Failing to plan is planning to fail
16 December 2016
Staff availability, pre-planned maintenance, good communication and keeping a close eye on the weather, are some of the key factors to making sure busy distribution centres and depots can cope with the surge in demand from the retail sector across the holiday period.
‘Lose one depot and you lose up to 80 stores’ is a mantra often heard around the world of facility managers; the professionals who are responsible for the effective and efficient running of the network of vital depots and distribution centres on which the UK retail sector depends.
Add in the increased pressure associated with servicing multiple retail locations that anticipate their turnover levels to at least treble in the run-up to the peak Christmas and New Year period, and it is critical that FM services do all they can to keep essential support services operational.
While seven day opening is now commonplace across the retail sector, nonetheless the sheer increase in the volume of goods to be handled as December progresses is substantial.
Figures from the Centre for Retail Research indicate that sales topped £75bn in the six weeks leading up to the end of 2015.
With most experts pinpointing the last full shopping day before Christmas as the peak of demand, most activity tends to concentrate on ensuring that stock control and deliveries remain consistent and on schedule in the two to three weeks before December 25th as consumer demand starts to magnify.
It is during these weeks that the operations at distribution centres and depots are at full stretch. Nothing can happen without staff, so high employee availability is key across this timescale.
Many depots look to enforce a holiday freeze so staffing levels are optimised and essential staff are ready and prepared to deliver a 24/7 reactive response to technical issues if required.
FMs who can liaise with the workforce in the months ahead of December to organise rotas, shift patterns and escalation routes if a major problem happens, can ensure everyone is on board and understands the importance of the period to all stakeholders.
Equipment availability – pre-plan
Many operational facets of a distribution centre or depot will be severely tested during the peak build-up period, and it is essential all equipment and services are available at all times.
Pre-planned maintenance and servicing regimes should be completed by the end of November at the latest, so not only will equipment be in full working order with only a minimal chance of breakdown, but maintenance personnel will be free to speedily react to unforeseen operational problems as they occur on the ground.
A fast response to all aspects of operation that could cause an issue - from temperature control of perishable goods, to fork lift trucks and even electrical gates - can prevent a small issue escalating into a major concern that could affect vital delivery schedules to stores waiting for stock.
Pre-planning should also include a ban on all non-essential maintenance work at this time so staff know where the priority lies for the period – which is to keep everything on track and working.
One of the most critical elements in optimising the efficiency of a distribution centre/depot’s performance is the role of loading bays.
With some large-scale depots using up to 250 loading bays and having to carefully match specific loading bay operation functionality to the appropriate transportation, it’s very important that all bays are fully working and constantly available.
Problems in this area can have a profound knock-on effect in terms of transportation scheduling, with lorries having to wait unnecessarily to gain access to the site and the resulting delays causing issues further down the supply chain.
Again, pre-planning in terms of servicing can ensure any electrical and mechanical-related problems are minimised, each loading bay is fully available and deliveries can happen as predicted.
Establishing good communication channels between all parties will also aid the smooth running of operations during a hectic period.
Daily liaison between FM and distribution personnel can often pre-empt potential problems with both sides appreciating the stresses and strains they are each under.
Working together through a joined-up operational strategy on the ground and regular dialogue, will provide a solid foundation for a trouble-free period.
Likewise, clear channels of communication need to be established with specialist third party contractors so that, if required, additional expert skills can be swiftly employed to deal with particularly complex technical challenges such as refrigeration.
The state of the weather is one thing that cannot be controlled and British winters are renowned for serving up exceptional conditions, be they heavy rainfall and floods, snow and ice or fog – all of which can impact a distribution centre’s ability to service the retail outlets that depend upon it.
However, with the amount of forecasting information now readily available, no-one need be surprised or caught out, and paying attention to this information can help alleviate potential problems.
Good contingency planning in the case of adverse weather striking is an essential element for all parties, so that alternative arrangements can be made to ensure goods are where they need to be, when they need to be there.
‘Expect the unexpected’ is a good rule of thumb and given the experience of some recent UK winters, it is clear that planning to deal with challenging weather conditions is an important consideration.
Finally, adopting a strategy of continuous improvement can aid future performance. Undertaking a thorough post-peak period review covering all aspects of the FM operation can highlight successes and identify areas for future improvement.
The holiday period is normally a time to relax and unwind for the majority of the population.
For those responsible for the smooth running of distribution centres and depots which service the vast UK retail sector, it can be a period of high pressure and high expectation.
With careful pre-planning, good communication and a flexible approach, such pressures can be successfully handled and a return to New Year normality enjoyed.