COVID-19: Simple steps to reduce risks in warehousing and distribution operations

Thomas Kristensen Supply Chain and Logistics Advisory, Private Company Services, PwC US May 13, 2020

In our conversations with leaders of private companies in recent weeks, we are hearing concerns about the ability to maintain functioning supply chains. Many operations and supply chain leaders are spending much of their time keeping their supply chains running and getting products from manufacturing sites and suppliers to their customers.

Helping keep their staff, suppliers and customers safe while possibly avoiding the need to shut down distribution facilities remain a top priority. At the same time, running the end-to-end supply chain in close alignment with recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and other authorities, including social distancing, is critical and may be essential to help reduce the risk of shutdowns.

Here are some practical considerations for private company leaders

Keep staff informed on your response to COVID-19

Your staff should understand the importance of their roles and the work they perform. We often hear well-deserved praise of first responders and health professionals, but many people may inadvertently forget about the men and women who make sure products are on store shelves and supplies are where they are needed. 

It's critical that the entire workforce, including those in warehouses and distribution roles, understand this — and understand the importance of looking after themselves at work and at home. This type of communication can help reduce risks and motivate staff. For example, delivering the message at an in-person meeting (with appropriate distancing) can be an effective way to address any staff questions or concerns head-on.

Adhere to the CDC guidelines

Issue general instructions to warehouse staff to maintain at least six-to-nine feet of distance from coworkers at all times. This may include staging check-in/out procedures for warehouse staff or staggering breaks with clear instructions to help maintain appropriate distance. Consider moving physical items in the breakroom, such as microwave ovens, to avoid creating situations where staff may get in close proximity with one another. 

Look to help enable social distancing during daily huddles and briefings, or establish individual, separated work tables (or similar) for functions such as quality control, packaging and other value-added services taking place in the warehouse.

Implementation of day-to-day operational changes

There are many swift actions you can consider putting into action in your daily operations, including:

  • Switching the warehouse operation to a zonal system, with only one picker batch-picking in each zone and with put-away and replenishments in the zone only performed when the picker is not there. 

  • Limiting loading and unloading operations to two individuals—one inside and one outside the truck or container. This may slow down the overall loading and unloading processes, so you may want to consider expanding operating hours for these services. Careful dock/door planning may also be required.

  • Adding additional shifts (second, third, weekend, etc.) to help reduce the number of people present in the warehouse at any given time while maintaining the same level of resources overall.

  • Determining if certain functions can be handled by staff working from home, if equipped with the needed tools (laptop, etc.). This could include functions such as order management, warehouse administration, documentation, and invoicing.

  • Establishing if it would be possible to move trucks or containers directly to customers (e.g., through a milk run), rather than bringing them into the distribution center. Likewise, where relevant, consider if it would be possible to move products from central hubs directly to customers, bypassing regional distribution centers.

Create a safe environment

Avoid moving people between shifts and between roles in the warehouse, if not strictly necessary. Limiting the number of people who are in contact with each other during the week will likely reduce the number of people that likely need to be quarantined if a staff member tests positive for the virus.

Create safe environments for drivers, allowing them to enter and exit vehicles, hand in or pick up paperwork and access restroom facilities without being in close contact with other staff—and ask suppliers and customers to do the same. You may also want to avoid double teaming long-haul trucks.

Evaluate key business opportunities 

Many specialists believe the country may still be in the early stages of the pandemic and that a return to a different future could be several months away. Even with parts of Asia, key sourcing markets for many US companies, very slowly beginning the return to normal life, we are likely to see shortages and stockouts of many products over the coming months. 

While this situation may be potentially damaging to your overall business, it could also present some opportunities as you realign your value proposition. 

Consider offering customers alternative SKUs at attractive terms or specific promotions for slow-moving/excess inventory SKUs when store shelves are empty. These actions can help reduce potential customer impact, drive continuous revenue and reduce working capital.

PwC is continuing to monitor the latest information about the impacts from COVID-19 and helping privately held businesses, including individuals, understand how they are specifically being impacted.

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