse.

In this article I discuss what to expect from a high performing flow room team and what you need to build and run one.

5 Characteristics of a high performing flow room


1. Managing system availability to keep downtime to a minimum

To meet customer fulfillment expectations warehouses increasingly need to automate. Given the scale of the operations, breakdowns cause significant impact to the business. The flow room is your incident manager that triages the problem, dispatches engineers and escalates to the correct resolver group. The team will manage the operation around the incident through a series of system parameters and failover options to minimise the impact on flow and reduce additional costs to the business.

Visibility and rapid incident resolution is critical to ensure the smooth running of the flow room.

A robust escalation protocol and impact matrix will speed-up resolution time when an issue arises. Put simply, it reduces the risk of something minor quickly turning into a major incident. Valuable time can be lost trying to determine which resolver group the problem lies with and who from the resolver group needs to be informed. A robust impact matrix that covers quality, cost & delivery ensures the entire site immediately understands the size and scale of a problem. This is particularly important when there is more than one issue occurring at the same time.

2. Strong stakeholder management

The flow room continually monitors the automation using the warehouse control system. They hold the data to make the best decisions for the site quickly. Key targets are tracked hourly and any deviations from the plan are called out and rectified with the area in question. With their holistic view of overall performance, the flow room team are able to escalate issues swiftly to the best people. The whole flow room team builds trusted relationships with senior management, who look to them for guidance on a range of operational matters.

A demand vs capacity decision tree should be used to prevent flooding of the automation with non-priority work. Without this, there is a risk that daily capacity is consumed with processing non-priority volume, resulting in either failed SLAs or forcing customer proposition changes to the website.

3. Established ways of working

A strong working relationship between planning, flow room and operations ensures seamless delivery from forecast data through to execution. The planning team has visibility of forecast data and will plan resources accordingly. Once approved, the system is set up and the operations team then execute the plan. Any deviations are communicated back to the planning team.

After a shift, a flow room team will review the data. If targets are missed, plans are communicated with the hourly reporting along with any corrective actions that are taken. Continuous learning supports continuous improvement across the warehouse planning, flow and operations.

4. System experts

A flow room team will have a technical background, they are the system specialists for the site and are the first point of contact for any system or mechanical issues. They will work closely with the resident maintenance team to identify, assess and resolve issues and be the conduit between different areas and stakeholders. The team will also identify system and mechanical opportunities to improve flow through the warehouse and drive continuous improvement.

The flow room team understands where the single points of failure and bottlenecks are to ensure 100% utilisation in the area, particularly during peak days. Engineers will be positioned near the equipment with break times covered, as once capacity is lost through a bottleneck, it may never be recovered.

To ensure equipment is properly maintained by the automation provider, the flow room will work alongside the engineering teams to allocate windows for the maintenance to be carried out with little to no impact to the operation. Failing to manage Pre Preventative Maintenance (PPM) can result in significant impacts to cost and delivery.

5. A trusted team

A high performing flow room team are data driven decision makers that work under pressure and influence senior stakeholders. They work in an environment of trust, feedback and openness, where there’s no consequences for admitting to a fault, and the only aim is to improve. These are usually 24/7 operations and these learnings are shared in a timely way across the shifts.

Debriefing sessions after an event help individuals open up about the challenges they encountered providing a safe environment to share their learnings with the group in real time and allowing colleagues to offer advice. This creates a trusting environment which the whole team benefits and learns from.

Three must haves prior to go live

  1. Aligned view across the site on single points of failures and bottlenecks. Apply impact weighting factors to every piece of the automation with the engineering team so that critical areas are treated with the same urgency and are maintained accordingly.
  2. Robust escalation and impact matrix protocol between operations, flow room and engineering. Operations know who to contact and provide the correct data and impact to allow flow room to quickly determine the severity and for the resolver group to fix the problem.
  3. Establish key metrics and priorities for the site to track hourly against a plan. This makes decision making easier for the team and ensures it is aligned with the site.

Flow rooms are an investment your business cannot afford to get wrong; careful planning, senior management support, and the right team are critical.

How we can help

Hatmill is a consulting firm that supports businesses to improve their supply chain and logistics operations. We help our clients make lasting improvements to their performance. We deliver outstanding expertise, experience and value to our clients’ projects.

Read more about warehouse automation (here)


Ideas & Insights

Sharing Our Expertise

Our guides, ideas and views. Explore our insights to deliver tangible improvements to your supply chain and logistics operations.