Retrofit Realities: 15 Tips for a Seamless Transition, Part I

Retrofit Realities: 15 Tips for a Seamless Transition, Part I

By Dean Starovasnik

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Undertaking the retrofit of a major material handling system while it’s still in operation has often been described as “open heart surgery on a marathon runner…during the race.”  Another analogy is “changing the engines on an airplane…in flight.”  Both of these analogies fail to capture one major detail about retrofits: in almost all cases they are intended to produce increased capacity or broader capabilities in some function or area.  A more proper analogy, which reflects the enhanced performance the retrofit is meant to provide, would be “replacing the engine on a VW bus with a brand new supercharged V8 during a road trip”.

A well-planned and implemented retrofit ensures customers receive timely delivery of product, just as they would under normal operation.  From the customer perspective, the transition should be completely seamless.  It’s not easy to achieve, but it is possible.

In Part I and II of this three-part series, I’m outlining planning and preparation tips that will help your organization and more importantly, your customers, experience a seamless retrofit.  In Part III, I’ll bring it on home with 5 Implementation Tips for a Seamless Transition. Here we go…

1)    Early and extensive planning at a corporate, facility and functional area level will help to avoid many pitfalls. 

Proper attention at the necessary levels of seniority, Operations or Logistics VP or even COO/CEO level, is critical to ensure both the needed resources and necessary energy are applied to the development of the plan.  Simply turning such planning over to the consulting or integrator firm is not sufficient.  The intermingling of processes with implementation and the impact this will have on daily operations is too substantial to allow lower level personnel to conduct all planning.  Details and preparation can begin at the supervisory or managerial level.  But executive level participation is essential to ensure the implementation is properly managed.

2)    Murphy’s Law states “anything that can go wrong will go wrong”. Conducting contingency planning is “Murphy repellant.” 

Do you have enough margin in budget, time and space to address the unexpected?  Murphy loves retrofits and will do his best to cause problems.  Paying attention to the recommendations in this post will help. Even better, encouraging team members to think through detailed “what if” analyses will help envision the retrofit in-process and identify potential concerns.  If none of these “what if” scenarios happen, then the repellant worked.  If they do occur, then the response has already been pre-scripted and reviewed, simplifying the reactions for all concerned.

3)    Decide what “seamless” means to both your organization and its customers. 

Is it sufficient to ship excess product ahead to cover any interruptions in service to the customer?  Or should there be no evidence that anything is different at the facility?  In the case of retail distribution to the company’s stores, extra inventory shipped ahead may be sufficient to insulate the end customer from any stock-outs.  However, when shipping to customers outside the company, the key challenge is providing uninterrupted service of the same caliber while the retrofit is underway.  It is critical that all team members understand this operating assumption and its implications.

4)    Developing a detailed, functional area level plan (receiving, shipping order fulfillment, etc.) is only the starting point. 

Determining which areas will be affected, how they will be affected, and in what order is just the beginning.  At the area level, day by day and even hour to hour plans are necessary so operational and implementation teams are able to stay out of each other’s way.  However, do not allow analysis paralysis or perfectionism to delay completion of the plan – “The enemy of a good plan is the dream of a perfect plan.” - von Clausewitz.

5)    Finding and efficiently utilizing “empty space” is essential to working through a retrofit. 

You may recall the slide puzzles of years ago. Remember, the key to getting this puzzle to work is first to have an empty cell.  Similarly, in a retrofit, empty space provides the toehold in the facility which allows all future work to continue.  The more available space for this starting point, the better. 

This may mean building a mezzanine or even constructing a facility expansion first to create the starting point if no excess floor space is free.  Both of these steps will add time to the front of the schedule, since construction must be completed prior to starting implementation.  Alternatively, temporarily relocating a reserve storage area to trailers or a temporary facility may be necessary and faster.

Don’t miss Part II of this series, featuring the last 5 planning and preparation tips that will help ensure a seamless transition for your retrofit project.