We are living in unprecedented times. Volatility and uncertainty permeate the business world. Supply chain operations have proven especially susceptible to volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity (VUCA). While COVID-19 has acted as an accelerant, this has been an ongoing trend driven by evolving customer expectations, technologies and trade policies. 

Since they are execution systems, warehouse management system (WMS) selections tend to focus on as-is requirements and process optimization opportunities. They typically account for new business needs as long as they are known, but they have tended to look at functional and technical requirements as static propositions. Vendors have traditionally been selected based on how well they can support the known world. 

Unfortunately, this approach is inadequate for the uncertain times we live in, especially given the investment involved and the necessity of rapidly confronting change. There is a clear path for dealing with the known in a WMS selection—requirements can be defined, benefits can be quantified and costs can be detailed.

But how should uncertainty and agility be addressed in a WMS selection? While there is no crystal ball that can turn all the unknowns a distribution operation faces into actionable and technical WMS requirements, here are some important considerations to help ensure success during the selection process:

  • Give uncertainty a formal role. Clearly state that any new WMS must provide a platform that can effectively deal with changing business and technical requirements throughout the planning horizon. Do this at project kickoff and make sure it is a key project driver in any RFP. Give agility and flexibility a role in scripted vendor demonstrations, reference calls and evaluation criteria.
  • Try to outline the future as best you can. While the future can never be known with certainty, some upcoming trends and potential needs can always be identified. Don’t lump these into the ability to handle the unknown—take the time to identify them and the likelihood that they will happen.
  • Make flexibility and extensibility key discriminators. The best way to handle new requirements is through configuration and extensibility features. Take the time to dive into each vendor solution’s configurability. Look at any workflow and scripting tools provided that enable the end-user organization to build out functionality within the platform. Also, spend some time trying to understand how externally developed custom apps can be integrated into each vendor’s solution through application exit points and published APIs.
  • Spend more time looking at extended capabilities and feature sets. WMS selections tend to spend a lot of time examining core features, but within any WMS market segment there generally isn’t a lot of difference between vendors in how they support basic receiving, putaway, replenishment, pick, pack and ship functions. While usability and user experience are still very important, unique requirements also need to be considered. Spend some time looking at extended functionality even if their use cases are not immediately apparent. This includes dock and yard management, inspection and quality control, task optimization and work orchestration, work order and kitting, labor planning and slotting. There may come a time when nice-to-have functionality becomes a must have requirement.
  • Focus on time to value. Speed is especially important when continually faced with volatility and uncertainty. How fast an operation can deploy new WMS functionality may make the difference in winning new and retaining existing business. Take some time to evaluate how quickly new functionality can be rolled out for each vendor.
  • Recognize the role that integration plays in handling change. There is also a need to rapidly deploy new integrations in an ever-changing world. Evolving customer and business needs will likely result in new material handling automation, robotics and business system initiatives that must be integrated to the WMS. Pay attention to each WMS vendor’s integration framework as it will have a direct impact on how the deployment of these future technology initiatives.
  • Dive into vendor product roadmaps. Each vendor should be able to provide a product roadmap that details by version where they have been and where they are going. Take the time to walk through these roadmaps with each vendor. Press them on how uncertainty and agility impact future product releases. Ask them about what they see as evolving trends over your planning horizon and how they see their solutions supporting these trends.
  • Socialize agility’s role in the business case. Incorporating agility into a WMS business case presents its own special challenges. Agility is a qualitative factor that helps guard against future uncertainty. How much you will need is unknown. The challenges inherent in addressing agility in a WMS business case are best dealt with upfront. Enterprises vary in how they typically handle uncertainty in major project business cases. Don’t delay on initiating a dialogue on this topic with finance and the c-suite.

Many enterprises struggle with selecting the right WMS for their operations. It takes considerable work and insight to make a WMS selection successful. This is especially true in an increasingly volatile and uncertain world. Contact us to learn how we can help you make your WMS selection successful.

This post is part of our blog series on WMS implementation. Learn more about this topic in the related articles below or visit our newsroom to stay up to date on our latest news.

About the Author
Tom Singer
Tom Singer