In 2017 I was working as a warehouse manager and lead tech for a wedding DJ outfit on the central coast of California. One of the first major projects I undertook outside of my primary duties was a reorganization of all audiovisual and staging inventory.
The starting point
The warehouse as I inherited it was, frankly, a disaster. The configuration of the installed shelving catered to the long-term storage of pallets, and assumed the use of a forklift for almost all warehouse tasks. Gear had been placed in the warehouse piecemeal, as it was acquired, and without regard to it’s function or frequency of use. Many items were completely inaccessable without first removing unrelated assets from the shelves in front of them, or could not be pulled without the use of ladders.
Perhaps most egregiously, even after undergoing a mandatory 1-hour training session for this purpose, team members were often unable to find the equipment needed during load-out.
“Kits” of accessories had been created, but were rarely found near the assets they accompanied. Identical items were strewn between two or three locations; team members would essentially have to search the entire warehouse before an asset could be declared missing.
Remove unused assets
Nearly half of the content of the warehouse was either used less than once per year, or had been superceded and would likely never be used again. When I entered the company, many of the outdated assets were occupying ground-level and first-shelf spaces: high-value territory when most of your inventory is wheeled and weighs over 50 pounds. My first order of business was removing the unused assets to a newly-created secondary storage area in another part of the building.
Put what’s left within reach
Having created more space for our most-used equipment, my next objective was to re-distribute the shelving. As I inherited it, the shelves were setup to accomodate a pallet on every level. The primary shelving system was 8 feet deep, meaning in order to get items on the back, the worker would literally have to climb onto the shelf with the help of a step stool. The first shelves were between waist- and chest-height. For wheeled items on the ground level, the worker would stoop or crawl under the first shelf and roll items out. To retreive items from the shelves, workers would lift above head height, or twist and carry them down from atop step stools and ladders. In either case, heavy and delicate items were far outside the comfortable reach of persons on the ground, risking equipment damage and personal injury.
To address these concerns, where possible I established three shelf heights based on the human scale, and developed and communicated guidelines for what could occupy all three. Our most frequently used assets over 40 pounds were placed between hip and shoulder height, allowing warehouse workers to use large muscle groups in short, controlled movements to remove them. Wheeled carts were provided which matched these shelves in height, so the items could be loaded with no vertical movement. Less frequently used objects that were still too heavy to comfortably manipulate overhead were placed on a level 6 inches above floor height. Workers could easily pull these items out, adjust their footing, and lift onto the carts in a seperate motion, avoiding lower back injuries common when lifting from the floor. A third shelf height just above shoulder level was reserved for lightweight objects and small assets that would be more difficult to find.
Write off unusuable space
This still left about 4 feet of the depth of the shelves nearest the wall inaccesible. I elected to use this space for backstock, lesser-used accessories, and extremely lightweight assets such as rain covers and lightbulbs. Shelving above head height was essentially written off; reserved for assets that were unlikely to be used in the next several years.
Put like with like
A concurrent objective with changing the storage height of assets was changing the way assets were organized laterally. After the redesign, equipment could be found grouped with other items in it’s broad category. Before, team members relied on the memories of more senior members to know where items belonged. After, an item’s home could be determined solely by information the team member already knew. Is it a peice of audio equipment? It can be found in the audio section. Is it a microphone? Look near the other microphones. Is it too heavy to comfortably lift above your head? Then you can stop looking above your head. The one-hour warehouse orientation was dropped from the training schedule entirely.
Things you want to see go in front of you
One unusual challenge I faced during this reorganization was that over a hundred wheeled road cases held battery-powered lights, and had to be plugged in to charge upon return to the warehouse. Before my involvement, the charging stations were all under the first level of shelving. Workers would roll several cases in, crawl underneath to plug them in, roll the next cases in and repeat. One of my assigned duties was to visually verify that all cases were charging between events, as the amp draw of a completely drained case of lights would frequently trip a breaker, and because we were rolling these hundred-pound cases over their own charging cables, the connections would frequently go bad. Checking that they were charging involved literally crawling between the cases and under waist-height shelves, and was a significant time-sink.
After the redesign, the battery-powered lights formed two new center aisles. Each was individually accessible, and all 100+ cases were observable from a single point. I could verify the entire fleet was charging in less than 10 seconds, and replacing a charging cable or checking a connection was easy and quick. Power was dropped straight down from the ceiling, almost completely eliminating the possibility of damaging the cables while moving the cases.
Reflect on what can be taken away
The knowledge I gained in undertaking this reorganization is largely applicable to warehouse design in general. Having unused assets occupying usable space is bad; you are increasing the mental overhead required to find the things you do need. Having heavy equipment stored above head height or below knee height is bad; even if you employ college football players exclusively, you’re risking injury and equipment damage. Storing items too deep on shelves is bad; removing the items in front to gain access takes time, and extended reaching risks injury. If equipment requires observation or manipulation while stored, storing it in a place you can’t get to is bad; you’re creating more work for yourself and your co-workers.
One of the best ways to ensure a task gets done is to make it easy to do. By organizing our warehouse with a legible, intuitive structure, I freed myself from what was previously several hours per week spent returning equipment to it’s home in the warehouse, allowing me to focus on expanding and improving the services we offered.
Bask in the glory of an efficient workplace
I knew I had succeeded when, returning from a week-day strike, me and a new hire were unloading equipment and I got distracted by a question from one of the other techs. When I looked back, I noticed the new hire was almost done returning the equipment to the shelves, for the first time and without direction. “Hey, how did you know where that goes?” I asked. He looked from the case in his hands to the empty space on the shelf - near like cases, in a section devoted to gear of it’s type, and almost exactly the size of the case he held - then to me, as if I had asked him the dumbest question in the world. “What do you mean? It goes…where it goes.”