Going paperless

Features - Inventory Control

Devil Mountain Nursery eliminated bottlenecks by shifting to a paperless inventory management system.

Subscribe
January 3, 2018
Matt McClellan

Devil Mountain Nursery, a California-based nursery that exclusively sells to professional landscapers and wholesale, established an enviable reputation for its ability to source virtually any plant thanks to its access to over 100 different growers in California, Arizona, Washington, and Oregon. It offers an extensive range of plant varieties from around the world, including evergreen and deciduous trees and shrubs, drought-tolerant cactus and succulents, edibles, tropical plants, ornamental grasses, annuals, roses, California natives and more.

The company had doubled its acreage from 60 acres to 120 in the last 10 years. Plus, there were plans to add two new 20-acre nurseries. The growth led to sizeable growing pains, which spurred them to reassess their warehouse/order fulfilling management process and implement tactics and technology that allowed them to go from using 3-4 pieces of paper for each order to completely paperless and eliminate bottlenecks.

Chief operations officer Drew McMillen says the nursery spent years modifying its paper-based system.

“We finally realized we could continue changing it until we were blue in the face, but it would never change to the degree that it needed to for us to continue to grow,” he says.

At that point, the company looked for outside solutions. The bottlenecks of the paper system were well-known. The nursery receives a paper order, sends someone out to go pick it. Then, five minutes later, the customer calls to make changes to that order. The nursery needs to edit the order and get the paperwork to the picker. If they’ve already picked the order, they’ve got to put it back.

“It created a lot of undoing and redoing problems that could have been avoided,” McMillen says. “We knew we needed a more quick, responsive system than the one we had.”

Devil Mountain uses Epicor’s Eagle ERP software system. So their goal was to find an inventory management system that would “play nice” with their existing system, while improving inventory accuracy and directing behavior of employees.

Eventually, Devil Mountain settled on the Latitude warehouse management system, by PathGuide Technologies. There were proven examples of PathGuide Latitude integrating well with Epicor’s Eagle software, which was a point in the software’s favor. Latitude offers a range of substantial inventory tracking enhancements, but the secondary benefit of letting the computer direct the pickers to their next job was the key component for Devil Mountain.

Nursery workers are equipped with a RF scanner that interfaces with the inventory management software to provide direction. Salespeople add orders to the system and set priority.

“All the paper orders, the need to have a face-to-face communication about the order, hand the paper to someone, the need to find that person to find out what happened with the order — all that was replaced by the software,” McMillen says. “That, and all the problems that come with that.”

For instance, if that picker had a question or problem that required a return visit and conversation, but the person he or she needed to talk to was busy, that time is wasted. And the picker will have to come back later, which creates even more wasted time.

To interface with the Latitude inventory management software, pickers are outfitted with RF scanning guns. If they’re in the shipping yard, they can send requests for picking jobs or receive orders to pick from the office. The scanners help the pickers do their jobs much more efficiently and effectively, says Valerie Hom, Devil Mountain’s systems implementation manager.

“It’s much more helpful to them instead of having a clipboard full of paper,” she says. “They don’t need to worry about that anymore.”

A salesperson types in an order, sets its priority level, and transfers it to the field. The picker receives directions. Previously, they were responsible for much more of this process, which slowed them down.

“It’s much more, ‘do this, then we’ll give you the next thing to do,’” Hom says. “You’re not prioritizing; you’re not making judgment calls. You don’t have to keep track or remember what you were told. You can look at your gun and say, ‘This is what I have to do right now.’”

Getting started

It wasn’t a smooth process. The nursery phased the system in over the course of a year, and provided several weeks of training before going live. If there were problems (which there were), the nursery kept paper backups until everything was working properly.

“There were a few times where we started walking down the path of trying to pull the plug completely on the paper,” McMillen says. “Then you realize there’s a few fundamental issues you need to go back and address. Everything sounds good in planning until you actually do it.”

In those cases, the nursery returned to the paper system and scheduled a meeting with the software engineers and tried again once they’d worked out the kinks. It took some time, as Devil Mountain was the first nursery to use this system. Because of the perishable nature of its product, Devil Mountain had several issues that a company wouldn’t have with a typical product on a rack in a warehouse.

Hom suggests nurseries considering a change to a paperless inventory system work slowly. She also suggests training and implementing it in one department at a time. Still, some workers weren’t happy about the new system.

“Change is scary, people are scared and they get frustrated,” McMillen says. “When you’re used to doing something for a long time, there’s some pushback. We were mindful of that and when we saw that the software wasn’t operating in the way we promised, we were able to pull back and make the necessary changes before moving forward. Where we sit today, people, even those who were doubters at the outset, are now pretty darn convinced and used to the operating system.”

The paperless system has increased efficiency throughout the nursery. By letting the software prioritize and order tasks, the picker can work through orders more quickly.
devil mountain nursery

Devil Mountain sent out an email to customers asking for patience with the situation, and that it will result in a better service for them. Most of their customers have been understanding. And the results have been encouraging.

“We’re pulling orders faster, we can definitely keep track of what our pickers are doing all day,” Hom says. “Previously we didn’t have a record of how many orders they were pulling, or really what they were doing all day other than work. Latitude has really allowed us to have good record-keeping on the history of items, history of orders, inventory of the nursery. In that way, it’s more efficient about getting information on an order, finding an item in the yard. Previously we had to go ask someone in the yard. Now you can look in computer and find most of the information you need.”

The nursery’s salespeople can easily see what has been picked and what hasn’t. That allows them to be more responsive to customer requests. In addition to monitoring and tracking pickers work, McMillen hopes that in the future to be able to use that data to provide incentives to motivate pickers to be even faster.

For more: www.devilmountainnursery.com