No successful distribution center achieves or maintains success without the ability to monitor properly its performance across a variety of key metrics. Those metrics include throughput capacity, productivity, order cycle time, accuracy, storage density and safety rates. Productivity usually garners more management attention, measurements and comparisons than the other metrics for good reason. Increasing productivity can also increase throughput (if an operation has no other constraints, such as a dearth of dock doors), potentially lift sales and possibly decrease order cycle time, but most importantly, it can reduce the cost of order fulfillment.

The value of increased productivity is why it is the most often measured and monitored metric in a distribution center, particularly at the individual employee level. Managers seeking to increase their facility’s productivity know that an increase in the productivity of each associate will reward them with increased results overall. They will seek to coach, sanction and/or separate from their poorest performers and reward, praise and seek to have their workforce emulate their most efficient performers. Managers working for their operation’s improvement in this fashion are focusing on the right metric, but before they take action based on observed or recorded productivity performance, it is wise to ensure that the stellar or dismal productivity performances are the results of the effort put forth or methods used by their associates and not something out of the associate’s control.

If two distribution staff members each have same tools with which to execute their jobs and the same environment within which to perform those jobs, differences in productivity cannot immediately be laid at the feet of the associates’ performances. With very rare exceptions, the work content each executes must be considered in evaluating their performance properly. Looking at a picking task more closely, let’s consider a simple picking operation where an associate walks the aisles with a pallet jack picking cases to a pallet. Both are tasked with picking 20 cases to a pallet, but picker A has two items of 10 cases each to pick, and picker B has 20 items of one case each to pick.  While both are picking 20 cases, picker B will probably be slower since they need to stop 20 times, confirm they are picking the right item, and then move on to pick the other 19 items and cases. Picker A needs only stop twice, pick 10 cases each time and they are done. Picker A will be slightly quicker in terms of cases picked per hour, but perhaps slightly slower in terms of lines picked per hour (after all, they only picked two order lines, while picker B picked 20 order lines). So which picker is more productive?

The answer is C – you cannot determine with the information available.

Any evaluation of comparative productivity must take into account the complexion of work content of the evaluated performance. It includes units per order line, order lines per task and, most important and not even mentioned above, total distance traveled to complete the task. What if one picker needed to travel twice the distance of the other simply because of where the items they needed to pick were stored?  Understanding the difficulty of the task at hand ensures that best assets of your staff are identified as you seek to enhance your entire staff’s productivity and effectiveness.