Long ago, in a converted print works far, far away... well, Kentish Town to be precise - we were pondering ways to re-design Rapha's order fulfilment process.
The original process we'd helped them come up with was extremely simple, designed for one person to fulfil a modest number of orders. They were ramping up staff levels and had big plans for the next few years and needed something capable of huge predicted order numbers. We needed to come up with a whole new process that would handle large volumes and remain completely scaleable.
A process, not just a website
What we were charged with was creating a process, and then building the platform on which it operates. We went back to basics and spent time with the customers service and despatch crews, product managers and other key stakeholders, as well as investigating the warehousing with an eye to possible future developments. (E.g. bar-code scanners, RFID tags, touch screens, swipe cards...)
We also needed to address the security concerns of a growing business holding stock worth millions, with high unit value. We realised accountability was a key requirement.
Here's what we came up with.
The Five P's
Firstly, the Despatch Captain (our phrase) decides which orders are being dealt with that day (usually the latest, although they might prioritise high-value orders, for example) and hits the Print button. This creates all the documents they and their team need to get everything out of the door. The Captain's initials are automatically logged against this action, the first step in the chain's record of accountability.
Using a picking slip from step one, the pickers walk the warehouse shelves, placing items into plastic boxes. Boxes filled, back at the computer (a touch-screen PC was specified) they check off each item, and again their initials are logged against their actions.
The Packer checks off each item on the their screen while making up the package. Initials are automatically logged again, the parcel is now ready to move on to the next step. The system supports part-packages too, in the event of a stock-out or the need to pack large orders in multiple parcels.
The despatch note (printed at the first step) lists out all the included items, and details those which might be arriving in a separate delivery. It also includes a peel-off address label, alongside a returns label.
In this step the delivery method selected by the customer is assigned to the package. In Rapha's case this could be Royal Mail, FedEx or DHL. (It could even be a cycle courier if within London for a Friday delivery!) Using those suppliers' online systems the package receives a tracking number with all relevant documents and labels, and is ready for the final P.
Couriers all organise their own collections, so packages are placed in sacks sorted by courier. When the FedEx person comes for their packages each individual package is ticked off in the final step. The initials are again logged, meaning that the person responsible is saying "these packages were all handed over, by me".
This accountability at every step of the fulfilment process means that everyone has to take responsibility, because in the event of losses or customer queries they know it could come back to haunt them if they make a mistake. This means, quite simply, fewer mistakes!
Throughout the day the Despatch Captain (and any other staff with the necessary privileges) can see the progress of the team with a simple and effective display. As the green blocks proceed across the screen it's easy to gauge how well things are going throughout the day. It's also easy to see at a glance which staff member carried out which task, with the display of their initials. Amber indicates a problem, such as a partial despatch.
Linear or parallel, or both
These steps could be carried out by one person in a sequential manner for smaller order quantities, but the system really comes into its own when performed in parallel by specialist staff; pickers, packers, a print captain and so on.
This makes it a very flexible system, allowing it to ramp up easily for busy periods, or take a company from start-up to 1,000+ orders per day at peak times...
Many people's first thoughts when it comes to e-commerce are "which merchant shall we use?" or "what will the checkout process be like?" These are valid concerns of course, but fulfilment (despatch, order processing, or whatever phrase you prefer) is at the very heart of e-commerce. Your customers - and your business - depend on it.