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Mitigating Risk for WMS Implementations: 5 Strategies for Retailers

Implementing or upgrading a Warehouse Management System (WMS) is a strategic endeavor that demands meticulous planning, clear communication, and proactive risk management. Success hinges not only on the technical aspects but also on the alignment of business objectives, collaboration between teams, and proactive governance throughout the process.  

In this article, we delve into five key strategies for mitigating risk for WMS implementations within the retail industry. From aligning visions to fostering cross-functional collaboration – as well as proactive planning, good documentation practices, and effective vendor management – each aspect contributes to a comprehensive approach toward minimizing risks and maximizing the value derived from your WMS implementation efforts. 

Mitigating Risk for WMS Implementations

1. Remain Aligned on Vision from Beginning to Middle to End 

In supply chain management, the decision to implement, upgrade, or migrate a WMS requires a clear and aligned strategic vision from inception to execution. A WMS provides value beyond its technological benefits – it directly affects a retailer’s operational efficiency, inventory management, customer satisfaction and ultimately, the bottom line.  

To ensure a successful WMS implementation, it’s imperative to align the project’s objectives with overarching business strategies, such as growth targets, revenue goals, and operational excellence initiatives. Considerations such as the complexity of warehouse processes; the type of products being handled; specific requirements such as Value-Added Services (VAS), returns, and reverse logistics; and the integration of third-party logistics (3PL) partners all play a pivotal role in shaping the WMS strategy. 

However, maintaining alignment throughout the implementation journey is equally crucial. As unforeseen challenges arise and business priorities evolve, supply chain leaders must be prepared to make informed decisions and pivot when necessary. Decisions could arise mid-stream and alter the initial strategy – significant course corrections will impact implementation and its timelines. Perhaps the bells and whistles aligned upon in the beginning aren’t driving the value the business intended. External shocks could require operational cost cuts, impacting the resource pool to drive implementation.  

Risks exist along different timelines and of varying impact depending on the current state of the WMS and the overall vision behind why you’re implementing the WMS. Maintaining alignment with the strategic vision ensures that the implementation stays on course to deliver tangible business value.

2. Define Clear Roles and Drive Accountability Between Business and IT Teams 

Retail supply chain operations are dynamic. As such, successful WMS implementations hinge on the seamless collaboration between business and IT teams. The true value of a WMS lies not just in its technical capabilities, but in its ability to align with and support key business processes. 

Effective collaboration begins with establishing clear roles and accountability between business and IT stakeholders. Both business and IT teams need to drive accountability for the WMS implementation. An implementation may be technically perfect, but without meaningful input from both functions, the WMS won’t provide full value to the end user. Fostering cross-functional collaboration ensures requirements are fully defined and includes input from all affected functions. A retailer needs to include business input for considerations such as inventory management, channel-specific needs, logistics of returned goods, special product handling needs, and VAS.     

IT teams can help clarify technical dependencies and critical code interactions within an organization’s systems. Business teams may require a specific functional change during an upgrade, but without clear communication with IT teams, the level of effort required to make technical and functional changes in parallel may be lost. These issues can be mitigated by effective communication channels. By providing clarity on functional changes, technical dependencies, and critical code interactions, retailers can streamline the implementation process and minimize the risk of misalignment between business goals and technical capabilities.

3. Take a Proactive Approach to Planning: What Will Success Look Like at Each Stage? 

Proactive planning is key to mitigating risks and ensuring a successful WMS implementation. Identifying key milestones early on, with contributions from both IT and business teams, is essential for setting realistic expectations and mitigating potential disruptions to operations.  

Considerations such as seasonality, peak periods of warehouse activity, and the availability of resources all impact the implementation timeline and deployment strategy. What are the periods of high volume within the warehouse that will make it difficult to deploy changes? For example, retailers will want to avoid their busiest seasons (e.g. holidays, back to school). Launching during periods of lower receiving/shipping volumes can help mitigate the magnitude of issues that arise. Is there a big enough window of time to implement? Depending on the complexity of the upgrade, implementations can take many months to complete. By proactively planning around these factors, retailers can minimize the risk of disruption and ensure a smoother transition to the new WMS solution. 

We advise retailers to involve warehouse associates in the testing and training process to foster user adoption and mitigate post-implementation issues. By soliciting feedback and addressing concerns upfront, retail leaders can empower warehouse staff to embrace the new WMS system and drive operational excellence from day one. Additionally, considering the escalation/issue resolution process before it happens can help mitigate risk (i.e. who are the right people to go to when a business-critical issue is identified?).

4. Maintain Intentional and Consistent Documentation Practices 

Knowledge is power, yet knowledge of current and previous systems is often lost over the years – insight that can help determine the impact of functional and technical changes being currently planned. Documenting current and previous systems facilitates smoother transitions and mitigates operational risks. When this information is recorded and available, ‘catching up’ to the current state of the WMS is much easier (both internally and to external vendors hired for implementation).   

By maintaining comprehensive documentation of functional and technical changes, retailers can ensure continuity across systems and streamline the implementation process. Moreover, effective documentation practices enable retailers to deliver successful training programs and empower end users to leverage the full capabilities of the new WMS solution. Power users are essential to any implementation – these are the users who will drive the transformation to use the new WMS. The more knowledge these users have, the better, as once the implementing vendor is gone, power users will be essential for the health and functionality of the WMS.

5. Establish Proactive Governance Structures Between Offshore and Onshore 

Effective vendor management is critical to the success of WMS implementations. Retailers must establish clear governance structures and communication protocols to facilitate collaboration between onshore and offshore resources. By aligning working schedules, roles, and responsibilities upfront, retailers can minimize misunderstandings and delays in the development process. Further, clearly defined coding practices and approval processes ensure consistency and quality in the deliverables from external vendors. 

Ultimately, proactive governance enables retailers to maintain control over the WMS implementation process and mitigate the risk of disruptions to operations. By fostering strong relationships with vendors and empowering internal teams to drive and maintain the new WMS solution, retailers can position their organizations for long-term success.   

Looking Ahead 

Whether beginning from ground zero or upgrading an existing WMS with complex functionality, retailers can avoid risk by ensuring an aligned vision of the WMS, clearly outlining roles for business and IT teams, and having a solid understanding of what success will look like at each stage. Implementation will be executed more efficiently when retailers exercise intentional documentation practices and proactive governance between offshore and onshore resources 

Reach out to Clarkston’s retail supply chain experts for guidance on your next WMS upgrade, implementation, or migration.Top of Form 

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Contributions by Ben South

Tags: Warehouse Operations