Our Warehouse Design Tenets

There’s a connection between company culture and its engineering output. That connection can be summed up in one word: design.

The most obvious example of this may be Apple. Apple produces beautifully engineered products because of its design-centric culture, famously influenced by Steve Jobs’s calligraphic experiences and by Jony Ive’s genius with product. In this case, a culture with a specific point of view on functionality translated directly into unique products.

Other examples might include car companies, where the car styling and interfaces reflect the company’s legacy and what the company thinks is good. The design of a BMW or a Ferrari tells you about the company’s culture just as much as a Chevy Charger or Ford F-150 does.

Buildings are another place where we see culture translated into physical structures. Architects seek to reflect the vibe and personality of themselves and their clients as they draw buildings, facades, campuses, landscaping, and interiors. Functional design becomes a byword.

Carmo Coffee: Credit Architizer

But there’s a challenge: Does this translation of company culture into processing happen in industrial settings? Factories, warehouses, and the like — is there a cultural influence on design of the processes within the buildings?

We at PL Programs think so–yes, there can be beautiful, functional operations. On the flip side, there can be ugly, sad operations. There is a huge influence of culture on the designs of warehousing and distribution centers. Those designs then become real operations, with real impacts on company outcomes and the people who have to work in them for years, sometimes decades. Look at Amazon and Toyota as examples.

One of our goals is to set the right culture to get the best designs. But how do we do that?

Culture Drives Design

One of the things I’ve noticed about working at different companies is that the successful cultures have a certain mythos. This mythos often includes a founding story with a larger-than-life founder who struggled to bring the company to where it is. The culture also has its own idiom and approach to problem-solving (ok, this is a definition of culture, but bear with me.).

The articulation of the culture often includes the company’s core principles, values, or tenets.

Amazon, for example, is really good at this. Now, other companies are good too, but the Amazon Leadership Principles are exceptional cultural building blocks and should be studied by anyone trying to shape their company culture. They deliver their operation on those leadership principles. And the approach to problem-solving doesn’t stop there.

Another part of Amazon’s successful culture is their use of tenets , defined here in this excellent summary as “a principle or belief that guides decision-making.” They’re described as “foundational” (describing why the team/product exists) or “aspirational” (describing how a team or product should operate). They should be short and memorable. There are even best practices on what makes good tenets.

An example is the saying “Problems are treasures”, which encapsulates a whole attitude towards continuous improvement, customer focus, positivity, and team cohesiveness. I found myself repeating this one for years after working at Amazon.

A poor set of tenets or principles can be just as demotivating. If you knew the guiding philosophy in your company was to make certain EBITDA margins, with window-dressing single-word “values” to drive your design, what would the outputs be? Certainly the priorities would be the most immediately cost-effective approach. This in turn would lead to a culture of corner-cutting and short-sightedness, of technical debt to be kicked down the road for someone else to deal with.

These cultural memes are very powerful and truly shape how a team perceives and reacts to challenges. So it is very likely that the company culture is a major factor in how the company approaches solving problems like developing integrated designs.

PL Programs Engineering Approach

This brings us to PL Programs.

We just started up our engineering department. We offer warehouse design as one of our service offerings, among others. One of the first things we’ve is started to develop our own design tenets, because we recognize that articulating the cultural values will drive our design approach.

The purpose is to help guide us along the way and answer the question at the end: Is the design a good one?

This is a surprisingly tough question to answer!

There are a lot of warehouses out there. All were designed (at some point) deliberately. Some were designed well. Others have been absolute living hell for their operations teams since the day they opened their doors.

Design affects a lot – get it right!

How do you tell which outcome a design will lead to? After all, warehouse design is not deterministic. There are many probabilistic variables to include in design as well as other assumptions about the future. And as it turns out, telling the future is really, really hard.

So you want to test the against certain principles, even after checking the numbers and running simulations. You should be able to look at a design, ask certain questions of it, and see if everyone agrees that it is consistent with the design principles. If it fails any, then the design is a bad one or should be questioned much further.

More importantly, you should be able to take multiple design options and compare them against the tenets and see how they stack up. Two designs may have exactly identical throughputs, capacities, and even costs, and yet be radically different in terms of quality of design. You should know how to tell them apart.

Our Approach

Here are the tenets and conceptual framework we have developed to test our designs against. They’re a mixture of guiding principles and tenets. They may change as we learn more and articulate the essence of the key insights more. But: we know following them will lead to good outcomes for our clients.

Our Mindset:

  1. Design reflects the client’s business and people. We dive into the why and how of the client’s business and their ways of working to drive solution design.
  2. We show our work. All design decisions should have a quantitative backing with the best, most complete data available. We identify and agree on assumptions with the client.
  3. Operations is the customer. Design is collaborative and iterative. We’ve experienced warehouse operations and know that ultimately Operations teams have to live with the design. We solicit Operations teams’ and other functional teams’ insights and input as a part of the process.
  4. Lead with Lean. Lean, with its uncompromising approach to quality by flow and pull systems, is the most comprehensive approach to thinking about delivering value in a warehousing setting. It’s not an absolute, but the fundamentals are rock-solid. Violating them leads to problems.
  5. Space, time, and effort cost money. We design to make the best use of each without sacrificing building functionality.
  6. Technology has two bosses. Our technology recommendations must be the best fit to design requirements and the client investment philosophy. Sometimes these things are at odds and we make the decisions explicit.
  7. Efficiency balances flexibility. We help make the tradeoffs apparent and deliberate.

And the moment we’ve been waiting for: Tenets of good design.

Good design:

  • Is as simple as it can be. But it is as complex as it has to be.
  • Is as efficient as it can be. Plan to make the best use of money and time.
  • Flows and pulls. Good design is typically lean, with small batch sizes and deliberate controls of inventory movements.
  • Meets the real world. It plans for exceptions. It compensates for things that can go wrong. It contemplates queuing and uncertainty. It links numbers to the real world.
  • Integrates all aspects of the client’s business and operation, including people and process.
  • Meets client needs for flexibility at the footprint, process, product, and mode of transportation level.

If a design raises questions on any of these tenets or principles then it should be carefully investigated. If two designs or options are evaluated, they should be compared on these points. Violations of the principles are likely to be very obvious. This will help with making decisions about which design is better.

Continuous Improvement

We expect that these will change and evolve as reflect on them and our experiences. But the core should remain constant. The goal is to have a consistent approach and voice in what drives our designs, so that our designs are distinctive by their integration to your business and their robustness to the real world.


If you’re looking for warehouse design, efficiency refresh, or automation strategy, send us a note today. Let’s talk!

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