I said in my last post we had “launched” the new warehouse, but that was only partly true. We brought over a small portion of the receiving team and ran very low volume, and that was it. That first week went well in many ways, but there were some problems. The largest problem was our shrink-wrap machines. We’re shrink wrapping everything to keep the boxes from falling open as they travel around in the newly automated system. But the shrink-wrap machines were tempermental and not running up to spec, and proved to be a substantial bottleneck, jamming up so often as to cause the whole inbound workflow to grind to a halt.
On Saturday after a somewhat frustrating week we tried a different tack, rather than pushing the shrink wrappers to go faster (resulting in more jams and downtime) we slowed everything down. This idea, from the incredible Keith Glynn, proved to be just the ticket. Even though we were running the machines slower than we wanted, we were able to keep them running smoothly for hours at a time, rather than minutes, and workflow improved. It was a “tortoise and the hare” thing, as Charlotte pointed out.
Sunday we all took a day off; Charlotte and I went to E P “Tom” Sawyer state park and walked a little nature trail. Then we went over to Mehryar’s for dinner with many other Zappos folks and hung out for hours talking about the Mormons.
Then, on Monday morning October 2nd we brought over the complete receiving and returns departments, in excess of 60 people. Since then, all new product, 30K+ items per day, have been going to the new warehouse. Now _that’s_ a launch. We’re starting with a 100K item putaway backlog because the old warehouse literally ran out of space at around 3.1mm shoes. So they’re running three shifts 24/7 to try and catch up.
So Monday was intense. The D day of Zappos logistics. We (the wateam & Charlotte) worked for 17 hours straight starting at 7AM. And this was real work, not some leisurly faffing about on a computer like I normally do. I was on my feet the whole time. I was so engaged in all the goings-on I literally forgot to eat lunch and only remembered dinner because someone else mentioned it. I can’t even recall what dinner was at this point; it may have been a couple candy bars. At one point midday, my impossibly cool exterior cracked a little bit and Charlotte caught me with a dazed expression running from one problem to the next mumbling “we’re fucked”. But that was only for a few moments; overall things were a success.
Keith and I managed to keep the shrink wrappers running pretty well, despite their inherint problems. Running an under-specced shrink wrapper looks easy, but it is actually a careful process of gracefully managing the ever-gliding boxes into a perfectly spaced line. It was actually hard to train people to do it consistently enough, so we did it for a portion of the day ourselves. We also had techs look at the machines to figure out what could be done to run them faster. It turned out to be that they were geared for smaller average box size and rate and weren’t releasing plastic fast enough.
The other major challenge was to keep all the workflow balanced… in a high-speed automated system, each set of workers in the chain has to keep up or everyone loses productivity. Of course, I was only peripherally involved in that kind of thing, but it is amazing to see everyone running around learning where the choke points are and redeploying their efforts. It’s going to take quite a while for everyone to get their instincts working in the new system, and I don’t know any way other than trial and error.
I crashed at about 2AM, and then hit the warehouse again at 7AM today. Today went a better overall, as many of the “we’re fucked” type of problems had been resolved. So we chugged along pretty well but still bottlenecked by the shrink wrap machines. Luckily we were able to find a tech co come out and install new sprockets so the plastic would go faster. This happened just before I went home tonight, and it seemed to make a big difference. I’m really looking forward to tomorrow; D +2.
Oh, and I haven’t even mentioned outbound yet… Mehryar, Justin, and Jen ran several real orders through the outbound process today. Overall things worked well, and we might go live with outbound tomorrow. We’ll see. If we do, then we’ll have arrived. And I’ll be ready for a long nap