The human factor

Recently one of my associates suggested that I take a look at Kiva Systems. I looked them up on the web and watched their demo video.

Amazing! They have completely rethought the problem of inventory receiving, storage, picking and packing. With the Kiva system, all inventory is stored on special shelving and the shelves are automatically moved around the warehouse by small robotic units that roll under a shelving unit, lift it by a couple of inches and then move the entire shelving unit to where it is needed.

Image via Kiva Systems

Image via Kiva Systems

Wow! Shelves come to the picking station, highlight the bin that the product to be picked is stored in, flashes a light to indicate which carton the product should be placed in and scans the barcode on the product automatically when it is pulled off the shelf and again when it is placed in the carton. If you find that hard to believe, don’t take my word for it, go to the Kiva Systems website and see for yourself!

Finally, I thought, a system that would NEVER make a mistake in inventory. NEVER ship the wrong product to the right customer. NEVER lose track of exactly what is in inventory and where it is. It even reorganizes the warehouse dynamically to improve efficiency in storing and retrieving stock.

Then reality set in. Why should this be any more reliable than the use of handheld computers with built-in barcode scanners and constant Wi-Fi connection to the database? It depends on the “human factor.”

Since the first merchant took his goods to market in the town square, people have been struggling with the “what do I have, how much did it cost, and who should I deliver it to?” question.

Automation has virtually eliminated errors in recording, tabulating and analyzing inventory data. It has not been as effective in eliminating the human errors. The times that a person is in the middle of picking 10 pieces of a particular item and is interrupted and then can’t remember if the piece that he just put in the box was scanned or not. Or the times that the piece is scanned and then placed in the wrong bin. You know the kind of errors I’m talking about. Not negligence, simply the human factor.

Automation addresses efficiency extremely well. It can also eliminate tasks that have been traditionally done by people, thereby reducing the opportunity for making errors. It is less effective in addressing the personal discipline required to reduce human errors. In fact, automation sometimes reduces the work of personnel to a repetitious, boring process that increases the likelihood of errors.

The best systems are those that eliminate boring, repetitive, error prone tasks and then enrich the job to keep the employee engaged and bring the satisfaction that comes from contributing to the organization.

We must recognize, however, that as long as we humans are part of the process, we will find a way to make an error!

– Ron Souder, CEO & Founder, Alterity