Home Depot Friction And Flow
Possibilities For Improvement
In January of 2020, I hired into Home Depot as a garden associate. HD management at my local store is not aware of my training as a systems engineer, my previous professional life as a military officer or, after that, as a UNIX systems administrator of 20 years. Working as a new associate, with an eye for process and flow, has allowed me to get a sense of what changes would truly improve the lives of both customers and associates.
This is an informal paper, because that’s the way I roll. I hope that the ideas that follow can be used to improve the daily life of my current HD co-workers who are as hard-a-working group of men and women that I’ve ever had the pleasure of working with.
Keep in mind that the ideas that follow are fairly limited in scope and do not address efficiencies that could be improved in other areas of operations, nor do they address even all the ideas that I would propose.
Systems Engineering was the engineering discipline I followed at university. From Wikipedia,
Systems engineering is an interdisciplinary field of engineering and engineering management that focuses on how to design, integrate, and manage complex systems over their life cycles. At its core, systems engineering utilizes systems thinking principles to organize this body of knowledge.
Mostly, you’ll find systems engineers in manufacturing with a focus on improving the efficiency of factory floors.
As an officer in the U.S. Army, I was trained to see the larger picture and to make things happen. This involved a lot of problem-solving in an ever-changing environment while allocating limited resources in the most efficient manner possible.
As a Unix Systems Administrator/Engineer the problem set changed, but the focus on efficient use of resources across large, heterogeneous domain sets remained the same.
As part of my professional education, I took the opportunity to study Toyota’s Lean Manufacturing method, also known as Just-In-Time, which is credited as being a driving force behind Toyota’s success with efficiency and quality. It is my belief that Lean Manufacturing concepts such as Kanban and elimination of waste and waiting, can be advantageously applied to Home Depot.
Friction / Flow
Friction and Flow are the Yin and Yang of HD operations.
Friction, in this case, are those employee operations (restocking, facing, placing, pricing, etc) that overlap with or interfere with customer activity, or conversely, customer activity that overlaps and interferes with employee operations.
Flow is a measure of the ease of operations for employees and the ease of shopping for customers. The successful retailer will minimize as much as possible this area of overlap and will err on the side of Flow whenever necessary.
Current operations see heavy equipment sharing space with customers. Not only is this highly inefficient and exceedingly dangerous (especially considering the lack of training forklift operators receive and the lack of awareness displayed by many customers) it is the essence of Friction. In this environment, another associate is required to flag for the forklift driver, fence off areas of the store and remain vigilant in order to ensure customer safety. This actively interferes with the customer’s need to find and purchase items. It also means one less associate actively helping customers find the items they wish to purchase or ensure that other products are easily available to customers.
I have witnessed product replenishment delayed because the department gets too busy. With so many customers wandering the aisles, it can be deemed too difficult to bring in new product with the forklift, and so product Homes are left empty until customers go away. I’ve never owned a retail business before, but I’m pretty sure that this is exactly the opposite of what should be happening.
I highly recommend separating product replenishment operations from customer areas as much as possible to reduce Friction and increase Flow. Fortunately, this is very possible with a slight rethinking of store layout, a new concept or two, and a moderately larger store footprint.
But First, New Employee On-boarding
Currently, on-boarding a new employee consists of several days worth of watching videos. Full stop. These are good for emphasizing safety in the store, but they do not go nearly far enough towards helping a new associate learn their department, its idiosyncrasies or how to deal with customers.
Here are some of my recommendations for on-boarding such that the new associate can walk on to the floor and immediately start contributing, be able to answer some of the most common questions, and be self-directing in their actions when a mentor is not around.
- Each new associate should be assigned a mentor in their department for their first 160 hours of work. The new associate’s schedule should mirror that of their mentor and they should shadow that mentor in every activity as they learn about their department, their store, and the HD culture. If scheduling is difficult, mentoring duties can be shared.
- Mentoring new associates should be a required responsibility for full-time associates, rotating as needed through the members of the department. Mentoring helps to build a cohesive team, increase knowledge across the team of each other’s strengths and weaknesses and helps to remind the tenured associates of the struggles that new associates go through when beginning work.
- Mentors should not only ensure that a new employee understands retail basics like ‘Home’, ‘front face’ and ‘pack down’ but they should also ensure that they understand the basic layout of the store, general locations for the other departments, the location of common items often requested of their department but are located elsewhere (plungers/fencing/carpet cleaning detergent), location codes used in the FIRST phone (ec, fw, cs1, cs2), etc. This might seem like small stuff to someone who has been working a while, but to a new associate facing a customer and finding this code on the phone, it’s huge.
- A laminated cheat sheet containing an overview of this basic knowledge for each specific department should be provided.
- An organizational chart should be provided to new associates on day one. This will help them understand who to go to for help, which employees are full-time, which managers have responsibility for which departments, etc. This chart should also list associates with special duties like hazmat, lift/reach licenses and key-carrier and how to contact them.
- Mentors should be responsible for scheduling training for the new associates on the various reaches, lifts and ladders, and ensuring that said training is completed successfully. Each new associate should, at a minimum, be able to operate an electric ladder by the time they leave the mentor program.
- Heavy equipment operators need practice. They need to be able to practice moving pallets of different types and size factors of materials (soil, block and pipe) in and out of aisles and bays crowded with other materials, as well as loading customer vehicles of different types. As part of this training, new forklift drivers should be taught how to lift, move and place pallets of bagged items (soil, fertilizer, gravel) without ripping them. I recommend at least an hour a week of Back Lot practice with a mentor for the first several months after licensing. Dummy shelving and bays should be set up for purpose, as well as various types of customer vehicles.
Garden Department Operations
- It is necessary to have an operations center where messages from management, including department supervisor, daily tasks, priorities, upcoming events, requests from customers, etc are displayed. Technology may work for some of these needs, but it must be used consistently for it to be of any value. There is no substitute for direct, face-to-face communication from leadership.
- In garden, there is a need for a cage or cages for each associate to hang outdoor gear to dry and to keep tools and other implements.
- Garden is a large area and can get very messy. There should be at least six stations throughout outside garden that are home to brooms, standing dustpans, shovels, stretch wrap, patch tape and trash cans among other necessary items. Running around searching for these items when needed, which is often, is a huge waste of time and energy. Checking that these stations are in good order at the beginning of the day should be a part of the opening crew task list. These stations can also act as the above mentioned cages for individual associates to store gear and tools.
HD is well aware of the cost associated with empty ‘Homes’. If a product Home is empty, or the product is pushed too far back on the shelf such that a customer cannot see it or reach it, that is a lost sale. The estimated dollar cost of these lost sales across Home Depot is estimated in the millions ($40 million, I believe it was)— a figure which easily makes it worth exploring some systemic solutions.
Heavy Equipment Operations
An Airlock on a spaceship is a portal that separates the outside void from the inside habitable area. In this case, the outside void equates to the unsecured outside of the store and the habitable area is the inside, customer inhabited area. The twain should (almost) never meet.
By changing some item locations and fencing, and modifying the key carrier operations to fit, most garden forklift operations can be separated from customer occupied areas, there by significantly reducing Friction.
Clearly, this graphic is not to scale, nor does it exactly conform to current outside garden layout. I ask you to ignore that and to pay attention instead to the cogent points regarding Airlock layout, gate and forklift operations. We will discuss the Assembly area later.
In the above graphic, the Airlock is an area of unimpeded forklift operations. When a load of soil, block or lumber comes into Receiving and is unloaded, the pallets can be staged inside the Airlock either above the product Home or directly across the Airlock. Just like current aisle racks, each bay is three high, so in the immediate vicinity of the product Home, there are at least five more pallets ready to be placed with almost unimpeded forklift operations from within the Airlock. I say ‘almost’ because when it comes to actually moving the pallet into the Home, a spotter must be used on the customer side of the bay to ensure safety.
The dotted openings indicate permanent and lockable gates/doors that can easily be opened and closed. When filling the block, stone or gravel bays, the two passages to the customer areas can be sealed off such that customers have no access and no spotter is needed. When that Airlock is not being used, the Airlock itself can be sealed such that customers can traverse between inside and outside garden. The Airlock/Receiving gates should never be open when Airlock/customer gates are open or unlocked.
These changes allow five pallets of product to be staged in close proximity to the Home bay (replenishment in under 5 minutes) without impeding customers or requiring flagging. Compare this to moving two pallets above the product Home while also requiring the services of another associate to fence and flag, and impeding customer shopping all the while.
Forklift operators should hold the keys and be able to operate the Airlock/Customer gates as well as the bay gates. Receiving should have easy access to the Airlock/Receiving gates. Magnetic locks and key cards would come in handy here. Using such a system would allow gate operations to be monitored and tracked.
By making the changes above, Receiving, with Airlock/customer gates locked, can now move product to its particular staging bays, making it ready for the garden associate when needed. The garden forklift can then proceed to organize, stage and move product as needed in an efficient manner without the need for flagging. When Home is empty, with Airlock/Receiving gates locked, and with a spotter on the inside, the forklift operator can open the gate to the Home bay, move in a new pallet, and close and lock the gate.
And, come on, let’s not be too stingy with space in the Airlock. I realize there is guidance that describes how much space to the centimeter a forklift needs to maneuver, but if you give the forklift an extra foot or two, you’ll find that operations proceed much faster. I’ve watched as an experienced forklift driver spent an exceedingly long time (approaching an hour) attempting to move 20 foot conduit into place simply because they could not freely maneuver. As a fairly new forklift driver myself, I have spent more time than I would have wished trying to move pallets of block into and out of their Homes.
The red lines in the preceding image indicate permanent fencing. Notice that the permanent fencing encloses the upper two bays of the customer facing aisle. This allows forklift operations on those two bays to proceed from the Airlock without concern for customer safety. The sliding gate is used to open the Home bay from the Airlock for placing new pallets. This would only be done with proper fencing on the customer side of the bay. The forklift driver should hold the keys to the sliding gates if management deems it necessary that these are individually locked. Alternatively, to locking each individual gate, another mechanism, such as a bar that spans all or a specific set of bays, can be used which requires only a single lock.
Even without the airlock, replenishment operations can be improved simply by making soil and stone homes available to the forklift from the back lot area. Like the airlock, the forklift would have free reign in this area without the need for a spotter and with only limited customer-side flagging options.
Toggling — Re-ordering And Staging Fulfillment
Currently, when Homes start to empty, an associate spends an hour walking the line, writing down SKUs and number of pallets needed, then they go to the back lot to see if there are any pallets out there. This is highly inefficient, ineffective and slow. What is needed is a simple signaling system that any garden associate can initiate.
On the inside, when a bay has only a small portion of the product remaining, an associate can toggle a switch that turns on an LED light in the Airlock. The forklift driver would then fill those Homes from the Airlock staging.
In the Airlock, when a product is down by two or three pallets, the forklift operator could toggle a switch for each empty bay for each product. This would light a board out back at Receiving. The garden forklift driver could then, with easy reference to this board, find product and return it to the staging bays inside the Airlock. With every trip, they would reset a toggle. During this process the gates between the customer areas and the Airlock are closed and locked.
It would also save time and increase efficiency if those toggles can be flipped by the forklift driver without leaving the seat.
At the end of the day if Homes and staging bays have been filled, and if there are any lights left on for a product, the manager can place an order.
Why a toggling LED instead of a computer inventory? Because toggling is straightforward, simple and fool-proof. Data is communicated in a clear and concise manner with a clear and concise meaning. One does not have to log in to anything to view it, one does not have to carry a phone, a downed wifi network or broken phone will not interfere with operations, and the correctness of the system is easy to verify and reset, if necessary.
The same concept of an Airlock can be used to great effect behind aisles that hold a lot of product, especially the plant food, pesticide and cleaning aisles. By slimming the aisles down to the depth of the reasonable reach of a human arm (which by the way, is as far as a customer will reach for a product anyway) and creating a alley behind the aisle where associates can work and where customers are not permitted, we have already decreased Friction and enhanced our ability to keep the product up at the front of its Home, while not using an appreciably larger space. We have also decreased loss from product falling off the shelving at the back, and decreased danger from hazardous materials that might spill in the back.
A customer’s arm is only so long. Any aisle that is deeper than that is a waste of space and only necessary if restocking operations are inefficient.
Now, add an automated electric ladder on rails that an associate can drive back and forth and up and down, quickly and without fear of hitting a customer, product can be pulled down from above and easily and quickly pushed into Home from the rear. This ladder always stays on its rails and in its alley. It might be possible to have a single system that traverses all necessary locations with some slight relocation of product.
Product Assembly And Repair
Currently the assembly team builds product in the aisles under the awnings of outside garden. This is an area where pigeons love to nest, leaving the assembled product, the product waiting to be built and the discarded packaging material subject to fouling from pigeon feces and rain, as well as blocking the aisle and its products from associates and customers alike.
Let’s give the assemblers their own dedicated location to put product together. In the following graphic below, they can bring product in from both the Back Lot and from Receiving, they have easy access to the Airlock for moving assembled pieces throughout the store, and an easy route of disposal for empty packaging (again through Receiving).
This area, like the Airlock, would be separated from customer activity and therefore would ease forklift and reach operations.
Health And Cleanliness
This problem needs to be dealt with ASAP and not necessarily in an inhumane way. There must be numerous ways to make the outside garden area an unappealing nesting site for pigeons. Rotating, Gatling laser pointers with motion detection. Hanging and moving curtains (like in a car wash). Deep bass tones transmitted powerfully through the shelving so that they could not comfortably nest, especially if using the concept of binaural beats. A combination of all three or more.
Pigeons are a cleanliness and health issue and cost lots of money in lost sales and discounted product. Customers, in my experience, do not want bags or boxes of anything if they are covered with pigeon feces. I have even had customers decline discounts because the item is beyond rescue.
Please HD, set up a lab to study this problem. It cannot be too difficult.
Ripped fertilizer, soil, mulch and gravel bags
In garden, discounts are often given to products in ripped bags, even if no product has actually been lost. Customers just don’t want damaged goods. Some simple protective measures inside the bays can prevent much product loss. A protective metal sleeve or hard rubber gaskets can be designed to cover protruding bolts, beams and sharp edges. This cannot be too difficult and would save a ton of discounts. Again, a project for the HD lab.
There is also an opportunity here to investigate the use of vertical space, not for inefficient and Friction increasing storage, but for replenishment operations. If instead of simple storage, the upper space were converted to a work area where MET could stock narrow shelves of product which could then be lowered to the floor, while the picked-through shelving could be raised for attention.
The HD Lab (Testing/QA/Production)
An HD lab should exist for purposes of studying friction and improving Flow, and for testing systemic improvements. It could be outfitted with movable walls/fencing where normal walls might exist in other stores. New technology and ideas can be tested, modified and tested again, before being moved into limited operation for Quality Assurance (QA) at a real store. Before and after data in regards to revenue, cost, employee happiness and customer satisfaction can be collected and analyzed before being moved into a wider roll-out (Production).
I would suggest a regional maintenance team be created with a checklist of items that need to be checked and tested at each store, each quarter. FixIts are not respected by tenured, full-time associates as being honored, which means that stuff is not getting reported and therefore stuff is not getting fixed.
Don’t get me started.