‘The small stuff’ is material to the bottom line

Shane Soule

I love the big ideas, technology adoption, and visionary solutions our industry is innovating. I spend a lot of time considering and communicating those, but there’s great value within what we might categorize as “the small stuff” as well.

Materials handlers in our yards are crucial, not only for our customers experience, but also for a couple percentage points of our cost. Let’s dig into some things that could seem small, but over time, could be very valuable.

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Metrics: Measuring material handler performance is a key metric, measured by lines per hour. A line is defined as a “line on the order,” regardless of quantity. I maintain different expectations by type of work being done. My typical goals were as follows:

  • Lineals and OSB: 10-12 lines per hour
  • I-Joists/LVL: 4-6 lines per hour (including cutting as required)
  • Receiving wood products and putting away 15-20 lines per hour
  • Cycle Counting 50+ lines per hour

Some companies calculate board footage per hour by team member and team. That works too, but won’t account for other activity-based performance that you’ll need to track.

The second step is changing actual behavior in the yard and eliminating waste. Specifically, look to transition non-lean activities like these:

From banding areas to mobile workstations: Change the banding areas where material handlers drive the loads to actual workstations for the material handler. This is an easy and cheap fix that will speed the team up tremendously. Mount a bander to the side of the lift and eliminate extra drive time, or heaven forbid, the waiting for an open bander. Also, mount a medium-size trash can to the rear for material handlers to pull banding and dispose of it.

From staging areas to build stations: With the goal of eliminating movement that the customer does not value or pay for, invest in a portable build station. I’ve built these in the past and

then realized that there is already a product available, and it’s less expensive than custom fabricating one. Check out lumberbuddy.com. Instead of loading the forks and taking the material to a staging area line by line, bring the staging area with you.

From generalists to specialization: With the advent of mobile picking software that allows for material handlers to have pick lists digitally via phone, tablet, or scanner, you can divvy up workloads any way you like rather than the old-school process of one material handler picking each order, driving all around the yard, grabbing each different product. You can keep material handlers in “aisle ranges” to eliminate travel and increase efficiency. With this technology you can assign multiple parts of an order to different material handlers in different “aisle ranges” and then point them all to a staging location for each to bring their portion when complete. This enhances the number of lines each team member can pull each day with less travel, and ultimately, less work.

The same skillset to pick a window or trim order is vastly different than an order of studs and OSB. There is a small percentage of material handlers who can pick lumber at the speed needed for efficiency, and then slow down and handle finish products with enough care and precision. One way to knock this learning curve down is to embrace specialization. Hire different team members for the different types of work they are doing to maximize both efficiency and quality control.

These three areas represent the biggest opportunities for improvements from what I’ve seen. I could write a series on these concepts, specifically for material handlers, because there is so much opportunity in just this single area. One of the best things I have done was hire consultants, experts in their fields, to help me out. Once we know better, we can do better. If you solely rely on yourself or your team to come up with improvement ideas, you are bottlenecking your ability for maximum improvement.

Shane Soule consults with LBM and component companies to increase productivity and profits, and improve the experience for both customers and team members. Reach Shane at shane@shanesoule.com

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