Designing, Purchasing for a Laundry Requires Thinking Outside the Box

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CHICAGO — About 34 years ago, I became involved in the management end of our industry. My first reaction was to sit and listen, observe, and interact with all levels of the industry, then attempt to manage at various levels.
I soon found out that you can learn a lot from salespeople and their managers, but it’s important to listen to all of them, and only then develop a rational approach to purchasing products and managing that prospect.
As I explained a few articles ago, a contracting officer at Veterans Affairs (VA) challenged me when it became obvious that I was using a status-quo approach to purchasing equipment, textiles and support services. We all use the phrase “working outside the box,” but I was fortunate to have a working team with me that always pushed me in the right direction while examining the end result of whatever endeavor I decided upon.
Designing and purchasing a new laundry using the same principles that our government uses to purchase combat jet aircraft seemed like an impossible task — it involved purchasing a system based on life-cycle principals and productivity instead of a piecemeal approach. It resulted in numerous, almost project-by-project evolutions, eventually leading to positive results.
Fortunately, I gained the basic knowledge for doing my job before I became responsible for a federal entity that had 127 laundries struggling along. On my first day with the VA, I was handed a plane ticket and sent to resolve what I was told was a contract dispute over the replacement of a washer and dryer.
When I arrived at the facility in Upstate New York, I walked into a conference room to meet with two general contractors and 12 subcontractors. I felt like I had chased the wagon and finally caught up to it. I called my boss in Washington, D.C., and asked him to explain what was going on. He said, in his Navy chief way, “It’s now your program — you fix it. It’s why I hired you.”
I must admit; I really had no choice. I canceled the project and retooled the requirements, finishing the job in less than 30 days. By government standards, that’s quite an accomplishment. Unfortunately, I had three other ongoing situations requiring similar action.
When I returned to Washington a few days later, we began changing the process for everything that we managed, including the procurement of items that support textile care operations. We began an educated process of developing a systematic approach to everything we did. Developing system specifications and managing the outcome was only a slightly elevated process from what I learned from that contracting officer back in my Marine days.
Thinking outside the box is something we all must strive to accomplish; it makes your management skills more acute and professional. While others may look at you funny when you suggest a different approach to doing business, I can assure you that if you establish a process with strong quality control, you will do a better job for your institution, your business and yourself. I’ll admit, this is not an easy thing to do, but it can be done.
I had the pleasure to build and modernize 74 laundry facilities (63 for the VA, 11 for the Department of Defense) and purchase multimillion-dollar textile acquisitions, all supported by a team of folks that always challenged me and the process, knew the product, recognized the long- and short-term implications, and recognized that you will never make everyone happy. This is not an easy road, but one that others should examine. It just makes you feel good when you purchase something and know it will have a positive impact.
As we enter into a changing environment, led by a new president, I challenge those of you as managers to look outside and beyond the box. Take the opportunity to look around you and participate in developing the leaders of tomorrow.


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