Arrow Electronics had already been utilizing Six Sigma practices when it introduced its drone project in 2016 at its two main distribution centers in Malaysia and Asia. The drone project gained them further recognition for their use of Six Sigma methodology and helped usher in a new era of using drones in warehouses in the drive toward achieving zero errors.

By brainstorming with their employees about an issue that could be fixed within the company (typical in Sigma-oriented organizations that are in the D phase of the DMAIC process), Arrow Electronics was able to launch an innovative program that would turn out to significantly improve processes and cut down on waste.

Arrow Electronics Had A Problem

Arrow Electronics has a reputation in the technology sector for having one of the most complex supply chains. Due to this complexity, but also to its commitment to continuous improvement, Arrow is always on the lookout for innovative and new methods for the advancement of logistics and supply chain capabilities.

Finding new ways to improve and eliminate waste from its processes is integral to the long-term success of an organization as large as Arrow Electronics. In the Asia Pacific region alone, Arrow has 70 sales offices, eight main distribution centers, and 37,000 square meters of warehouse facilities.

That scope is extended when you look at their global operations. The electronics company provides products and solutions worldwide and acts as a supply partner to over 125,000 equipment manufacturers in more than 90 countries.

Quality control and continuous improvement have long been a part of the culture at Arrow while dealing with such a massive supply chain.

Lean and Six Sigma methodologies are not new to the organization. Before the launch of its drone project, Arrow had already embraced Lean and Six Sigma. In fact, it had been offering Lean and Six Sigma training to its employees for years. There are also regular Lean and Six Sigma-oriented audits of each distribution center, identifying issues and sharing best practices, always geared towards improving customer experience, achieving high return on investment, and putting a focus on bettering operational performance.

The company deemed it necessary to optimize the warehouse management capabilities and the supply chain infrastructure of their Asia-Pacific region. Interestingly, the idea for their innovative drone project sprang from feedback from their actual warehouse employees. The employees made it clear that it was much easier to oversee processes and spot where improvements can be made from a vantage point that is above ground level.

In a massive warehouse, there is simply too much ground for employees to cover in order to spot where inaccuracies may be occurring or to view the entire system.

It isn’t too dissimilar to when you are playing a video game. You can get lost in what is in front of and around you because you are too close to it. When you pan out and view the task from overhead, however, figuring out how to proceed in the game becomes much simpler.

Arrow just had to figure out how to best address this issue.

Warehouse workers and managers first tried to improve processes and increase efficiency by utilizing stairwells and raising platforms. This had some success, but the feeling was that the organization could do even better with a bigger solution.

They decided on drones.

Drones Helped Maximize the DMAIC Tool, Improve Accuracy, and Eliminate Motion Waste

In response to the issue raised by their warehouse workers, Arrow Electronics went above and beyond. An innovative drone program was launched that combines rapid improvement methodology, video technology, and the latest in drone technology. This was meant to be able to survey the vast warehouse operations of Arrow with a birds-eye view as well as be able to identify areas that could benefit from their policy of continuous improvement.

The initial project did have some limitations. Drones could only fly for 20 minutes before needing a recharge. This made the monitoring of longer, complex processes difficult.

The Outcome Was Phenomenal

With the use of drones for their distribution warehouses in Malaysia and Hong Kong, Arrow was able to rather rapidly increase the efficiency of their targeted processes by 82% as well as cut down 6.5 million walking steps throughout the warehouse. By trusting in the Six Sigma tool DMAIC, Arrow used innovation to identify where improvements could be made and where there was waste. Arrow was able to eliminate a stunning amount of transportation and motion waste, two of the 8 Wastes of Lean.

Other favorable results of the initial program include 28 of Arrow Electronics’ employees becoming well-versed in Lean and Six Sigma methodologies and concepts within the first six months. There also ended up being a sense of reinvigoration for Lean and Six Sigma within the organization, as well as the feeling that the pursuit of continuous improvement could be fun.

The program led to Arrow receiving an Innovation of the Year award at the Lean and Six Sigma World Conference. This is considered to be the leading conference on business process improvement, and the award was presented to Thomas Van Eimeran, the person who conceived of the program and who also happens to be a Top 25 Lean Sigma Practitioner.

Since the innovation in Arrow’s warehouses, the use of drones in warehouses has become more commonplace. Companies now regularly use warehouse management systems and drones to handle inventory and work towards making their warehouses 99% error-free. Arrow has also been an early innovator in its use of virtual reality with its drones. For example, by utilizing the 360-degree filming capability of its drones, Arrow Electronics has been able to further identification of process improvements and perform audits in a virtual space.

3 Best Practices When Solving Quality Issues In Your Organization

1. Listen to your workers
This major innovation in warehouses stemmed from Arrow talking to their workers and figuring out what an issue for them in the workplace was. In an organization that is working with the Sigma methodology, it is encouraged to have a brainstorming session where workers can each raise an issue, the issues are voted on, and then the most popular one gets addressed by management. Your workers are engaging with your systems and processes all day and can often be the best people to look to for ways to improve.

2. Use outside-the-box thinking
Sometimes it is necessary to be able to think outside the box when finding solutions for issues. Just a few years ago, having a team of drones monitor a warehouse would have seemed like some pretty wild science fiction. The same goes for strapping on a pair of virtual reality goggles to check for ways to improve your warehouse processes. Now, the utilization of both of these technological advancements is rapidly becoming one of the most trusted methods of maintaining accuracy and identifying issues.

The folks at Arrow likely had to weigh a lot of options when presented with how to best solve the issue their employees raised.

If it turns out that the best option for solving a workplace problem is a route your organization has never taken before, be sure to fully weigh how realistic the logistics are of your company implementing it. If it appears to be doable, then do not discredit it. Embracing innovation puts you ahead of the competition by being quicker to solve problems in ways they have not thought of yet.

3. Always look toward greater improvement
Arrow Electronics had already been a Sigma-oriented organization for several years when the drone program was proposed. Despite how much improvement to processes the company had already achieved, they were still dedicated to finding ways to continuously improve the way they did business.

This is an important lesson to remember.

No matter how well your company is doing, you can always find ways to improve. There is always more to be done in the pursuit of delivering the best quality to your customers with the utmost efficiency.

Continuous Improvement and Creative Thinking

Arrow was able to improve its processes greatly through the use of its warehouse drone program. It is worth pondering if that program would have ever happened if the organization had not brainstormed with its workers, already trusted in the Six Sigma methodology and how to implement it from years of practice, embraced innovation, and continuously kept finding ways to improve.

Embracing Six Sigma methodology and the tools it provides is proven to help your organization in innumerable ways. With Arrow Electronics, they were able to craft an innovative program for solving their warehouse issues, which are quickly becoming the norm. By continuously seeking out ways to improve and embracing innovation, it is likely that Arrow will continue to find new and exciting ways to make its company even better equipped to serve the needs of its customers. It is wild to think about now, but the utilization of drones and virtual reality to make their company better might just be the beginning of Arrow’s use of the latest advancements in technology. Who knows what is next for Arrow Electronics?

About the Author