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In these Challenging times, Flow Charting can help Supply Chain Professionals Clarify what Actually Happens or needs to Happen in the DC to Optimize Material Flow

Flow charting is a tool that can be used for much more than just analyzing processes. Constructing flow charts promotes better understanding of processes, and better understanding of processes is a pre-requisite for improving them.

World Class DCs have detailed process flow charts of critical operations and post them for employee reference. This enables workers to quickly refer to the charts if in doubt as to what is the next action in the process. In addition, the charts can be used:

as a design tool and springboard for further discussion of the operation/process;

to connect with other flow charts explaining related activities;

to identify points where data can be usefully collected and analyzed;

to isolate possible problem areas; and

to educate new employees to the processes of the DC.

Good flow charting allows you to break the overall DC operation down into individual events or activities and to display these in graphic form showing the logical relationships between them (refer to illustration below).

Typical distribution center activity involves many separate tasks. These are often complex and they change over time in response to new customer demands, new product and service requirements, or new shipping regulations.

These changes are often made in isolated, reactive and piecemeal ways, which are not necessarily best for the company or the people doing the work. In addition to external pressures for change, there is a constant need to search for new and better ways to do things in order to maintain a competitive edge, and to make life easier and more interesting for those who do the work.

The only way to control change, rather than have it control you, is to clarify what actually happens and to decide whether this is the way you want it or not. By grouping tasks into logical areas of activity (processes) and drawing flow charts of the events which occur, it is possible to get a concise picture of the way particular processes are completed within the operation.

This makes it easier for you to move on to the next logical step, which is to make changes for the better. This is because the flow charting exercise will point you in the right direction to collect and analyze relevant statistics, examine other processes which relate to the one flow charted, and pursue critical policy or procedure problems.

There are many easy to use, low-cost PC programs available for constructing process flow charts. The flow chart illustrated here was done in Microsoft Office Visio 2007. Although it is not strictly necessary to use boxes, circles, diamonds or other such standard symbols to construct a flow chart, these do help to describe the types of events in the chart more clearly.

In the end, it may be that the most important benefit of flow charting your operation is the exercise itself. It forces you to think in terms of the integrated system – to discuss and challenge each process in the operation, and how they relate to upstream and downstream processes. In so doing, you are bound to discover new opportunities for improvements that will yield higher levels of productivity, streamline the operation, and increase customer satisfaction.

Agree or disgree with Holstes perspective? What would you add? Let us know your thoughts for publication in the SCDigest newsletter Feedback section, and on the website. Upon request, comments will be posted with the respondents name or company withheld.

is Supply Chain Digests Materials Handling Editor. With more than 30 years experience in designing and implementing material handling and order picking systems in distribution, Holste has worked with dozens of large and smaller companies to improve distribution performance.

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Good flow charting allows you to break the overall DC operation down into individual events or activities and to display these in graphic form showing the logical relationships between them.

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