5 Ways to Achieve a Successful Warehouse Management System

By Doug Bartholomew Print this article Print

Here's how to really take advantage of a data warehouse system for a successful implementation and long-term management.

CIOs spend a heck of a lot of time trying to make their company’s enterprise resource planning (ERP), customer relationship management ( CRM), and supply chain management ( SCM) systems responsive to business needs.  

Too often, though, the real reason a shipment to a customer arrived late, or a customer received an erroneous shipment, can be traced not to ERP or CRM or SCM, but instead to a place in the organization that’s considered much more mundane: shipping. Problems with picking orders, packing shipments, or cross-docking of inventory, can quickly lead to customer dissatisfaction.

Enter the lowly warehouse management system ( WMS). A veritable Rodney Dangerfield of enterprise software, the WMS doesn’t command a whole lot of respect, at least not when compared to its front-office big brothers, ERP, CRM, and the likes.

But getting a WMS implementation right the first time can go a long way toward ensuring a company has satisfied customers that are receiving accurate orders delivered on time. Phil Obal, a consultant and author of books on WMS, points to a survey that found that “only about 40 percent of warehouse management systems result in satisfied customers,” he says.

Author of Selecting Warehouse Software from WMS and ERP Providers, Obal cites five key areas which, if overlooked or short-shrifted, have the potential to wreak havoc on a WMS project. While some of these factors are common to most enterprise software implementations, all are particularly critical to WMS.

1. Get on the same page.

Obal says the objectives of a new WMS must be clearly laid out and agreed upon by all stakeholders parties in advance. “You really need three implementation teams for WMS—a vendor team, a company team, and a systems integration team,” he recommends. “They all have to be on the same page when it comes to the project’s objectives.” Also critical is making sure that as team members leave and new members join, the latter must be carefully clued in to the project goals.

2. Manage expectations.

Both the company and the vendor must have strong project managers who are skilled at saying “no” to requests for additional functionality, Obal cautions. “It’s okay to have positive expectations for a WMS, but it’s not okay for the list of expectations to grow, what they call ‘project creep,’” Obal warns. “You need to know how to handle the extra things people ask for later on.”

There should be a formal process established to handle new requests. Obal recommends avoiding any customization of the system. “Ninety-eight percent of all software is not unique to everybody—it is what everybody needs,” he adds. Also, customization tends to be a killer later on, when it comes time to test the system, and people find out the codes are wrong.  

3. Take advantage of data-mapping tools.

These are automated tools that let you map one type of data to another. This is essential for companies trying to deal with different shipping data formats, such as advanced ship notices that can come in XML, EDI, spreadsheets, or other formats. Companies should leverage these to the max, using them in dealing with suppliers, customers, shipping carriers, banks, etc.

4. Test, test, test. 

Sufficient testing is the best way to avoid a meltdown when you go live with a new WMS. “In a high-volume warehouse you can do parallel testing,” Obal says. “Unfortunately, testing is often overlooked. The question is, how surprised do you want to be when you go live?”.

Of course, in a low-volume warehouse with, say, 1,000 shipments per day, a company can throw manpower at the snafu until it gets straightened out. “But a high-volume shop that won’t work,” Obal says. “It has to be right every time.” Warehouses need to process-test each workflow, including inbound, outbound, cross-dock, cycle count, etc.

5. Be sure to get buy-in. 

“You want people to buy into it, including the software selection process,” Obal suggests. Too often, companies purchase software with little concern for the employees who are the ultimate users. “Involve warehouse managers and key workers and supervisors in the software selection process,” Obal says. “Once they’ve sat through four or five software company presentations, they can rate which package is stronger. Getting people to participate is critical. It helps to dissipate some of the fear factor they may have over whether they may lose their jobs. Instead, they can see how the system is designed to make them more efficient and get more labor done, so the company can grow the warehouse.”  

He recommends training workers to use the new system no more than two weeks before the go-live date, so they don’t forget what they’ve learned.

Among the scores of WMS vendors, Obal cites half a dozen market leaders:  Manhattan Associates, High Jump Software, Red Prairie, Infor, Softeon, and Sterling Commerce.

This article was originally published on 2008-03-14
Doug Bartholomew is a career journalist who has covered information technology for more than 15 years. A former senior editor at IndustryWeek and InformationWeek, his freelance features have appeared in New York magazine and the Los Angeles Times Magazine. He has a B.S. in Journalism from Northwestern University.
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