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A Parable for Our Times: In Search of the ‘Silver Bullet’

Eric Frederick |

Once upon a time, a laundry manager went away on vacation for several weeks. Upon his return to the laundry, he found the department way behind its regular work schedule. The laundry’s customers were unhappy, and orders were being shorted and filled several hours late. Liberal amounts of overtime were not solving the problem.
The manager immediately set out to look through his laundry in search of the one thing—the “Silver Bullet”—that would restore his operation to normal.
On his journey through the laundry, he ran into a number of laundry carts filled with mixed linens. His employees did not feel they had the time to sort out the linen. They were too busy dealing with the linen coming out of the washers and dryers.
The mixed carts were also tying up a number of carts that were needed to handle the laundry coming out of the washers and dryers. He decided that it would be helpful if he took time out to help his employees deal with the mixed carts.
After sorting out several carts, he realized that linen items the employees were unsure what to do with were being thrown into the carts. He instructed his team leaders and other supervisors to retrain their employees on how to handle those items.
He also realized that the soil sorters were mixing too much linen together in the soil-sort process, so he instructed his team leader responsible for that area to work with her staff and find a way to improve the quality of their sorting.
The laundry manager continued his search for the Silver Bullet. He surveyed the clean-linen shelves where surplus linen should be stored before shipment. He found a large amount of linen belonging to other facilities and not usable in his facility. He also found discontinued linen items taking up valuable shelf space. He once again took time away from his search to straighten and organize the linen shelves.
He first worked with his emergency room department and established an ambulance linen-exchange cart. He filled that cart with linen from other facilities. The idea was that the ambulances could use that linen rather than take his linen. This new program freed up some valuable shelf space and gave him a use for linen he couldn’t use before. An added advantage was a reduction in linen-replacement costs.
He then arranged to sell his discontinued linen to a rag merchant. This allowed him to free up even more of his linen shelves and get some income from linen items that were only gathering dust. The freed-up shelf space made the job of the cart packers much easier, and they thanked him.
Off he went again, looking for the elusive Silver Bullet to improve his laundry operations. He noticed a number of carts containing rewash in a corner near the washers. He knew his wash staff was too busy to do rewash right now but wondered if the rewash formula could be improved so more linen could be reclaimed.
He also noticed that the carts of rewash actually contained linen that needed to be ragged out, linen that needed a stain rewash, and linen that simply needed to be rewashed because it had fallen on the floor during processing.
The manager decided to create three levels, or classifications, of rewash. He defined them as “Stained,” “Holes and Tears,” and “Reprocess.” He made sure everyone was instructed in what went where and how each category should be handled. The Reprocess linen was re-sorted and washed on a daily basis. He found that this classification accounted for more than 50% of what had previously been considered rewash.
He met with his chemical company representative and worked on the reclaim formula. He wanted to make sure that his laundry reclaimed a sufficient amount of linen to make it worth the while.
While they were reviewing the stains, the wash-room technician also made some suggestions to improve the regular wash formulas and thereby reduce the amount of stained linen. After several attempts, they came up with a reclaim formula they felt would meet their needs.
Off he went again in search of the Silver Bullet. He wandered farther into the soil-sort area and noticed that his soil sorters were always waiting for weigh slings to dump their loads.
There were two rows of weigh slings (nine slings per row), with a take-away conveyor under each row. He realized that too much linen was being sorted into the front row and not enough into the back. The soil sorters wanted the heavier items in the front row so the work would be easier.
The manager’s database showed him how much of each type of linen was sorted each day. His goal was to even out the amount of work that would be sorted into each row. He speculated that a problem like this was why he had taken high-school algebra. After some careful calculations, he had more evenly divided the amount.
He was able to meet his soil sorters’ requests to position the heavier items on the front row. There was less waiting time, everyone was happy, and the manager once again set off to look for his Silver Bullet.
Wandering by the sheet ironer, he noticed that one of the four feeder stations was broken. When he asked the maintenance man about it, the manager learned that the maintenance man’s supervisor had said it was no big deal because three good operators could feed as much as four average operators. The manager realized this was true, but wondered how often three good operators were available. He instructed the maintenance man to keep all four stations operational.
The manager continued to search for the elusive Silver Bullet that could return his laundry to top performance. He faced still more distractions: vacation scheduling problems, inventory issues, scheduling problems, tunnel washer cycle times, employee recruitment, employee retention, and trucking schedules. Each of these matters was minor, but he dealt with them all before returning to his search.
One day, his supervisors and lead workers interrupted his daily search to ask how the laundry had gone from a half-day behind to a half-day ahead while eliminating the use of overtime and reducing the staff by 8%.
He had been so busy dealing with the little problems that had prevented him from looking for the Silver Bullet that he hadn’t noticed the slow but gradual improvement in his laundry operation.
He returned to his office and pondered all that had taken place during his six-month “journey.” True, he had not found the Silver Bullet, but suddenly he realized there had never been one.
There had only been a large number of small problems that, when combined, had caused one big problem for his laundry.
His search for the Silver Bullet had been in vain, yes, but his willingness to deal with small problems found along the way resulted in his laundry’s improved performance.
 

About the author

Eric Frederick

Carilion Laundry Service

Director of Laundry Services

Eric Frederick is director of laundry services for Carilion Laundry Service, Roanoke, Va., and past president of the National Association of Institutional Linen Management (NAILM), now called the Association for Linen Management (ALM). He’s a two-time association manager of the year. You can reach him by e-mail at efrederick@carilion.com.

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