ShipLeaf Academy

Eliminating order picking errors

To err is human, and no human-based task is an exception. However, that doesn’t mean we need to accept error in each and every task, especially in a fast-growing business environment. Order picking errors are inevitable to some degree or another for most workflows, but they don’t have to be a certainty forever. Errors made when picking orders is costly, and every business that isn’t achieving 100% fulfillment accuracy is losing money. Let’s learn how to fix that.

Set a benchmark for improvement

Before you begin making adjustments to your order picking workflow, you should try to calculate (or at least estimate) your team’s current rate of picking errors. Knowing how many mistakes your team makes on average acts as a benchmark you can measure against when making improvements over time.

When asked by a third party, most business owners estimate that their teams make a picking error on about 1% of all orders. This error rate seems small on the surface, but the cumulative effect over a long period of constant order volume can turn this number into a significant expense. If such expenses can be reduced or avoided, why not make every effort to do so?

What’s worse is that both the error rate and associated costs are often underestimated: when error rates are actually measured, the average increases to roughly 3%, and the actual costs expand beyond the material lost and overflow into other areas, like added customer support time and return/exchange shipping postage. When all these expenses are accounted for, a 3% error rate can result in an annual cost of anywhere from $120,000 to $600,000 per year! If your team can achieve 100% order picking accuracy, you will also completely eliminate these costs.

If you aren’t able to come up with an accurate measurement for your error rate, that’s okay. Perform an audit of recent customer support inquiries to make your best guess. Since our goal with a modern order picking solution is 100% accuracy, it’s easy to see how improvements made are getting your team closer to that goal.

Use clearly defined picking locations

The first step in eliminating order picking errors is to make sure that your team can find the right products for an order with confidence. Fulfillment teams are usually too busy to ask for help confirming if the item they are picking is the correct one for an order, and when the bin the item is kept in is not clearly identified, this uncertainty is more frequent.

A “clearly defined” picking location is defined in multiple ways. First, the bin or shelf position you want your team to pick an item from should have a clear and legible label with the critical identifying information present for the item in question. This is especially important for products with multiple, similar variations, where visual distinction between variations is difficult. If similar products are differentiated by a color, size, or other feature, that information should be prominently displayed at each variant’s picking location.

A picking location is also “clearly defined” by its exclusivity: whenever possible, a product should always have its own picking location that is not shared with other products. This doesn’t mean that the product should have a whole shelf to itself, but if you use bins or other dividers to arrange products for picking, each of those locations should have one SKU each at a maximum.

To measure the effectiveness of your picking location layouts and identification, see if your team’s management can implement a per-order and per-item picking timer. If certain items take consistently longer to pick, this is a sign that either the picking location is in a less than ideal position or the location is not clearly identifiable by the pickers. Fixing these “slow picks” can solve two problems at once: products that take longer to find and identify for picking are often the same products that have a high rate of picking error!

Provide barcodes and require scans for every product

A common reaction to order picking errors is to implement a double-checking procedure as part of your fulfillment workflow. One team member may pull the products for an order while another checks the pulled items a second time to ensure that they match what’s listed on the order’s packing list or invoice. While this may reduce order picking errors to a varying degree, it unfortunately does not eliminate it, and the added time required to process each order eats away at the potential cost savings.

Despite years of experimentation, the logistics industry hasn’t been able to beat old-fashioned barcode scanning as a means of enforcing accurate picking. When each product in your inventory has a clearly identifying barcode printed directly on it, or attached via an adhesive label, then confirming a correct pick is just a scan away. All your team needs is a software solution that knows which barcodes need to be scanned for each order.

Barcode scanning has a number of benefits for your order fulfillment team. By making it easier to get instant feedback during picking or packing, barcode scanning reduces the time it takes to train new team members and reduces the amount of management overhead needed to ensure the workflow is running smoothly. As long as barcode scans are required for every product (at least when scanning is feasible), order picking will always be 100% accurate.

The only important key with barcoded inventory is that you ensure the correct barcodes are available for each unit of inventory. Many products come barcoded from the manufacturer or supplier, but those that don’t should be labeled with a barcode as soon as they are received into your store or warehouse. The longer items wait to be barcoded, the greater a chance of an error at some point in the labeling, storing, or picking processes.

Don’t hand off orders after scanning

In some cases, a fulfillment team may have implemented the above advice already in response to increasing order picking errors but are still experiencing those errors. Despite clearly identifying each picking location and barcoding all of their inventory, these teams still encounter occasional picking errors that take up unnecessary time and added costs. Frustrated, they often seek answers from outside consultants and fulfillment strategists. After a lengthy inquiry, the solution is often quite simple: the errors may be occurring due to a hand-off step after an order’s items are scanned.

The “assembly line” approach to order fulfillment is not new or uncommon. Most fulfillment teams big or small have used it at some point. This approach is when different team members perform the key steps to fulfilling an order: one picks, another packs, and a third ships it out. A simplified approach, where one team member picks the items and hands them off for another to pick AND ship, is also common. In either case, the in-between steps, where an order is physically transferred from one team member to another, is an alarming source of error.

Barcode scanning only ensures accuracy at the time of the scan. This means that the order needs to be processed as quickly and directly as possible once its contents have been scanned for accuracy. If your team is scanning items as they are being picked, the team member that scans an order’s items should be the one that packs and ships that order, and they should do so before moving on to another order.

Another solution would be to leave the scanning until it’s time to pack the order, since that’s closer to the end of the process and is the last time an order’s contents are available for verification. After an order is scanned and packed, it’s only moments away from being sealed and shipped. This streamlining of the process after scanning ensures that the accuracy delivered by the scans remains intact.

ShipLeaf is the result of years spent working with ecommerce fulfillment teams of all shapes and sizes, finding out what works and what doesn’t. This simple software solution is designed with barcode scanning and streamlined fulfillment in mind, and is capable of 100% accuracy with the right workflow. Get started today and you’ll be picking and shipping with 100% accuracy in no time.