COVID-19 has had a significant impact on the global supply chain. It has disrupted production and transportation across industries and geographies. There has been much discussion about how this is disrupting the supply chains, so we’re not going to do that here. What we will explore is how to take advantage of the disruption and harnessing the power of the people in your operations. There is a seemingly never-ending list of things that need to be taken care of, or that get pushed to the bottom of the list when orders take priority. Now is a great opportunity to tackle that list. Below, we highlight five things that you can do if you find yourself with lower volumes and idle staff.

Cross training

The biggest benefit of cross training staff is the flexibility that it provides. When volumes peak, there is always a function that is not impacted as much. Being able to shift staff to the areas that need additional support without having to train on the fly will position your operation to succeed when volumes do recover.

Often missed is the tracking and reporting on the skills that operators have been trained on. Develop a training matrix or find a template online to keep track of the different skills required in your operation and which operators are trained, who needs to be trained, and who is qualified to train on particular processes. Another benefit of this exercise is that you can maintain visibility on which skills are required in the operation and which are no longer in use. It will also help in future planning for vacations, job rotations and associate performance feedback.

From an engagement perspective, by making this a visible tool, it illustrates your commitment to the development of associates and allows them to participate in their own development plans by identifying the skills required for different roles and future opportunities.

Another benefit of cross training is that it ensures that your processes are kept up to date and documented. By keeping the most current processes documented your team will incorporate any process improvements they’ve developed into the base process. These improvements are then communicated to the rest of the associates who may not be involved with a process on a regular basis as well as anyone new to the function.


There never seems to be a good time to make changes to inventory slotting. Moving inventory with active orders or put-aways represents a logistical challenge in any situation. With orders slowing down, this might be the perfect window of opportunity to take a second look at your pick lines and inventory slotting.

At its simplest, slotting is matching the right product with the right location in the warehouse according to its velocity. Locations are ranked and classified according to their proximity to the dock, elevation and pick sequence. Inventory is likewise ranked and classified according to its pick frequency as A, B, or C where A is fast-moving and C is slow-moving inventory. A locations are typically ground level, close to the dock, while C locations are the upper locations at the back of the warehouse.

The biggest impact that slotting has is in minimizing the overall travel between picks. Focus your efforts on the big wins first. Are there any C category SKUs in prime A locations? Conversely, are there any A SKUs in C locations? By focusing on the 20% of inventory and locations that have the biggest impact will pay dividends in your productivity once volumes recover.

Deep Cleaning

While most distribution centers have a regular cleaning schedule, lower volumes are a great opportunity to tackle two specific areas: the warehouse graveyard and ground level locations.

Every warehouse has a spot where things get dumped. This might be at the end of the last aisle, or beside the maintenance area. Take this opportunity to finally sort through the broken carts, bent beams and miscellaneous load bars and wood.

While the aisles are usually broom swept and clear of debris, the same can’t always be said of the locations. Pieces of cardboard, broken stringers, wrap and dust collect between the rack posts and ground level pallets. This is a great opportunity to pull out the ground level locations and give the under-rack a good sweeping.

Cleaning is always a good policy. Taking the time for a deep cleaning will help in many ways. Associates will appreciate (and hopefully take care of) the cleaner environment, repairs and maintenance will be reduced by eliminating sources of debris that get caught under forklift tires and wood that can damage inventory.

Inventory counts

Most facilities will have to conduct a full physical inventory annually or have ongoing cycle counts scheduled. This is an opportunity to get some extra inventory counts completed. While just completing the counts will help free up resources down the road, getting associates involved with inventory counts and root cause analysis will create process improvements that will also drive performance once implemented.

There are many potential root causes and harnessing the associates to help develop corrective action plans gets them engaged with the improvement of their operation. The improved inventory accuracy will reduce speed bumps in future operations, but more importantly, finding and correcting the root causes for the errors will improve your overall performance.

Professional Development

Most operations lament the lack of qualified labor when posting new positions. Why not take the opportunity to develop your own labor? Taking the time now to offer development courses or other training programs for staff is an opportunity to engage your team.

This can be as simple as inviting a group into a meeting and running one of the many free online course videos, or it could involve bringing in external resources to focus on specific areas such as team building or how to handle difficult conversations. These skills will give associates critical skills to better handle their current roles as well as future growth within your organization. While there will always be people that take training and run, we all know it’s not good business practice to manage for these situations. The vast majority of people on our teams are actively involved and want to continue to grow with the organization.

When the time comes and volumes recover, your investment in your team fosters a stronger connection to help retain your team when opportunities become available at competing organizations.

In summary, there are many ways that distribution operations are responding to the challenges associated to the COVID-19 pandemic. Some will focus on reducing costs — of which labor is one of the first, and biggest, to come to mind. Others will see this as a golden opportunity that affords them the time and space to invest in their operations and people. While both organizations will more than likely survive the business disruption, one will be better positioned to take advantage of opportunities that present themselves down the road.

About the Author:

Nick Gaganiaras, executive managing director for Occupier Services in the Supply Chain and Logistics Consulting practice, supports the Canadian market with his expertise. With over 15 years of experience in supply chain and logistics operations, Nick brings a balanced approach to supply chain problems, offering strategically positioned business solutions. As an operator, he has worked through the same challenges that clients face every day. As a solutions designer, he has developed both financial and operational models to handle the intricacies of many industries and client-specific requirements.