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Community Insights: Now and the Path Ahead – Warehousing

In this edition I interviewed Debbie Catterick - Operations and Supply Chain Director at Nymas. They worked throughout the crisis to supply the Nightgale Hospitals so have a vast amount of experience about operationing through the difficulties and in a socially distanced environment.

Debbie tells us very candidly their story, what they learnt and their advice as those in England return back to their workplaces and warehouses and how to de-risk your logistics.

At Nymas you have been operational throughout the crisis, can you give us a quick over view in your words of what you do?

Nymas Supply and Manufacture accessible washroom equipment. We have a global supply chain and manage an inventory of around 8K SKU’s. We supply the construction industry as well as local authority and healthcare providers including NHS and care homes.

Our Brands including Nymas, Fitzroy of London and Respire

I am the Operations & Supply Chain Director and so have been incredibly fortunate to still be heading to work and kept on my toes daily, through this crisis.

And how has the past months been for you?

Firstly we have a lot to be thankful for, I'd be lying if I said it had been plain sailing, it hasn’t, and we have had to adapt and bend in our approach. Swapping, in the most part, a proactive approach to a reactive approach. It's an entirely unpredictable situation and regardless of your level of experience I don’t know anyone who can draw from specific experience in this overwhelming situation because I don’t actually know anyone who was heading up operations or supply chain back in 1918 when we last saw a pandemic of this size.

I do think there has been a huge sense of comradery, not just with our internal team but also with the wider business community and rather than a rigid approach everyone appears to be more flexible. People now realise suppliers are just as key to their success as a business as customers are. I think this was highlighted way back in January when the Chinese supply chain faltered and suddenly everyone was worried about stock of USB plugs!

To ramble with another analogy, I've heard people say during this time you need a supply chain and an operation which reflects the characteristics of a sports car - lean agile and quick to respond. I would disagree entirely. I believe right now and for the last few months we have needed a supply chain that reacts like a Range Rover - solid, able to handle rough and varied terrain but with equal agility, security and the ability to step on it when you need too. That’s exactly what the last few months have been like! I can't see it changing anytime soon, but I couldn’t tell you what the next terrain looks like either.

You would obviously have had to change the warehouse for goods in, out and general operations to protect for Coronavirus. Whilst people are reciewing and planning on the “Covid-19 Secure” guidelines - what are the simple things they can do to prepare that you have found useful?

The guidelines came out and I personally think the standard of information has been fantastic, not just in its clarity, once you read through the full documentation, but also in the speed for which it was made available.

It's easy to become overwhelmed as an employer regardless of the size of your team, but a lot of this is common sense and a lot can be achieved with small changes. When the lock down first started we ran a basic risk assessment all based around human contact and points of transmission. After we identified our high risk areas we broke it down to four keys points:-

  • How can we ventilate that task or area?
  • What sanitation methods could we implement to keep it sterile and a reduced risk of infection transmission?
  • What PPE would help?
  • How can we effect social distancing or what can we do if that’s not possible?

If you can, take a step back and think about what your operation looks like today. Try to allocate ‘jobs’ and as such ‘zones’ within your warehouse, however large or small, to an individual or to a small team if lone working isn’t safe or practical. If you receive stock in containers then rather than having this a four man job to de-van, plan your time and understand that at most, this is likely to now be a two man job. It is going to take longer, you will have to consider waiting time charges, but this is ok. If its safe and practical to do so, open doors and windows. Prop open common entrance ways, introduce split working times and break times, Load and unload deliveries / dispatches in the yard to reduce the risk.

Despite the current situation people still have demand and customers can still be demanding. But consider what is possible from a practical perspective and if this means you have to shorten your same day dispatch time then this is what needs to be done to protect your staff and suppliers. If to maintain a safe distance you can only operate one dispatch bench then you cannot achieve the same output as you can if you had three of four available. Better to under promise and overdeliver than the alternative. You can continue to dispatch for as long as possible but manage expectations and prepare for the unexpected influx and inability to manage this safely.

When the government advise to be alert you can interpret this how you like but I believe in a warehouse setting its about being more aware. Be aware of your touch points. We spent two days putting post it notes on anything and everything any individual touched. From container bolt cutters to the scanning button on the printer. It was a great visual to help us spot an invisible enemy. We replaced the post its with ‘clean me’ stickers which acted as a visual to remind the team that if they touched this item or surface, to disinfect afterwards. This seems pretty simple, but sometimes and especially in the current situation, simple works best and we just don’t need any more complication than we already have.

As a result of this we have set up cleaning and sanitising stations on dispatch benches, in assembly and manufacturing zones and all mechanical equipment including forklifts and man up machines, have sterilisation and wipes with users cleaning down every time they leave an area or piece of equipment.

Evidence suggests the virus can live on surfaces for 72 hrs. Where possible we have held smaller deliveries in Goods In for 72 hours before putting into the main warehouse to further reduce the risk.

We have routing around the warehouse similar to what we all now see in supermarkets, to avoid warehouse picking staff from congesting and bumping into one another. In common areas such as corridors and kitchens we have a strict one person rule.

Although it feels like folding your arms the wrong way (try doing that, its nuts) because everything takes longer, whereas we have always been driving by efficiency and speed, its supporting our staffs mental well-being because they feel secure and appreciate that all of this is being done for their safety and well-being.

The risk assessment and processes we currently adopt to stay safe will undoubtedly change. We will need to react to this with the same speed but decisive approach as we have had to react to supply chain demands. The main drivers for this will of course be revised government advice but also as we see an increase in activity we will need to bring more people into the business which could either mean stricter social distancing, increase in PPE or even an increase in the opening hours to stagger more shifts, bringing more people into the business but not at any one time. Truth is I don’t know what it looks like, but I've spent the last few months preparing for the longest ‘snow day’ I've ever known, so whatever happens next, I'd like to think myself and my team have some variation of the plan almost ready to press the button and implement.

Was there anything that particularly surprised you?

I think this entire situation has caught us by surprise. In my career I’ve had some interesting challenges. There was that brilliant day a few years ago, when a warehouse operative ‘accidentally’ dispatched a treadmill instead of a pair of moccasin slippers! (kid you not!) or the time a 40ft High cube got accidentally unloaded at Rotterdam and then ‘lost’ not sure how you lose a 40ft tin box, but they did!

However, I have never seen anything like this before. I think the level of government support to the economy and the propping up of small business has been phenomenal and something all of us hoped for but no one actually expected.

I feel there will be some winners that come out of this and some unexpected losers. Amongst the losers are large high street chains hiking up delivery charges when delivery is the only option. Amazon essentially closing the FBA lifeline to thousands of sellers, some of whom had their entire inventory on lock down.

I respect hugely the ability of our courier network to react to an unexpected and unprecedented peak. There has been very little bottlenecking when demand surged beyond anybody's reasonable expectation for spring months and they will have achieved this whilst managing with fewer staff and slower efficiencies caused by safety requirements.

Finally seeing SME’s doing their best to support one another be it through revising payment terms, going the extra mile and opening warehouses on Sundays to supply Nightingale projects, directors driving forklifts and sales reps packing boxes, warehouse team dealing with customer service queries. I think this situation has pushed us all out of our comfort zones and I think we have grown as a business community from it. I sincerely hope this continues when the world opens up again.

You’ve personally had a huge amount of experience in eCommerce and associated logistics, what would be your advice for those in eCommerce to build their business to exist in a post-COVID-19 world?

We all knew that ecommerce was the ‘E’-volution of shopping. I adore ecommerce as its one of the most diverse driven industries I have ever been involved in. The technology available is as sophisticated as the business using it. Ecommerce offer bedroom sellers the opportunity to turn it into a multi million pound turnover and I've been privileged to be involved in a number of these businesses.

Without question recent events have just propelled the demise of the high street. People whom perhaps preferred the high street to online, through either a fear, a confusion, or inexperience have now been forced to see first-hand the convenience and reliability of online supply. This presents a massive opportunity to everyone selling online. To focus on retaining the new customers acquired through this period. I think consumers have also exhausted frustration with amazon and the prime monster has hit its first bump in the road. Expectation of speed of delivery hasn’t changed, but the biggest online retailer in the world couldn’t manage that unless of course you wanted soap or batteries. If you did serve these customers with the right product at the right price delivered to the right place at the right time, you need to shout about it.

It's now that people should be focusing on websites imagery and content to make sure that when you remind these new customers of your ability to prevail during one of the worst social and economic disasters in our lifetime, they recognise your service, your business and your brand and don’t revert back to the big boys, who let them down.

With the entire globe suffering adverse economic effects as a result of Covid-19, now is the time to re-evaluate your supply chain. De risk things a little. China shouldn’t always be your go to. The world is suddenly much more competitive than it ever was and each continent needs to rebuild its export markets. Many factories will now accept lower MOQ’s to build relationships and this could be a fantastic opportunity for smaller companies who previously were restricted due to higher MOQ levels and a higher level of investment and as such risk to take advantage of this opportunity.

Equally there are a number of online sellers right now who want to expand their product range but don’t have the cashflow or resource to do it. Drop shipping is a perfect solution and can be easily automated now through most websites. It’s a fantastic way to promote your brand and to increase your customer base its also a great way to slow down the race to the bottom, if you’re the one controlling supply that is.

Now is a great time for reflection. Try to take a helicopter view on your business and how well you coped in the covid crisis. I'm not just talking about your sales offer or buying smarter but instead take an objective view at processes within your business. Ask yourself some difficult questions. Try to de-personalise it. How can you make it easier, smarter quicker. The shipping label, the polybag, the cost of miss picks, the rate of orders per hour. What is your true revenue per person in the business? How can you make it leaner, quicker, smarter?

What details should people use to contact you?

Nymas is a fantastic organisation with really strong values and we would be happy to help SME’s with advice, product or opportunities. Our website is www.nymas.co.uk and you can find a number of contact details on there or alternatively you can get in touch via [email protected] or pick up the phone for a chat, 01642 710719

Helen Parker is the Director of The Wholesale Forums
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